UCLA worm researcher receives ‘genius grant’

UCLA neurobiologist Elissa Hallem has won a prestigious MacArthur fellowship for her work studying a topic you’ve almost definitely never considered unless you work in her lab: how worms smell stuff.

Strange as it may sound, Hallem’s work has the potential to reduce the devastating health effect of parasitic worms around the world -- and to improve our still-thin understanding of how all animals smell.

Hallem and 22 other winners from the arts and sciences will each receive “genius grants” of $100,000 a year for five years. The award is an academic’s dream come true, a no-strings-attached credit line that doesn’t even require a grant application.

Hallem has studied the sense of smell since she was a graduate student at Yale, where she researched the genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of smell in the fruit fly. Her graduate work laid the groundwork for understanding how brain cells respond to different smells. She also discovered that what she learned in the fruit fly also applied to mosquitoes, opening up a new avenue for battling the bugs.

Since then, her focus has switched from studying how animals smell to how they use the sense of smell to their advantage -- specifically, how parasitic worms use the sense to find their hosts.

Parasitic worms are a major health threat in the developing world, and studies estimate that as many as 20% of people who live in the tropics are infected by parasitic worms, such as roundworms and hookworms.

The eventual goal is to develop preventative strategies by identifying which smells the worms use to find their hosts, and to use that information to throw off the worms off track. Parasitic worms also infect livestock and plants, causing major headaches for the agriculture industry.

Among the other diverse winners in the sciences are Sarkis Mazmanian, a biologist from Caltech who studies the relationship between beneficial bacteria and their hosts; Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who has studied the effect of better teachers on student outcomes; and Eric Coleman, a University of Colorado geriatrician who has investigated how the elderly can make better transitions from the hospital to homes and nursing facilities.

You can read the MacArthur Foundation’s news release here.

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