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Josh Neunuebel, a neuroscientist who studies the intricate dynamics of communication and social interaction, and Juan Perilla, a biophysical chemist who uses supercomputers to investigate the way viruses hijack cells, have been named 2022 Mangone Young Scholars at the University of Delaware.
The Mangone awards, now in their 27th year, recognize promising and accomplished young faculty and are named for the late pioneering legal scholar Gerard J. Mangone, who spent almost 40 years teaching and advising UD students. The annual selections are made by the Francis Alison Society, which includes senior UD faculty who have won the University’s highest faculty honor, the Francis Alison Award.
Neunuebel, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, was nominated by neuroscientist Tania Roth, chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, who won the Mangone distinction in 2015.
“This is elegant and rigorous work of a high technical level bolstered by extremely careful statistical analysis,” Roth wrote in her letter of nomination. “The goal of this research is to better understand mechanisms of social dynamics, which is critical for improving the diagnosis and treatment of human communication disorders.”
Perilla, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, was nominated by UD chemist Joel Rosenthal, who was the 2014 Mangone winner.
“Professor Perilla is a world-class researcher and scholar who is defining future directions at the interface of experimental and computational structural biology,” Rosenthal wrote in his letter of nomination. “Moreover, Professor Perilla’s passion for carrying out rich and impactful research projects with trainees at all levels fuels the education of our students, who benefit from his knowledge, drive and expertise.”
The son of a professor and a first-grade teacher, Neunuebel grew up in an environment where curiosity and inquiry were important parts of life.
He was interested in so many things in college that it was hard for him to choose a major, he said. He started in biomechanical engineering, switched to computer science after a year, then jumped into biology and eventually settled on cell and molecular biology. As a master’s student at Texas A&M, mentored by Professor Mark Zoran, he studied synaptogenesis, the formation of new synapses between neurons, using the American pond snail as his focus.
“It was the coolest thing in the world being able to solve problems that didn’t have solutions that we were aware of,” he said. “I fell in love with being curious and trying to answer biological questions. It allowed my curiosity to run wild.”
He couldn’t imagine a life without research and soon pursued his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. There, he studied the flow of information through the hippocampus, a region of the brain important to memory of previous experiences. He wanted to study how memories were formed and worked with his mentor, Prof. James Knierim, to try to make sense of complicated neural data collected as animals ran around a circular track.
“In our experiments, we had precise control of the sensory cues on the track and the location of visual cues in the periphery,” he said. “By rotating the local and distal cues in opposite directions, we could examine how these manipulations altered the firing properties of hundreds of neurons. It was incredibly cool.”
Neunuebel wanted to look at memory formation in more natural settings and talked to his mentor often about this. Inevitably, Knierim responded the same way: “How are you going to make sense of the data when the recording conditions are so complicated?”
These discussions inspired Neunuebel to pursue a doctorate at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus under the guidance of Senior Scientist Roian Egnor. There, he learned about animal communication, social behavior and neuroethology and developed and learned about the tools that would allow researchers to capture neural data and correlate it to what the animal was doing at the time.
After joining UD's faculty in 2014 and establishing his lab, he refined and expanded his methods and soon was able to identify which animal was vocalizing in a variety of social contexts.
“Our first discoveries really opened up the field for us and others,” he said. “We have the tools to start answering some of the questions I’ve been dreaming about since I was a graduate student and now I can go back to my roots as a systems neuroscientist. UD gave me what I needed to get going and fortunately some amazing people joined my lab.”
Understanding the social communication of mice — “mouse songs,” he has called them — is fundamental science that could help shed light on the diagnosis and treatment of human communication disorders, including autism.
“My interest is really how sensory cues — visual, olfactory, touch, smell and auditory cues — are critical for shaping our interactions with others,” he said. “We need to have a handle on what the sensory cues are and how they potentially work together to shape behavior. I really want to know how the brain is integrating this wealth of information to help us navigate the complex social domains that we call life.”
To explore these questions, Neunuebel’s lab has a chamber fitted with microphones and a video camera, where mice can roam about freely with other mice. Neural activity is also being recorded in some of these mice. Researchers can then record their encounters and the ultrasonic calls they make to each other.
Machine-learning programs and other computational approaches are used to correlate specific sounds with specific behaviors. A “dictionary” of sorts is in the works, too.
“Now we want to know how the brain is encoding this dictionary,” he said. “How is it using this dictionary? We have very, very precise time windows to try to understand how the brain is putting the sensory cues together and forming memories of experiences that should be pretty salient to a mouse’s life.”
In her letter of nomination, Roth underscored Neunuebel’s mentoring strengths.
“His innovative research program, his excellence in classroom teaching and mentoring of the next generation of scientists, makes him the type of nominee this award is designed to recognize and encourage,” she wrote.
Students have brought powerful ideas to the work, Neunuebel said.
“They are the future of the great things that are to come,” he said. “They come in with different ideas and everybody’s unique and bright and special in different ways. They bring this fresh new perspective on how to think about things. My job is to train them to collect and analyze the data, interpret their results and communicate their science.”
That’s one of the things he loves about doing research.
“These brilliant, fresh faces come into your life and you get to help them, teach them how to think like a scientist and they then can go on to change the world, too.”
He’s excited about what’s coming in “Building X,” too, a new interdisciplinary hub under construction at UD and expected to open in the fall of 2024.
“It’s going to be great to have physicists, biologists, psychologists all together,” he said. “It will be a wonderful opportunity to interact with people and it will be nice to get new lab space, too.”
Neunuebel earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology at Texas A&M University and his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He did postdoctoral research at Johns Hopkins University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus before joining the UD faculty in 2014.
While most of us work hard to avoid viruses, Perilla is drawn to them — not to experience them personally, of course, but to understand them and the way they hijack cells and create havoc.
He takes lab data from experimental biologists and uses supercomputers to produce in-depth analysis and simulation of these molecular interactions.
“Viruses are a very big puzzle,” he said. “We know so little about cell biology. Viruses know very much about cell biology. And every time you look at the virus, you get to experience a little of the biology the cell is doing. You are exposed to that cellular machinery responsible for moving different cargoes through the cytoplasm. And the virus provides a lot of details about how it hijacks that machinery.”
Perilla wants to understand these hijackers, tell their stories and reveal the vulnerable spots that others can target.
He has worked on some of the deadliest types of viruses, too — ebola, HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), hepatitis B, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic), equine and poultry viruses.
“Every virus is its own world,” Perilla said.
His journey in science started with physics, then moved into biology, molecular biology, molecular biophysics and cell biology.
“I fell in love with the complexity of cell biology,” he said, “how life works, how viruses work, how they move in the cytoplasm, how they interact with cells and the nucleus.”
While experiments in physics can often take decades, Perilla liked the quick turnaround possible in molecular biology.
And working with pathogens offers many opportunities to make life better for people and other living creatures.
“We are fascinated with how things work, but we have to keep in mind that it’s a serious business, not just scientific curiosity,” he said. “It’s really affecting people’s lives. It’s of high significance to our health and to our economy. And at the same time, we get to apply physics and chemistry — basic, foundational science. That’s the real appeal.”
Perilla was drawn to UD by the contacts he had with collaborators. He saw a supportive environment in the chemistry department and a good mixture of diverse research. He was aware, too, of UD’s strong reputation in the field.
“A lot of young professors have been very successful and that also motivated me to come here,” he said. “It’s a place where strong people have a place to develop.”
The UD environment has allowed him to pursue questions that might not have been possible elsewhere, he said.
“A strong synthetic component — those doing work on trying to develop small molecules as antivirals or therapeutics — has had an impact on our research,” he said. “The availability of those colleagues in the department made it possible to go in that direction, which is something I wouldn’t have done if I was not surrounded by that environment.”
The development of supercomputers and access to facilities funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy have made a dramatic impact on what can be done, too, Perilla said.
“There is a wealth of computer architectures and methodologies that have become more mainstream in the past five years,” he said. “We definitely take advantage of those technologies and making use of that has made us very competitive in the field.”
Students are trained to use those supercomputers, which gives them access to extraordinary potential for the future. And learning about the context of viral structures opens up all kinds of new perspectives.
Perilla can trace his academic family tree to Linus Pauling, who was both a Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Pauling’s last graduate student was Martin Karplus, who went on to win a Nobel in chemistry and developed molecular dynamics simulation. Karplus was the doctoral adviser of Klaus Schulten, who was Perilla’s adviser. Schulten developed software that thousands of researchers around the world now use to simulate molecular dynamics.
Perilla is excited about moving his research toward nuclear biology.
“That will be our next frontier,” he said. “Luckily, some viruses are very savvy about what happens in the nucleus. That’s where I see my group going in the next 5-10 years. We’ll definitely continue to develop our understanding of cytoplasmic events, but we’re also pushing further into nuclear events, what happens in the nucleus.
“What’s happening in the cytoplasm is like going to the moon. What’s happening in the nucleus is like going to Mars — significantly increasing the complexity and difficulty.”
Perilla earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at the National University of Colombia, his doctorate in biophysics at Johns Hopkins University and did postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before joining the UD faculty.
The Mangone Young Scholars Award is named in honor of the late Gerard J. Mangone, a pioneering international legal scholar who joined the UD faculty in 1972 and spent nearly the next 40 years teaching and advising scores of UD students. He also served numerous governmental and non-profit organizations, consulting for the White House, the State Department, the United Nations, Japan, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was the first senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and served as a visiting professor and lecturer around the world. Mangone’s contributions were instrumental to the success of UD's marine policy program. He founded the Center for the Study of Marine Policy, the first research center at an American university to study the legal, political and economic issues facing the ocean and coast. The center was the forerunner of the Gerard J. Mangone Climate Change Science and Policy Hub. He received UD’s highest faculty honor — the Francis Alison Award — in 1983 and was an active member of the Francis Alison Society until his death in July 2011.
Gerard J. Mangone Young Scholars Awardees:
2022: Josh Neunuebel (psychological and brain sciences) and Juan Perilla (chemistry and biochemistry)
2021: Tiffany Barber (Africana studies) and Curtis Johnson (biomedical engineering)
2020: Naomi Samimi-Sadeh (psychological and brain sciences) and Jaipreet Virdi (history)
2019: Jason Gleghorn (biomedical engineering) and Joshua Wilson (education)
2018: Emily Day (biomedical engineering)
2017: Catherine Grimes (chemistry and biochemistry)
2016: Salil Lachke (biological sciences)
2015: Tania Roth (psychological and brain sciences)
2014: Joel Rosenthal (chemistry and biochemistry)
2013: Juejun Hu (materials science and engineering)
2012: Maciek Antoniewicz (chemical and biomolecular engineering)
2011: Thomas H. Epps, III (chemical engineering)
2010: David Suisman (history)
2009: Svilen S. Bobev (chemistry and biochemistry)
2008: Michael Shay (physics and astronomy)
2007: Anna Papafragou (psychology)
2006: Balaji Panchapakesan (electrical and computer engineering)
2005: Anette M. Karlsson (mechanical engineering)
2004: Kristi L. Kiick (material sciences and engineering)
2003: Joel P. Schneider (chemistry and biochemistry)
2002: Martin Brückner (English)
2001: Owen White (history) and Melinda K. Duncan (biology and biochemistry)
2000: Kristen Poole (English)
1999: Raul Lobo (chemical engineering) and Michael Rae (philosophy)
1998: Lian-Ping Wang (mechanical engineering)
1997: P. Andrew Evans (chemistry and biochemistry)
1996: Carlos Plata-Salaman (biology)
Article by Beth Miller; Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Evan Krape
Originally published February 15, 2023
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