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NSF CAREER Award to Neuroscientist

  • Weissman-Unni holds a small tank of zebrafish. Weissman-Unni’s neurobiology training focused on mammalian systems, but she chose to shift her independent research program to zebrafish because they are one of the most powerful model systems for imaging the developing brain in living organisms.
  • Weissman-Unni, along with Ian Lake CAS ’13 Leah Weston CAS ’14, and Kyla Hamling CAS ’14 (seated), work in the microinjection area within her research lab. Hamling uses a special dissection microscope to view zebrafish embryos.

Tamily Weissman-Unni, assistant professor of biology, has been named a recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER award, an $823,000 grant that will support her research and teaching over the next five years.

Weissman-Unni makes diagrams and maps of neural circuitry within the humble 1-inch-long zebrafish. More specifically, she wants to understand the neural network, down to the level of individual neurons—the cells in the brain that transmit information much like transistors do in computer chips. Her pictures of these technicolor brains, which show individual nerve cells aglow in a spectrum of fluorescent colors, can help explain how neural connections form in zebrafish—uncovering principles likely to be directly relevant to the human brain.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research. In recognizing Weissman-Unni, the NSF selection committee cited her comprehensive inclusion of students in her work.

“Undergraduates have played and will keep playing an integral role in my research program, from crafting lab protocols, to designing experiments, and writing manuscripts,” explains Weissman-Unni. “This award helps to validate just how significantly undergrads can contribute to original research.”

One of her students, Leah Weston BA ’14, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, just started medical school this fall at Johns Hopkins University. “Tamily gave me an unusual amount of autonomy in pursuing research as an undergraduate,” says Weston. “I can say with 100-percent confidence that I would not be studying at my top-choice medical school were it not for the opportunities that she gave me in her lab and for her mentorship.”

Weissman-Unni is the second Lewis & Clark faculty member to receive the coveted CAREER award; Greta Binford, associate professor of biology, won the award in 2006.

This image, which shows multicolor neurons in the hippocampus of a “brainbow” mouse, has been...This image, which shows multicolor neurons in the hippocampus of a “brainbow” mouse, has been featured in several imaging competitions and is one of Weissman-Unni's most requested pieces. 

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