Ph.D. Student Ardon Shorr Awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship-Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ph.D. Student Ardon Shorr Awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Ardon Shorr, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Biological Sciences, received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a prestigious award given to a small number of exceptional graduate students demonstrating the potential to make major contributions to science.

Shorr’s NSF proposal was inspired by NASA research suggesting that astronauts have higher than expected rates of developing certain disorders such as cataracts and prostate cancer. These rates are higher than can be explained by radiation alone; perhaps the missing risk factor is gravity. Shorr was first introduced to this problem in a Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) hosted by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. During SURP, Shorr worked in the laboratory of Stephen Moorman, studying how zebrafish respond to gravity. Using a bioreactor designed by NASA, the Moorman lab exposed zebrafish to microgravity and found that at lower gravity gene expression became more variable, implicating the primary cilium as a gravity sensor.

After reading a paper suggesting that the primary cilium is extremely sensitive, Shorr wondered if zebrafish could detect changes in gravity that are usually dismissed as negligible. “We usually think of Earth’s gravity as constant,” he explains, “but in fact small daily changes in gravity occur due to the moon and cause high and low tides. I did a back-of-the-napkin calculation and took it to Dr. Moorman, who said the idea was crazy. But too crazy not to try.” By measuring zebrafish gene expression during high tide and low tide, Shorr’s work suggested that zebrafish respond to changes in gravity on a daily basis. “This organelle is found in almost all vertebrates, including humans,” said Shorr. “So I have to wonder, do we also feel this gentle tug from space? If we could understand the link between gravity and gene expression, I think we could make space travel safer.” With the NSF fellowship, Shorr plans to pursue this research with Dr. Phil LeDuc, professor of mechanical engineering and affiliated faculty in biological sciences.

Shorr was particularly interested in the Ph.D. program in Biological Sciences, because of its emphasis on collaboration and the renowned Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center (MBIC). “Collaboration is a big buzzword, but CMU really puts that into practice. I was blown away by how well CMU labs share expertise. CMU is a place that is passionate about mentorship,” says Shorr.

In addition to Shorr’s award, the NSF also recognized seven biological sciences alumni for their proposals. Eda Altiok (cell biology graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley), Sharon Briggs (genetics graduate student at Stanford University), Kellie Marie Kravarik (developmental biology graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Matthew Remillard (molecular biology graduate student at Princeton University) were awarded fellowships. Cameron Exner (developmental biology graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley), Jeffrey Dahlen (neurosciences graduate student at the University of California, San Diego), and Katherine Bonnington (biochemistry graduate student at Duke University) received Honorable Mentions for their proposals.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship provides an annual stipend, educational allowance, travel award and supercomputing access over three years.

Photo caption: Ardon Shorr also served as the student speaker at the 2012 TEDxCMU event. His talk was entitled “Unlocking Music with Neuroscience” and discussed his research as an undergraduate at Oberlin College majoring in neuroscience and music theory. Photo by James Pan.