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Weintraub Award for Victoria Deneke

02 Mar 2020

Victoria Deneke, a current postdoctoral scholar with Andrea Pauli, is a recipient of the 2020 Weintraub Award for her research as a PhD student at Duke University.

Victoria Deneke, currently a postdoc at Andrea Pauli’s lab at the IMP, has been awarded the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She was selected as an awardee for her “outstanding achievements during her graduate studies in the biological sciences”, conducted in the laboratory of Stefano Di Talia in the Department of Cell Biology at Duke University. The award is one of two reasons to celebrate at the Vienna BioCenter, with Anete Romanauska of the Max Perutz Labs being another recipient.

The Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award is sponsored by the Basic Sciences Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The recipients are chosen by a selection committee of the centre’s faculty members and students for the quality, originality and significance of their work. Deneke’s award winning work also received an “honourable mention” for the 2019 Max Birnstiel Award that is awarded by the IMP and the Max Birnstiel Foundation.

“It is a great honour to be a recipient of the Weintraub Award,” says Deneke. “I would like to thank the selection committee for recognising my work, my Ph.D. advisor, Stefano Di Talia, for his mentorship and continual support, and our scientific collaborators, Massimo Vergassola, Stefano De Renzis and Alberto Puliafito, whose contributions were key to shape our research findings.”

New mechanisms behind embryonic cell cycles

During her doctoral research at Duke, Deneke studied how embryonic cell cycles are organised in space and time using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model and drawing from biology, physics, and mathematics.

Early development of complex organisms is characterised by very fast and coordinated cell cycles, but it is unclear what organisational principles underlie this collective behaviour. Deneke found that cell cycle synchronisation in Drosophila arises through the self-organised positioning of nuclei. She uncovered a mechanism by which the cell cycle and cortical cytoskeleton dynamically integrate to give rise to embryo-wide cytoplasmic flows which distribute the nuclei uniformly. The uniform distribution of nuclei ensures that they remain synchronous in their divisions. This work revealed mechanisms of biomechanical integration in biology and provided novel insights to the functional importance of cytoplasmic flows in biology.

As a second research project, Deneke studied the last four divisions that take place before the mid-blastula transition in Drosophila. These divisions spread in a wave-like manner with remarkable speed across the large distance of the egg. Before Deneke’s PhD research, it was unknown how these mitotic waves can propagate through the embryo in such a rapid and coordinated manner.

Deneke and colleagues at Duke and the University of California San Diego found that these waves comprised a new class of chemical wave. The scientists named them “sweep waves” because gradients of Cdk1 activity, one of the master regulators of the cell cycle, sweep upwards through time and result in the metasynchronous division of all nuclei. Synchronous divisions in this system ensure that all nuclei initiate the mid-blastula transition simultaneously. Deneke’s work led to the identification of a new physical mechanism for the spreading of chemical waves and highlighted the importance of such chemical waves in cell and developmental biology.

Current and future research directions

“I’m excited to apply what I learned in the Di Talia lab to the study of vertebrate fertilisation in the group of Andrea Pauli,” says Deneke. “There are so many interesting questions that arise from studying this unique cell-cell interaction, which can help us better understand the process of cell fusion and plasma membrane remodelling.”

“I am thrilled that Victoria is one of the winners of this year’s Weintraub award. It’s fantastic to see her achievements during her graduate studies in Stefano Di Talia’s lab at Duke University recognised at an international level”, says Andrea Pauli in response to the announcement. “Victoria has benefitted from exceptional mentoring during her PhD and has joined my lab with a strong background in quantitative imaging during Drosophila embryogenesis. I am very much looking forward to working with Victoria on some of the big questions in fertilisation and helping her develop into a leader in this widely open, exciting field!”

The Weintraub awardees will travel to Seattle for an award symposium held in May in honour of biologist Harold Weintraub and his commitment to innovative science. Through the award, the laureates gain access to an extensive network of scientific excellence.

This is the second time a Weintraub Award was given to somebody with a link to the IMP, with Annika Nichols, an IMP PhD student, receiving it in 2018.

Further Reading

Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award