In fall 2023, the Beckman Institute will welcome six researchers to its Postdoctoral Fellows Program. With research projects encompassing early childhood development, advanced medical imaging technology, and the intricacies of chemical catalysis, the fellows share a commitment to interdisciplinary discovery.
“This fellowship provides me the opportunity to learn cutting-edge tools and obtain new perspectives, which will enable me to answer meaningful research questions,” said Yannan Hu, one of three recipients of the 2023 Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship, which has supported an annual cohort of researchers since its establishment by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in 1991.
Since 2015, the institute has supported one Beckman-Brown Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellow per year. Also funded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, this opportunity honors Dr. and Mrs. Arnold Beckman as well as the institute's founding director, Professor Emeritus Theodore “Ted” Brown.
The Cancer Center at Illinois – Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship, which supports projects that bridge engineering and basic cancer sciences, is new in 2023. Fellows work with faculty mentors from CCIL and the Beckman Institute to develop transdisciplinary skills that support their career development.
“I'm excited to work at the forefront of biological computation and push the limit of what is currently possible! I couldn't imagine a better place to do my research than in the Beckman community,” said Zane Thornburg, one of the fellowship’s two inaugural recipients.
Fellows across all three awards are selected in accordance with the core values of the Beckman Institute: excellence, collaboration, integrity, transdisciplinarity, exploration, and diversity. Read on to learn more about the 2023 awardees.
Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows
Yannan Hu: Fostering healthy child development with ‘baby talk’
Hu is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She expects to earn her Ph.D. in May 2023.
Parents speaking to their infant children often default to the poetic patterns of stress, emphasis, and intonation colloquially known as “baby talk.” Clinically referred to as infant-directed speech, this phenomenon is the centerpiece of Hu’s ongoing research in the Interdisciplinary Lab for Social Development. As a Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, she will explore how aspects of infant-directed speech work together with child temperament and parental mental health to influence childhood behavior, physiology, and brain function. Her approach is designed to help families foster healthy childhood development.
Hu’s project, “Prosody of infant-directed speech and infant biobehavioral responses,” combines developmental science, machine learning, psychophysiology, and neuroscience. She will collaborate with Beckman researchers Nancy McElwain, a professor of human development and family studies; and Mark Hasegawa-Johnson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Zhengchang Kou: SoniCam sees inside the small intestine
Kou expects to earn his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from UIUC in May 2023.
In 2022, Kou was named a Beckman Institute Graduate Fellow for his research on ultrasound localization microscopy, a high-resolution imaging technique used to diagnose cancer, detect disease, and treat traumatic brain injuries. As a Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, he will develop and test yet another cutting-edge medical imaging technology: SoniCam, an ultrasound-based method to look inside the body with a wireless capsule. Safer and more secure than other endoscopy techniques, SoniCam will use ultrasound to livestream images of the small intestine to an external monitor and correlate those images to 3D spatial locations within the body.
Kou’s project, “SoniCam: a wireless capsule endoscopy using ultrasound communications,” will be conducted in collaboration with Michael Oelze, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a Beckman researcher; and Pavan Hanumolu, a professor and the Intel Alumni Scholar in Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Patricia Cintora: Linking language development to prenatal stressors
Cintora earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from UIUC in 2021. She is a Postdoctoral Diversity Supplement Scholar in the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes, or ECHO, Program funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Exposure to chemical and non-chemical stressors are an inevitable part of life. For people who are pregnant, such stressors may harm the developing child. During pregnancy, many mothers experience elevated stress levels. At the same time, women are exposed to environmental phenols, a class of chemicals commonly added to consumer and personal care products. With a focus on protecting early childhood development, Cintora’s research as a Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow will examine how the combination of these social and environmental stressors may work together to negatively impact early childhood language development. Her approach considers the complexity of real-world scenarios and is intended to influence programs, policies, and practices to protect children’s health and development.
Cintora’s project, “Impact of prenatal phenol exposure and early language development,” will be conducted in collaboration with Beckman researchers Susan Schantz, professor emerita in the Department of Comparative Biosciences; Sarah Geiger, an assistant professor of kinesiology and community health; Karen Tabb, an associate professor of social work; and Andréa Aguiar, a research assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences.
Beckman-Brown Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellow
Kelly Powderly: Studying metallic nanoalloys to combat climate change
Powderly, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Chemistry at UIUC, earned her Ph.D. in chemistry and materials science from Princeton University in September 2022.
Her research focuses on controlling the ratios of gold, silver, and copper in alloy nanoparticles and understanding how this impacts their properties. Nanoparticles made from these three metals can be used to fine-tune the structure and composition of other molecules. For example, converting carbon dioxide into organic materials comprised only of hydrogen and carbon atoms, thus helping to mitigate the long-term impacts of climate change. Achieving a detailed understanding of nano-Au-Ag-Cu systems will also help make composition-controlled nanomaterials more accessible to the wider scientific community.
Powderly’s project, “Closed-loop optimization of automated synthesis for Au-Ag-Cu nanospheres,” will combine automation, high-throughput characterization, and machine learning. She will collaborate with Beckman researchers Catherine Murphy, a professor of chemistry; Charles Schroeder, a professor of materials science and engineering; and additional members of the Artificial Intelligence for Materials Working Group at the Beckman Institute.
Cancer Center at Illinois – Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows
Alejandro De la Cadena: Targeting triple-negative breast cancer
De la Cadena earned his Ph.D. in chemistry and earth sciences from Friedrich Schiller University Jena in 2018.
His research is focused on understanding triple-negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form that emerges in less than 20% of cases and is notoriously difficult to target and treat. As a CCIL – Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, he will use advanced microscopy techniques to scrutinize the tumor microenvironment; specifically, the tumor-suppressing properties of a nuclear receptor called TLX. Learning more about how the TLX receptor works will help inform future investigations focused on targeting the cancer with drugs and therapies, while also contributing valuable medical imaging tools to be used in future diagnostics.
His project, “Mapping the phenotypic signature of the nuclear receptor TLX in TNBC,” will be conducted in collaboration with Beckman and CCIL researchers Stephen Boppart, a professor of electrical and computer engineering; Erik Nelson, an associate professor of molecular and integrative physiology; and Rohit Bhargava, the Founder Professor of Bioengineering and the director of the CCIL.
Zane Thornburg: Generating whole-cell simulations of yeast
Thornburg expects to earn his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from UIUC in fall 2023.
There’s no cell like whole cell. Whole-cell modeling, the practice of simulating an entire cell at once, provides researchers with the comprehensive information needed to make predictions about all aspects of a cell’s composition and behavior. Since simulating a complete human cell is quite complicated, many researchers study yeast cells, which are similar to human cells because they carry DNA in a nucleus. As a CCIL – Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, Thornburg will use whole-cell modeling to simulate a population of yeast cells, investigating how genetic modifications and environmental changes might cause variations between cells of the same population. By accurately simulating how the cells move and change in the face of environmental stimuli, the model will generate valuable information about yeast cells as well as insights about modelling that will allow the technology itself to advance.
Thornburg’s project, “3D whole-cell models of yeast and quantifying cell-to-cell variations,” will be conducted in collaboration with Beckman and CCIL researchers Emad Tajkhorshid, a professor of biochemistry; and Rohit Bhargava, the Founder Professor of Bioengineering and the director of the CCIL.
Applications for the 2024 Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows Program will be made available in the fall of 2023. To learn more about past Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows and stay abreast of future opportunities, please visit: beckman.illinois.edu/research/fellowships-and-awards/postdoctoral-fellows-program.