Second cohort of Michigan Life Sciences Fellows expands the program’s reach and impact

In 2018, the University of Michigan launched a multidisciplinary “super postdoc” fellowship program to recruit exceptional early-career scientists and prepare them for ground-breaking independent research careers.

Now in its second year, the Michigan Life Sciences Fellows program is continuing to realize that mission while expanding to more departments across the university with its newest cohort of fellows. These six scientists will use their time at U-M to answer important scientific questions related to obesity, cancer, human gut microbiota, the role of genetic mutations in evolutionary divergence, avian evolutionary patterns, and the power of artificial intelligence in advanced microscopy — all while gaining the skills and knowledge to become leaders in their fields.

“We are really amazed by the progress the first cohort of fellows has already made,” says Yukiko Yamashita, Ph.D., professor at the Life Sciences Institute and the U-M Medical School, and chair of the Michigan Life Sciences Fellows Executive Committee. “Based on the enormous talent in this second group of fellows, we have really high hopes and are excited to see what they will accomplish here at U-M.”

The program — which is a partnership across the U-M Medical School, Life Sciences Institute, College of Pharmacy, and College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts, with funding support from the U-M Biosciences Initiative and donors — provides fellows with a generous compensation package and funding for research and travel, along with active mentoring and access to university resources for skill-building in areas like lab management, scientific writing and oral presentations.

Meet the Fellows

Krista Armbruster, Ph.D.

Krista Armbruster earned her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from The Pennsylvania State University. As a graduate student, she studied how bacteria build lipoproteins, which are involved in a range of biological processes. In the lab of Nicole Koropatkin, Ph.D., at the U-M Medical School, Armbruster will further develop the understanding of lipoproteins’ activities in Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, an important member of the human gut microbiota, and their effects on human health.

Jacob Berv, Ph.D.

Jacob Berv, Ph.D., comes to U-M from Cornell University, where he studied the connection between molecular evolution and macroevolutionary patterns. He now plans to use U-M’s vast genomic, fossil and anatomical collections to investigate evolutionary patterns, working across the labs of Matt Friedman, Ph.D.; Daniel Rabosky, Ph.D.; Stephen Smith, Ph.D.; and Ben Winger, Ph.D., in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. One of Berv’s research topics will focus on the degree to which rates of avian genome evolution reflect species’ life histories.

Laura Kirby, Ph.D.,

Working in the lab of Jeff Kidd, Ph.D., at the Medical School, Laura Kirby, Ph.D., will investigate how non-coding genes called SINEs (for short-interspersed elements) interact and impact the genomes of different canines as well as how these SINEs impact diseases like cancer. Before to coming to U-M, Kirby completed her Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University.

Alexander Knights, Ph.D.

During his graduate research at the University of New South Wales, Alexander Knights, Ph.D., studied how gene expression regulates immune cells in fat tissue and during inflammation. Now, in the lab of Jun Wu, Ph.D., at the Life Sciences Institute, he will probe the molecular mechanisms and signaling pathways that activate energy-burning in fat tissue in search of potential therapeutic targets to combat metabolic conditions such as obesity. Knights is one of two Willis Life Sciences Fellows, which are members of the cohort who are supported by a bequest to the Life Sciences Institute from U-M alumna Rita L. Willis (A.B., 1945).


Yilai Li, Ph.D.

In the lab of Michael Cianfrocco, Ph.D., at the Life Sciences Institute, Yilai Li, Ph.D., plans to harness machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Li, one of two Willis Life Sciences Fellows in this year’s cohort, will develop machine learning algorithms and workflows to automate some of the time-consuming data processing steps of cryo-EM projects. Prior to joining Cianfrocco’s lab, Li earned a master’s degree in statistics and a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Michigan. 

Mo Siddiq, Ph.D.

Mo Siddiq, Ph.D., completed his doctoral studies in evolutionary genetics at the University of Chicago. In his past research, he combined ancestral sequence reconstruction, biochemistry, and transgenic engineering of animals carrying ancient genes to experimentally study historical genetic adaptation. At U-M, he will work in the lab of Patricia Wittkopp, Ph.D., in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to shed light on how genetic mutational processes shape and are shaped by evolutionary divergence.

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Top image: Michigan Life Sciences Fellow Mo Siddiq, Ph.D.

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