Mubarak Hussain Syed, an assistant professor of Biology at The University of New Mexico, is one of 10 neuroscientists selected by The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience board of directors to receive the 2024 McKnight Scholar Award.

The McKnight Scholar Awards are granted to young scientists who are in the early stages of establishing their own independent laboratories and research careers and who have demonstrated a commitment to neuroscience. Since the award was introduced in 1977, this prestigious early-career award has funded 281 innovative investigators and spurred hundreds of breakthrough discoveries. Other 2024 recipients are from Princeton University, University of California, Columbia University, and Stanford University.

"I am thrilled that Professor Syed has been honored with the McKnight Scholar Award. His dedication to research demonstrates the excellence we strive for in our College," said Jennifer Malat, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

"The McKnight Scholar Award firmly places Dr. Syed among neuroscience’s most promising young researchers," said Cristina Takacs-Vesbach, professor and chair of the UNM Biology Department.

With his project, Molecular Mechanisms Regulating Neural Diversity: From Stem Cells to Circuits, Syed will investigate what determines how neurons of different types arise from neural stem cells (NSCs) and how developmental factors specify adult behaviors. Working with a fruit fly model, Syed’s lab will focus on how Type II NSCs produce neuron types of the central complex.

Ethan Cato Wilson and Gonzalo Morales Chaya
Students at work in the Syed Neurodiversity Lab

Previous research has shown that the timing of a cell’s birth descending from a Type II NSC correlates with its eventual cell type: some early-generation descendants become olfactory navigation neurons, while later generations become cells that regulate sleep. Specific molecules, including RNA binding proteins and steroid hormone-induced proteins, expressed temporally at those times, are believed to regulate the fate of the neuron types.

Through loss-of-function and gain-of-function experiments targeting those proteins and pathways, Syed’s team will learn the mechanism through which they change the fates of the neurons and what effect that has on behaviors. Further experiments will look at how circuits of the higher-order brain regions are formed, hypothesizing that other cell types in the circuit arise from different NSCs at similar times.

“The goal is understanding how brain cell types and circuits develop. Our brain regulates multiple behaviors, like olfaction and navigation. We are interested in understanding how developmental cues shape behaviors,” Syed said.

Furthermore, as an advocate for promoting science education to youth from groups underrepresented in the field, Syed will work through his program called Pueblo Brain Science to train and mentor the next generation of diverse neuroscientists as he conducts his research.

“The MEFN is delighted to announce this year’s newly minted scholars, who are tackling leading edge questions in neuroscience, ranging from the molecular fingerprints that aging leaves on the brain, to the biological basis of intergenerational memories and the principles that enable brain-wide neuronal networks to enable navigation, survival, hibernation and sociality,” said Richard Mooney, chair of the awards committee and George Barth Geller Professor of Neurobiology at the Duke University School of Medicine. “The deep commitment of the McKnight Foundation to fundamental neuroscience research has enabled the selection committee to recognize a larger number of stellar early career investigators at a wider range of institutions than ever before.”

As a McKnight Scholar Award recipient, Syed will receive $75,000 per year for three years.

“All my trainees, which include mostly undergrads and graduates, will be involved in research. This award is very prestigious. In addition to funds, it will help me get recognized in the field and be part of a community of the finest neuroscientists,” Syed noted.

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is an independent organization funded solely by The McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is led by a board of prominent neuroscientists from around the country. The McKnight Foundation has supported neuroscience research since 1977. The Foundation established the Endowment Fund in 1986 to carry out one of the intentions of founder William L. McKnight (1887-1979). One of the early leaders of the 3M Company, he had a personal interest in memory and brain diseases and wanted part of his legacy used to help find cures. In addition to the Scholar Awards, the Endowment Fund makes grants to scientists working to apply the knowledge achieved through translational and clinical research to human brain disorders though the McKnight Neurobiology of Brain Disorders Awards.

Top image: Professor Syed in the mountains of Kashmir

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