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The Interstellar Initiative Catalyzes Discovery for Early Career Scientists Around the World

Published March 31, 2021

By Roger Torda, NYAS

The Interstellar Initiative Catalyzes Discovery for Early Career Scientists Around the World
Ayuko Hoshino, PhD

Ayuko Hoshino, PhD

With a deep appreciation of the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, teams of early career scientists around the globe are moving forward with plans for important research in aging and healthy longevity after participating in a program hosted by the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Each year, the Interstellar Initiative supports a promising group of young investigators as they develop innovative research projects to address real-world medical challenges. The Initiative guides the researchers in crafting strong proposals to international funding agencies.

The Interstellar Initiative Catalyzes Discovery for Early Career Scientists Around the World
Alexandru Hanganu, PhD

Alexandru Hanganu, PhD

Lev Varshney, PhD

Lev Varshney, PhD

The overarching goal is support for a new paradigm for scientific discovery. “Single-investigator-led research used to be the norm in science,” said Ikue Mori, PhD, professor of Molecular Neurobiology at Nagoya University, and a Program Officer and Mentor for the Interstellar Initiative. “But it’s collaborative research that now contributes most to scientific advancement. The most impressive collaborative research is frequently both multinational and interdisciplinary…. That’s precisely what this initiative can help trigger, by systematically promoting interdisciplinary projects.”

The 2020/2021 Interstellar Initiative began with a three day of meeting 60 young researchers in September 2020, and concluded with a second round of presentations in February of this year. The process—taking place virtually because of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—started with Interstellar Initiative leaders assigning the scientists to three-person teams. The teams are deliberately built with researchers in different disciplines.

“And then we had to put our heads together to think,” said Ayuko Hoshino, PhD, a cancer researcher and Associate Professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology. “This process never happens if you are just doing your normal, routine, lab work.... I didn’t expect to be put in a group with teammates in totally different fields. But this was a really nice surprise for me.”

The Interstellar Initiative matched Dr. Hoshino with associate professor Lav Varshney, PhD, of the Univeristy of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and assistant professor Alexandru Hanganu, PhD, of the University of Montreal.

Dr. Hanganu uses neuroimaging and machine learning to study early changes that occur in the brains of people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Dr. Varshney leads a group that studies artificial intelligence, collective intelligence, nanoscale information processing, neural computation, Blockchain, and computational creativity.

Dr. Hoshino’s research often focuses on exosomes, which are nanosized vesicles that mediate cell-cell communication, and which play roles in both normal physiology and disease etiology.

“I didn’t even know what exosomes were,” Dr. Varshney said, recalling the first meeting of his team. “Yet that’s the central topic of our proposal. So working with Ayuko and Alex was really amazing, and just pushed me in a new direction. The three of us working together brought a lot of interesting ideas together…which was super fun and creative.”

Collaborating virtually over the course of several months, the team developed a proposal titled “Age-dependent trajectory of exosomal protein distribution in healthy aging and Alzheimer’s disease.”  Their hypothesis is that plasma-derived exosomal protein distribution could serve as a potential biomarker for both healthy aging and age-related disease.

The 2020/21 Interstellar Initiative led to a wide variety of proposals, by young scientists in clinical research, life sciences, physical science, and technology. Other research proposals included topics in cardiovascular disease, stress management, cancer detection, diabetes, and the microbiome.

About 170 young researchers from 17 countries, and more than 40 mentors, have participated in the program since it was launched in 2017 by the Academy and AMED. There are no costs or fees for participants, and the program normally provides funding for travel to two workshops at the Academy’s headquarters in New York City. While this facilitates face-to-face collaboration and idea exchange, participants said they worked effectively in the virtual-only approach necessitated by the pandemic.

The Interstellar Initiative Catalyzes Discovery for Early Career Scientists Around the World

“We ended up working kind of asynchronously,” Dr. Varshey said. “But I think that actually worked out as well. We were able to take some time and space to think about things rather than having to respond right away. And that actually helped. So maybe, in fairness, asynchronous communication is a good thing.”

“Supporting early career scientists is an important part of our mission,” said Sonya Dougal, PhD, the Academy’s Vice President for Life Sciences. “Today’s science, and today’s scientific challenges, increasingly depend on the exchange of ideas and collaboration across disciplines. So we are really proud to be working with AMED on the Interstellar Initiative. It is an important and successful way to make a difference in the work, and futures, of promising investigators.”

“It was actually a little bit life changing,” Dr. Hoshino said several months after the 2nd set of team meetings and presentations. “If I did not have this experience with the Interstellar Initiative, I don’t think I would have reached out to connect with people from completely different disciplines. It really gave me confidence to…reach out to collaborators from completely different fields…. This really changed the way I will develop as a scientists in the future.”

Click here for more information about the Interstellar Initiative.