What's Up Postdocs?

The Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Program provides an opportunity for young scientists to spend several years doing independent research in the behavioral and biological sciences, chemistry, engineering, or physics before launching formal academic careers. We introduce you to two of these promising researchers and scholars: Ana Daugherty, who researches health factors and behaviors that modify changes in brain structure and cognitive ability across the lifespan; and Kenneth Hernández-Burgos, who researches electronic and ionic interactions in redox-active polymers. We asked them each the same four questions.

Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Ana Daugherty researches health factors and behaviors that modify changes in brain structure and cognitive ability across the lifespan.
Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Ana Daugherty researches health factors and behaviors that modify changes in brain structure and cognitive ability across the lifespan.

1. Why did you decide to pursue your research at Beckman?

Ana Daugherty: The Beckman Institute has an international reputation for research excellence, and its faculty have produced some of the most influential work on exercise and cognitive aging. My prior work had exclusively considered cardiovascular risk factors in aging, and when I decided to study exercise as a possible protective factor, the Beckman Institute was an obvious fit. The Beckman fellowship is a unique opportunity to develop an independent research program as a postdoctoral fellow, and it champions multidisciplinary collaboration, which is something I’ve sought at every stage of my career. 

Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Kenneth Hernandez-Burgos, who researches electronic and ionic interactions in redox-active polymers.
Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Kenneth Hernández-Burgos researches electronic and ionic interactions in redox-active polymers.

Kenneth Hernández-Burgos: The real question is, “Why wouldn’t you?” When I was still a graduate student, Professor Joaquín Rodríguez-López allowed me to present to his group, and I got to visit the university. I was very impressed with the quality of the research and the potential for amazing collaborations. When I came here as his postdoc, I learned more about the Beckman Institute, and I knew I wanted to be part of it because you find illustrious experts in many areas of research who feed ideas to your own research. I find it easy to establish collaborations here. All the scientists are more than willing to offer their expertise to help you answer a research problem. 

2. Who do you collaborate with in your research?

Ana: I work closely with Neal Cohen and Aron Barbey in the Intelligence, Learning, and Plasticity Group; Ed McAuley in the Cognition, Lifespan Engagement, Aging, and Resilience Group; and Brad Sutton in the Bioimaging Science and Technology Group; and the many postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who make up their outstanding labs. Our work together touches upon topics in memory function; metabolic health, exercise, and aging; and advanced neuroimaging methods to study brain microstructure and vasculature. Through recent collaborations with Rachael Rubin, a former Carle Foundation Hospital-Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow, I began a new line of research considering many of the same factors I study in brain aging applied to the study of traumatic brain injury. I also work with Carle physicians Graham Huesmann and Ken Aronson on studies conducted as collaborations between Carle Foundation Hospital and the Beckman Institute.

Kenneth: I spend most of my time in the lab of Joaquín Rodríguez-López, an assistant professor of chemistry and member of the Nanoelectronics and Nanomaterials Group, benefiting from his group’s expertise in electrochemistry. In addition, I collaborate with Jeff Moore, professor of chemistry and member of the Autonomous Materials Systems Group. I have the opportunity to provide input into the research done in his lab and to mentor several of his students. His group’s expertise in the design and synthesis of new redox-active polymers allows me to work with electrochemical characterization. Along with other postdocs in his lab, we explore new ways to tune the electrochemical properties of polymers by using computational methods. I also collaborate with Autonomous Materials Systems Group member Randy Ewoldt’s research group to gain information on the dynamics of polymers in solution by rheology means, and I use equipment in Nanoelectronics and Nanomaterials Group member Catherine Murphy’s lab to learn about the redox-active polymers’ excited states.

3. What has inspired your work here?

Ana: The people I work with at Beckman seem to thrive at the intersection of innovation and rigor. I find this inspiring. Many of the questions that modern psychology and neuroscience, and, by extension health care, are contending with demand collaborative work—we need the expertise of many different people, not just one. This is the foundation of Beckman, and it is invigorating to conduct my research in this environment.    

Kenneth: Since I started my postdoctoral career in the Rodríguez-López lab, I have collaborated closely with scientists at Beckman, which motivated me to apply for the Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship. My work at Beckman was inspired by the curiosity of learning about materials properties that have not been studied before and by having the opportunity to work with scientists like Jeff Moore who inspire you to keep working hard every day to become a distinguished scientist.

4. What opportunities has your affiliation with Beckman provided? 

Ana: My collaborations at Beckman have opened new lines of research that I hadn’t considered before—for one, the study of markers of cognitive dysfunction and recovery following traumatic brain injury, which acts upon the same mechanism of neuro-degeneration that I have examined in aging, and studying the injury provides a new window into the relationship between brain structure and function. Another line of work I’m excited about is using advanced neuro-imaging methods to study the microstructure of the hippocampus, a structure that is critical to memory function. I am a member of the leading committee for the Hippocampal Subfield Segmentation Group—an international collective of over 150 researchers, representing 15 countries, that is dedicated to creating and implementing a harmonized protocol for measuring the subfields, or components, of the hippocampus. My work with this group has underscored for me the importance of studying variability in tissue micro-structure. With advanced neuroimaging methods available at Beckman, we measured qualities of cell organization within hippocampal subfields in vivo for the first time. The magnetic resonance elastography method has been refined and validated by many people affiliated with Beckman—Curtis Johnson, Brad Sutton, Hillary Schwarb—and my recent work with them further demonstrates the potential of the method applied to the study of cognitive neuroscience.

Kenneth: First and foremost is the opportunity to discuss science with world-class scientists who are more than willing to help me develop as a scientist. Further, the Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship has afforded me the opportunity to attend interesting presentations and to present my work at the best conferences. Moreover, the independence to pursue aspects of science that I think represent the future, while learning new techniques and skills in the groups that I collaborate with, have been key aspects of my Beckman experience. 

Biographies 

Ana Daugherty received her Ph.D. in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience from Wayne State University in 2014. She previously worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State. She is interested in cellular non-heme iron accumulation as a cause of progressive neural and cognitive decline that typifies aging, and its interaction with cardiovascular risk factors that are known to exacerbate decline. To examine these factors, she uses multi-modal neuroimaging, cognitive assessment, and advanced statistics to characterize differential brain aging, with a particular interest in the hippocampal formation and its diverse subfields. Daugherty plans to examine the potential protective effects of physical activity against metabolic vascular risk to potentially abate or even reverse the ill effects on cognitive function. At the Beckman Institute, she works with Neal Cohen in the Cognitive Neuroscience Group; Art Kramer and Edward McAuley, of the Human Perception and Performance Group; Brad Sutton, of the Bioimaging Science and Technology Group; and Aron Barbey, of the Intelligence, Learning, and Plasticity Group.

Kenneth Hernández-Burgos received his Ph.D in analytical chemistry from Cornell University in 2015. His research interests are centered on the search for new materials for electrical energy storage and generation devices, such as secondary batteries, supercapacitors, and fuel cells. At Beckman, Hernández-Burgos has been working with the design and characterization of redox active polymers (RAPs) for Non-Aqueous Redox Flow Battery applications. His main interest, is the study of the properties of large RAPs and understand how those properties are tied to their performance. His research focusses on three major aspects, first he is contributing in the design of new polymers in collaboration with Jeff Moore’s group by doing Quantum mechanical calculations to determine new molecular designs and selecting them to be synthesized. Second, he wants to implement electrochemical methods to study the mechanism of charge transfer and propagation in the materials. Specifically focused on how properties can be impacted by tuning intra-/inter-molecular interactions and how the solvent/electrolyte affect those properties. The final goal of his research is to design new materials that encompass all the properties required to have good charge mobility, stability, and can coordinate electrons in solution. To date, Hernández-Burgos has been able to address these goals by studying the impact of backbone and redox-pendant interactions on RAP performance as well as elucidating the kinetics and self-exchange properties of various polymer systems. He currently works with Joaquín Rodríguez-López from the Department of Chemistry and a member of Beckman's Nanoelectronics and Nanomaterials Group, in collaboration with Jeff Moore, also from the Department of Chemistry and a member of the Autonomous Materials Systems Group, among others groups in Beckman Institute.