Biological Sciences, Psychology Faculty Named Among Top Researchers in U.S. and Canada
Two College of Arts and Science faculty members have been named Alfred P. Sloan Foundation 2020 Research Fellows. Assistant Professor of Psychology Antonia Kaczkurkin and Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Ann Tate will each receive a $75,000 award, which can be used over a two-year term to support their research. They were among a small group of just 126 promising, early-career scientific researchers across the U.S. and Canada to receive the recognition.
Kaczkurkin, awarded in the Neuroscience category, is new to Vanderbilt this academic year. Her work focuses on the neurological mechanisms underpinning anxiety and depression.
“As a clinical psychologist seeing patients, it became clear to me that every patient I saw was very different in terms of their outcomes and even the symptoms they came in with. I became very interested in the reasons for that heterogeneity,” Kaczkurkin said.
While completing her postdoc, Kaczkurkin began using neuroimaging as a tool for better understanding mental health disorders. She decided to specialize in anxiety and depression because those disorders are among the most prevalent, and she focused on adolescents because the teen years are typically when such disorders take root.
“Adolescence is a really critical period when external stressors have a larger impact on the brain,” Kaczkurkin said. “Typically, you have onset [of anxiety or depression] in adolescence, but it may be ten years before you get the therapy you need. If we know who is at risk, we can get them into therapy sooner and prevent them from moving into the domain of having a full-blown disorder.”
In order to make early identifications, however, Kaczkurkin believes that clinicians must change the way they approach mental health disorders. Funding models and other constraints, she said, have led researchers to conduct case-control studies using subjects with moderate-to-severe symptoms and no comorbidities (co-existing conditions, such as traumatic brain injury or a secondary mental health disorder). Kaczkurkin said these constraints make studies less representative—and their results less useful—because “comorbidity is the rule, rather than the exception, in psychiatry, and [psychiatric] symptoms generally exist on a continuum.”
She plans to use her Sloan Fellowship to fund a neuroimaging study that captures a more realistic set of data on adolescents with anxiety and depression. Using machine learning tools, she will parse the data to help determine whether anxiety and depression are truly distinct disorders or, at least in some cases, just different manifestations of the same underlying issue. She also hopes to help medicalize (and thus destigmatize) these disorders by encouraging clinicians to think of them in terms of brain characteristics, rather than symptoms.
Ann Tate, who received a Sloan Fellowship in the Computational and Evolutionary Molecular Biology category, has been at Vanderbilt since 2017. She studies how insect immune systems evolve and react to parasites.
As an undergraduate, Tate planned to become a physician. But then her pre-medical training introduced her to pathology and the ways parasites exploit immune responses to enable the spread of an infection. The tuberculosis bacterium, for instance, creates lesions in the lungs that trigger a common immune response—coughing. The coughing then spreads the bacterium to other hosts.
“I decided I liked research a lot more than I liked clinical applications,” Tate said. “I was very interested in this tension between hosts and parasites and what happens when something wants to exploit you for food. That’s obviously a product of evolution, and a lot of our immune system is shaped by those interactions.”
Tate has made an interesting discovery regarding such adaptations in human and insect immune systems. Researchers previously believed that only vertebrate immune systems possessed a mechanism called immune memory, where an immune system adapts to recognize specific pathogens and attack them effectively. But Tate has learned that elements of this mechanism are present in insects. If some insects get infections, for instance, their offspring are more likely to resist those pathogens. Tate wants to figure out why this adaptation seems to be present only in certain species or against certain pathogens.
The answer likely ties into the overarching question that Tate really wants to answer: if our immune systems have had hundreds of millions of years to evolve, why do we still get sick at all? She plans to use her Sloan Fellowship to get closer to solving that puzzle, by funding her investigations of patterns in immune system evolution.
“Some immune systems evolve very rapidly, and some are constrained, even though it might make sense to evolve more rapidly. Trying to understand what constrains immune system evolution is important for understanding how we react to certain infections,” Tate said.
For both Tate and Kaczkurkin, making the most of their Sloan Fellowships will be all the easier because of Vanderbilt’s transinstitutional focus. Much of Tate’s work is interdisciplinary, and she credits her colleagues in the medical center for helping her recognize and better communicate the broader relevance of her work. For Kaczkurkin, collaboration and shared resources are what attracted her to Vanderbilt in the first place.
“We have others in the [psychology] department who’ve received Sloan Fellowships in the past,” she said. “My colleagues are amazing, and there’s so much great research going on here. I’ve felt incredibly supported by my department. It was this collaborative environment that really attracted me.”