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Dr. Gerarda Cappuccio

Dr. Gerarda Cappuccio selected as a mentor for the Simons Foundation’s inaugural Shenoy Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program

Dr. Gerarda Cappuccio, a physician-scientist and a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and investigator at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, has been named as a mentor for the Shenoy Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Neuroscience (SURFiN) in its inaugural year. She is one of 64 mentors chosen this year and will mentor two SURFiN fellows - Ms. Toni Claire Tacorda and Ms. Senghong Sing – both of whom are undergraduate students at the University of Houston. These two mentees are among 75 talented undergraduates selected from an international pool of applicants for the SURFiN program this year to gain hands-on research experience and contribute to neuroscience research.

The program, named in memory of neuroscientist Krishna Shenoy, aims to spark and sustain interest in neuroscience among undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds underrepresented in neuroscience research. The chosen fellows work in neuroscience laboratories supported by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain (SCGB), and the Simons Collaboration on Plasticity and the Aging Brain (SCPAB) under the mentorship of early career scientists, such as graduate students and postdoctoral researchers during the 2023–2024 academic year.

“I am proud Geri was selected as a mentor for this award which involved several rounds of selection to pair mentors with talented undergraduate mentees from all over the world,” Dr. Maletic-Savatic, who was the 2022 SFARI pilot grant awardee. “Having already discovered and coordinated clinical trials for two new genetic syndromes, and now leveraging her clinical background and translational research experience to investigate the mechanisms of rare genetic syndromes using cutting-edge research methods, I am confident Geri will prove to be a capable mentor.”

Dr. Cappuccio uses human models of disease, from brain organoids (aka ‘mini-brains’) to organs-on-a-chip, to study how changes in metabolism affect neurogenesis and neuronal function. Utilizing a variety of new technologies from spatial transcriptomics and spatial metabolomics to nanoparticles for delivery of small molecules, her work paves the way toward new discoveries important for gene and drug therapies.

Dr. Cappuccio is also a keen mentor of undergraduate and graduate students and actively promotes diversity and young women interested in STEM careers. Under her guidance, the two SURFiN program mentees will map the role of lipid dysregulation in 16p11.2 deletion syndrome, a disorder that arises due to the loss of a small piece of chromosome 16 and results in many neurodevelopmental and psychiatric conditions characterized by developmental delays, intellectual disability, and autism spectrum disorders.

“Lipids are crucial for proper cell structure, energy metabolism, and increasingly, in signaling – all of which play critical roles in brain cell function. However, they are rarely studied in the context of rare genetic disorders,” Dr. Maletic-Savatic added. “Further, this unique study will offer us a detailed molecular and cellular picture of how changes in lipid metabolism lead to neurological symptoms in this disorder which may shed light on other disorders as well.”

“The deleted fragment of the chromosome in this syndrome houses many genes involved in lipid metabolism.” Dr. Cappuccio said. “In this project, Toni, Senghong, and I will study how the loss of those genes affects the formation and function of different types of cells in the brain. We plan to use ‘mini brains’ generated from the brains of patients with 16p11.2 deletion and unaffected people. Using advanced techniques such as cell-type specific lipidomics and imaging mass spectrometry we will first identify which lipid classes are most perturbed and then correlate the identified molecules with single-cell transcriptomics and spatial transcriptomics to specific pathways perturbed in this disorder. Further, as lipids are a major structural component of cell membranes, we will perform atomic force microscopy to examine membrane properties like membrane stiffness and integrity at a molecular level for each cell type. Thus, in addition to gaining an in-depth understanding of the biology of this genetic disorder, we are hopeful being involved in this project will provide the two mentees with an impressive breadth of training in several cutting-edge techniques that are used to study gene/metabolome dysregulation and brain function,” Dr. Cappuccio added.

Through the SURFiN program, the Simons Foundation and its scientific community work together to support excellence in science, expand access to research experience, support early-career scientists, and create a more inclusive research training environment. In addition to financial support, the SURFiN program engages fellows and mentors through virtual and in-person professional development and community-building activities, including a coding boot camp, mentor training sessions, community meetings, and an end-of-year undergraduate research symposium in New York City.

“We are excited to have been selected for this prestigious fellowship after a rigorous holistic selection process. We thank the Simons Foundation, Drs. Maletic-Savatic and Cappuccio for this amazing immersive hands-on learning opportunity that will allow us to be a part of groundbreaking neuroscience research and facilitate our entry into a career path we are both deeply interested in“, Tacorda and Sing added.

For more information on this year’s class, including full lists of mentors, please visit the program pages on the SFARI (fellows; mentors), SCGB and SCPAB websites.

Dr. Rajalaxmi Natarajan