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  • Changhuei Yang (left) and Alexei Aravin (right)
10/04/2010 23:00:00

Two Caltech Scientists Named Among 2010 NIH Director's New Innovator Awardees

PASADENA, Calif.—As part of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative to stimulate highly innovative research and support promising new scientific investigators, two scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) were named among the 2010 class of the NIH Director's New Innovator Award recipients.

Alexei Aravin, assistant professor of biology, and Changhuei Yang, associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, were among those honored with the grants, which are meant to help new investigators take exceptional and innovative research ideas to the next level.

"NIH is pleased to be supporting early-stage investigators from across the country who are taking considered risks in a wide range of areas in order to accelerate research," says Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. "We look forward to the results of their work."

Yang and his research team will be pushing in a new research direction in biophotonics—the study of the interaction of time-reversed light with biological structures. When light hits the body's tissues, the light scatters, making visualizing structures under the skin extremely difficult. "A couple of years ago, my group experimentally demonstrated that it is possible to reduce tissue opacity"—make the tissues and their structures easier to see—"by time-reversing tissue light transmission," Yang explains. Put simply, they traced the paths of the scattered photons back through the tissues, showing that, by doing so, they could create images of what the light had encountered on its way in.

"We believe that this phenomenon holds a key to deep-tissue optical imaging and therapy," says Yang. "I am grateful for this New Innovator award, because it will allow my group to better understand the science and develop technologies that can capitalize on its advantages. If our work pans out well, it could lead the way to deep-tissue surgery without incision points, highly targeted optical-based cancer therapies, ultrasound imaging with chemical specificity, and better microscopy."

Yang received his BS, MS, and PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Caltech as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in 2003, became assistant professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering in 2004, and was named associate professor in 2009.

The research for which Aravin was singled out focuses on understanding the functions of small RNA—tiny snippets of ribonucleic acid that play a role in silencing genes through a pathway known as RNA interference. A few years ago, Aravin discovered a new class of small RNA that provides protection against a type of genomic parasite—the so-called transposable elements. He will use the New Innovator award to study the ways in which "small-RNA pathways can be programmed to modulate gene expression and cause heritable phenotypic changes"—changes to the proteins a cell makes, as well as to its other traits and characteristics. His goal? To use small RNA to develop tools and methodologies that can actively direct a cell down a particular developmental pathway.

"Achievement of these goals will be of great importance for both general science and medicine," says Aravin, "as it will provide insights into processes of development and lineage commitment and allow major advances to be made in medical applications such as stem cell technologies and anticancer therapies."

Aravin received his BS, MSc, and PhD from Moscow State University and joined the Caltech faculty in 2009.

Written by Lori Oliwenstein