Neurobiologist Vanessa Ruta receives New Innovator Award to fund research on memory wiring in the brain

Vanessa Ruta, head of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior, is the latest Rockefeller scientist to be given a prestigious NIH Director’s Award, a collection of awards that recognize highly innovative approaches to contemporary challenges in biomedical research. The New Innovator Award, announced this week, provides funding to researchers who have exceptionally innovative ideas early on in their careers but may lack the preliminary data required for more traditional NIH grants.

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Learning about learning. The NIH New Innovator Award will support Vanessa Ruta’s research on neural circuits and how they are modified with learning and experience. Her work focuses on neural circuits (red) that run through the mushroom body (green), a brain area essential for olfactory learning.

Ruta, who joined Rockefeller in 2011, studies the neural circuits that underlie innate and adaptive behaviors, using the olfactory system of the fly Drosophila melanogaster to examine how sensory experiences are represented and stored in the brain. The Ruta lab will use the New Innovator grant, worth nearly $2.5 million over five years, to fund new technical approaches to studying the fly’s olfactory system, including devising new optical labeling techniques which will allow scientists to trace the circuits that encode a specific olfactory association. The grant will also support the development of functional approaches to examine the neurotransmission of individual synapses, and genetic strategies to catalog the molecular changes that occur in neurons when memories are formed and recalled.

Ruta received her B.A. in chemistry from Hunter College and her Ph.D. from The Rockefeller University in 2005, where she was a member of Roderick MacKinnon’s laboratory. She then conducted postdoctoral research in Richard Axel’s laboratory at Columbia University. In 2013 she was named Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Assistant Professor at Rockefeller and an NYSCF Robertson Neuroscience Investigator.

The New Innovator Award, created in 2007, is part of the NIH Director’s awards program, which also includes the Pioneer, Transformative Research and Early Independence Awards. The grants are supported by the NIH Common Fund and other NIH institutes to fund high risk-high reward biomedical research, with an emphasis on innovation and creativity. There are 78 award-winners this year, with a total funding of more than $120 million.

Daniel KronauerGaby Maimon and Luciano Marraffini received New Innovator Awards in 2012, and Sohail Tavazoie was given the award in 2009. Other NIH Director’s awards given to Rockefeller scientists include the Transformative Award, given to Robert B. Darnell and Thomas Tuschl in 2012, Nina Papavasiliou in 2011, Shai Shaham in 2010 and Charles M. Rice in 2009; and the Pioneer Award given to Titia de Lange in 2005.

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