UCSF Well Represented in Newest Cohort of HHMI Hanna Gray Fellows

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has named 21 exceptional early career scientists as 2020 Hanna Gray Fellows, including UCSF postdocs Biafra Ahanonu, PhD, and Willow Coyote-Maestas, PhD, as well as Nicolas Altemose, DPhil, a PhD candidate in the UCSF/UC Berkeley joint Bioengineering Program.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the selection of the 2020 Gray Fellows cohort, which was announced on February 18, 2021.

Hanna Gray Fellows each receive a game-changing eight full years of funding, representing up to $1.4 million over the course of the fellowship. The program also provides ample opportunities for career development, including mentoring and networking with others in the HHMI scientific community. In keeping with HHMI’s approach to supporting “people, not projects,” Gray Fellows have the freedom to change their research focus and follow their curiosity for the duration of the award.

Biafra Ahanonu

Dr. Biafra Ahanonu is working to understand the neural and molecular basis of pain, a complex experience that integrates sensory information with ongoing brain states. He is pioneering methods to record spinal cord and brain neuron activity in active, non-anesthetized animals and to identify pain-modulating proteins in neurons and synapses that process pain. Ahanonu hopes these findings will help the millions of Americans who suffer from chronic pain. His mentor at UCSF is Allan Basbaum, PhD.

Nicolas Altemose

Dr. Nicolas Altemose is developing new technologies that use cutting-edge DNA sequencing machines to map protein-DNA interactions in uncharted regions of the human genome. Across the genome, thousands of proteins must interact with DNA to read, regulate, repair, and replicate it. Altemose hopes that mapping those interactions will reveal the molecular foundations of a variety of diseases. He is currently finishing up his PhD in bioengineering with mentor Aaron Streets, PhD, at UC Berkeley, and he will begin his postdoctoral work with new mentor Gary Karpen, PhD – also at UC Berkeley – this summer.

Willow Coyote-Maestas

Dr. Willow Coyote-Maestas is a postdoc in James Fraser's lab at UCSF, where he is studying TrpV1, a protein that sends pain signals to our brains when we eat very spicy foods or are exposed to scalding heat. Coyote-Maestas is detailing the mechanisms by which this protein senses heat, by looking for genetic mutations that change TrpV1’s response to high temperatures. He then uses high-resolution microscopes to examine how changes in temperature sensation alter protein structure. Linking TrpV1’s shape to its temperature sensitivity will help scientists better understand how we feel heat.

Previous Hanna Gray Fellows include UCSF postdocs James Nuñez, PhD, Jess Sheu-Gruttadauria, PhD, and Wendy Yue, PhD, as well as UCSF Graduate Division alumni D'Juan Farmer, PhD, now a postdoc at University of Southern California, and Florentine Rutaganira, PhD, now a postdoc at UC Berkeley.

The Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program, which launched in 2016, is named for Dr. Hanna Holborn Gray, former chair of the HHMI trustees and former president of the University of Chicago. Under Gray’s leadership, HHMI developed initiatives that foster diversity in science education.

The Hanna Gray Fellows Program reflects HHMI’s commitment to supporting talented early career scientists who have the potential to become leaders in academic research. By selecting individuals from groups underrepresented in the life sciences, HHMI seeks to increase diversity among academic faculty. HHMI hopes that the Gray Fellows’ successful careers will inspire future generations of scientists from the United States’ diverse talent pool.