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President’s Frontier Award: 2023 Recipient & Finalists

President’s Frontier Award recipients are selected via an annual university-wide competition for demonstrating significant scholarly achievement and showing exceptional promise for important future work. The $250,000 award will recognize researchers each year for ten years with funding for their research expenses. The inaugural award was made in 2015.

Melissa Walls, Bloomberg Associate Professor of American Health in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, is an Indigenous researcher who works with American Indian and First Nations communities to promote health equity through culturally centered projects. Dr. Walls’ behavioral and mental health research has become internationally renowned for its robust longitudinal designs, creative two- and three-generation family-based approaches, and unique longevity attributable to her exceptional capacity to maintain trust relationships and implement “state-of-the-science” community-based participatory research methodologies. Her longest line of research, titled “Healing Pathways,” is an exemplar of transformative research. Healing Pathways has been funded through seven continuous NIH R01 grants and is the only intergenerational study of its kind in the US. It has been tracking substance use, misuse, and sobriety trajectories; related mental and emotional health status; and cultural strengths and indicators of resilience across three generations of Anishinaabe knowledge bearers.

Dr. Walls is Co-Director of the Center for Indigenous Health, Director of the Great Lakes Hub. The Center’s new hub, based in Duluth, MN, builds upon existing partnerships with hundreds of tribal members across 11 Ojibwe Bands. This collaboration will advance leading-edge research projects focusing on the etiology and consequences of diabetes, substance use, mental disorders, and physical health issues—as well as opportunities to prevent these and other health challenges.

Shigeki Watanabe, associate professor of cell biology in the School of Medicine, studies endocytic pathways controlled by proteins implicated in neurodegenerative diseases – his lab aims to gain mechanistic insights and investigate the causes of the underlying synaptic dysfunctions in these disorders. Watanabe aims to implement a cryogenic correlative superresolution and electron microscopy method to identify proteins of interest at synapses, a cryo-electron tomography pipeline to visualize proteins in situ with atomic resolution, and ultimately combine techniques to study synaptic transmission in mouse and human brain slices.

Nadia Zakamska, professor of physics and astronomy in the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, research focuses on leveraging developments in astronomical surveys to address important emerging problems in astrophysics. Dr. Zakamska primarily studies extragalactic astrophysics and galactic astrophysics. Her lab discovered the existence of the quasar winds of supermassive black holes and has turned their attention to extreme quasar winds. With the recent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, Dr. Zakamska will research the co-evolution of black holes and their host galaxies. Additionally, Dr. Zakamska is focused on discovering and characterizing white dwarfs in compact binaries which will merge due to the emission of gravitational waves – a quest that could solve the origin story of type la supernovae.

Laura Ensign-Hodges, Vice Chair for Research and the Marcella E. Woll Professor of Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute, research interests are in the area of nanomedicine. Her laboratory focuses on the characterization of biological barriers in health and disease to design more effective formulations for prophylactic and therapeutic drug delivery.

Interested? Learn more about the nomination process.

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