Junior Fellows by year
The Simons Foundation is pleased to announce the Junior Fellows appointed in 2014.
Sonja Billerbeck is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Prof. Virginia Cornish in the Department of Chemistry at Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. in 2013 at the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich) in the interdisciplinary Department for Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE). Prior to coming to the ETH Zürich, she was awarded a master’s in biology from the University of Tübingen, Germany for a master’s thesis performed at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in the Department of Protein Evolution studying the function of archeal chaperones.
During her doctoral studies, Dr. Billerbeck developed a novel strategy for the rational design of switchable proteins for application in cell-free biotechnology. Her current research interest revolves around the field of synthetic biology, with special emphasis on protein engineering strategies applied to understand and functionalize bacterial microcompartments. She was awarded a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. She is an active member of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) foundation, which organizes and operates the iGEM Competition, a student summer competition in the field of synthetic biology, in which she participated in 2010 as part of the team from ETH Zürich by engineering a light-responsive bacterial robot. She further served as a jury member at the iGEM World Championship at MIT in 2011 and 2012.
J. Colin Hill is a postdoctoral researcher in the astronomy department at Columbia University. He attended college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied physics and mathematics. He then spent a year studying theoretical physics at Cambridge before starting his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Princeton in 2009.
His research is focused on the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is the remnant thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang that still permeates the universe today. Using data from the Atacama Cosmology Telescope and the Planck satellite, he studies physical processes that affect CMB photons as they travel to us over cosmic time. These include gravitational lensing, in which a photon’s path is bent by the gravity of intervening structures, and the Sunyaev–Zel’dovich effect, in which a photon’s energy is changed by an encounter with hot, ionized gas. He showed for the first time that the Sunyaev–Zel’dovich and lensing signals in the CMB are correlated, indicating that the hot, ionized gas traced by the former follows the dark matter traced by the latter. This result provides an important foundation for future studies that aim to use the distribution of massive galaxy clusters — where most of the hot, ionized gas is found — to constrain the properties of dark matter, dark energy and the initial conditions of the universe.
Ailsa Keating is a postdoctoral research scientist in the department of mathematics at Columbia University. She completed her Ph.D. in the mathematics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working under the direction of Paul Seidel. Prior to coming to MIT, Keating received a B.A. and M.Math. (Part III) from the University of Cambridge.
She is interested in symplectic geometry, notably in relation to mirror symmetry, singularity theory, and low-dimensional topology. Her thesis studies structural properties of the collection of transformations of a symplectic manifold, and mirror symmetry and symplectic topology questions for a family of manifolds coming from singularity theory.
Dion Khodagholy is a postdoctoral fellow in the Neuroscience Institute at the NYU Langone Medical Center. He received his master’s degree from University of Birmingham (UK) in electronic and communication engineering in 2008, followed by a second master’s degree in microelectronics at École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Saint-Étienne (France). He joined the Department of Bioelectronics (BEL) at Centre Microélectronique de Provence (CMP) and completed his Ph.D. in 2012 under the supervision of Prof. George Malliaras.
His work at BEL focused on developing conducting polymer-based devices for bioelectronics application, particularly for neural interface devices. He is interested in how novel materials and devices can be employed to gain insight into mechanisms of physiological and pathological brain activities.
Chervin Laporte is a postdoctoral researcher in the astronomy department at Columbia University. He received his master’s degree from Cambridge University and his Ph.D. from the Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik/Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany.
Laporte is interested in galaxy formation and in particular the astrophysical properties of dark matter, which he has studied through cosmological N-body simulations. He has used and ran simulations to study the assembly of the most massive galaxies in the universe and assess the systematic effects of triaxiality on the inference of the dark matter distribution in dwarf spheroidal galaxies. Lately, Laporte studied the mixing processes occurring at the center of galaxy clusters between dark matter and stars. He found that repetitive dissipationless mergers can lead to a significant amount of mass re-distribution and expansion of the central dark matter component in clusters such as to bring their total density profiles (predominantly stars and dark matter) to an almost universal form like those found in dark matter-only simulations.
James Stafford is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at New York University School of Medicine. He began his studies at Eastern Oregon University as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) with Prof. K. Matthew Lattal, where he focused on behavioral approaches to psychiatric disease-associated learning and memory processes. He also participated in an entrepreneurship program at the University of Portland, which led to the co-founding a small biotech company dedicated to improving drug discovery in challenging diseases such as cancer and psychiatric disorders. Later, with Damien Fair and an interdisciplinary team at OHSU, he began developing tools to map whole-brain neural networks in rodent neuropsychiatric disease models.
In his current post-doctoral fellowship with Prof. Danny Reinberg at New York University, Stafford is applying biochemistry and molecular biology approaches to interrogate the molecular pathology of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Specifically, he is focused on understanding how disruptions in a single gene, AUTS2, lead to ASD, developmental delay, and other phenotypes.
Stafford’s work has earned numerous awards, including the Ginger Ashworth Graduate Training Award and the American Psychological Association Dissertation Award. Prior to being a Simons Foundation Junior Fellow, he was a Vertex Pharmaceutical Scholar and was supported by individual pre- and post-doctoral National Research Service Awards from the National Institutes of Health.