Two Biologists Named Freeman Hrabowski Scholars by the HHMI
David Van Valen (PhD '11), assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, and Rebecca Voorhees, assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, have been selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to the inaugural class of Freeman Hrabowski Scholars. The Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program recognizes outstanding early career faculty in science who "have potential to become leaders in their research fields and to create diverse and inclusive lab environments in which everyone can thrive," according to the HHMI.
David Van Valen joined the Caltech faculty in 2019, but his first encounters with Caltech were as an undergraduate SURF student, visiting from MIT. Van Valen returned to Caltech for a joint MD/PhD program with UCLA, receiving his PhD in 2011.
His research seeks to understand how living systems link environmental information to changes in cellular behavior with signaling pathways. To study this question, his lab combines ideas from cell biology and physics with advances in imaging, genomics, and artificial intelligence to increase the scope and scale of biological measurements. By integrating information about signaling activity, gene expression, and cellular behaviors at the level of single cells, Van Valen and his team hope to understand the mechanisms behind cellular information processing and how these are perturbed in human disease states.
With the new support from the Freeman Hrabowski Scholarship program, Van Valen plans to focus even more on mentorship. Building a supportive and inclusive laboratory environment, he says, is paramount to ensuring that the scientific community reflects broader society.
"I've spent a lot of my career thinking about how to build strong, capable scientists—How do we design training so that everybody gets to partake in the scientific workforce?" Van Valen says. "Scientists have an outsized impact on what the world around them looks like—the ideas they come up with, the theories they pursue, the discoveries they make, the technologies they invent—these all shape the world around us. We have to be equitable when deciding who's being included in these decisions about what we should work on and how we should perform discovery. You can't disconnect the people who are creating disruptive innovation from the people that will be affected."
Van Valen has also been named a 2020 Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, a 2021 Pew-Stewart Scholar for Cancer Research, and a 2021 Moore Inventor Fellow. In 2022, he received a New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health.
Rebecca Voorhees joined the Caltech faculty in 2017 after completing graduate school and postdoctoral training at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. Her research focuses on proteins, the molecular workhorses of the body that are responsible for everything from the signaling of neurons in our brain to recognition of viruses in our blood stream. Specifically, her work seeks to understand how cells make membrane proteins, an essential class of proteins that are embedded in the thin protective "skin" that surrounds our cells and organelles. Her lab's goal is to define the molecular logic that regulates membrane protein synthesis, which will ultimately provide the insight necessary to manipulate protein flux to treat human disease.
This year, Voorhees has also taught a graduate course on the history of biological discovery. The class emphasizes learning about the "forgotten voices in science"—people who might not be credited in history books, often women and underrepresented minorities. As part of the course's final project, students were asked to design a science lecture for a group of Pasadena third graders.
"Outreach is very important to me; I love working with children and talking to them about our research," Voorhees says." It's amazing and inspiring to talk to a seven-year-old as they look down a microscope for the first time. We can share our excitement with populations that may not otherwise have the opportunity. It reminds us why we got into science in the first place."
Voorhees' commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion is also personal, as her maternal family are immigrants from Cuba. "It's my goal to create a lab environment that is a positive training ground for people from different backgrounds," she adds.
Voorhees was named a Searle Scholar in 2017, a Pew-Stewart Scholar in 2018, and received a High-Risk, High-Reward Award from the National Institutes of Health in 2019. In 2022, she was named a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Investigator and received a Distinguished Scientist Award from the Sontag Foundation.