Entomologist Named a Pew Scholar

By Iqbal Pittalwala |

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Naoki Yamanaka, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside, has been named a Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences. Along with 21 other exceptional early-career researchers named as Pew scholars by The Pew Charitable Trusts, he will receive four years of flexible funding to pursue foundational research.

“This award is a testament to the excellent quality and significant impact of Dr. Yamanaka’s research,” said Richard Redak, the chair of the UC Riverside Department of Entomology. “I know I speak for the whole department in extending our congratulations to Naoki. We are very proud of him.”

Yamanaka is the first person at UC Riverside to be named a Pew scholar. He received a doctorate in biological science in 2007 from the University of Tokyo. He engaged in postdoctoral studies at the University of Minnesota until 2014, when he accepted a position at UCR.

“I am deeply honored to receive this prestigious award,” said Yamanaka, who is also a member of the UCR Institute for Integrative Genome Biology. “I would like to thank my colleagues on our campus who have been very helpful ever since I came here in 2014, especially my fellow entomologists in the department.”

Yamanaka’s research group works on identifying chemicals that interrupt the entry of steroid hormones into cells. To exert their biological effects on metabolism, immunity, or sexual maturation, steroid hormones must find their way into the appropriate cells. According to most textbooks, these chemicals simply slip across the cell membrane with no help from the sort of cell-surface transporters that import other hormones.

“But our lab recently discovered a transporter in fruit flies that transports the steroid responsible for molting into the insects’ cells,” Yamanaka said. “Using state-of-the-art techniques in genetics, cell and molecular biology, and chemical screening, my team will search for similar steroid transporters in mammalian cells, ascertain whether these transporters are essential for hormone activity, and isolate molecules that can modulate hormone uptake.”

According to Yamanaka, these findings would transform scientists’ understanding of steroid biology and could point the way to novel means of manipulating a variety of steroid-related processes ranging from sexual maturation to immune responses and cancer progression.

The 2017 Pew scholars – all of whom hold assistant professor positions – join a community of more than 900 biomedical scientists who have received awards from Pew since 1985. Each year, current scholars come together to discuss their research and learn from peers in fields outside of their own.

“Pew is proud to support these investigators as they use novel approaches to illuminate the mechanisms of human biology and disease,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts. “This impressive group has demonstrated the curiosity and courage that drive great scientific advances, and we are excited to help them fulfill their potential.”

Pew scholars are chosen from nominations made by some 180 leading academic and research institutions. This year’s class includes scientists using cutting-edge techniques to study the factors controlling gene expression, the behavior of our brains’ neurons, and communication among the various bacteria in our bodies. Better understanding of such fundamental processes will lay important groundwork for potential treatments of neurological disorders, kidney disease, and other illnesses.

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