MU Biology Professor Receives Highest Honor from the White House

Associate Professor Dawn Cornelison

Dr. Dawn Cornelison, 2017 PECASE recipient

Melody Kroll
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Biological Sciences

Dawn Cornelison, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, has been named as a recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Cornelison, who is a principal investigator in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, is one of 102 researchers selected by the White House to receive this prestigious award this year. She is the only researcher in Missouri to receive the award this year and the first ever from the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri to be selected.

“I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” President Obama said in a news release issued by the White House. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that Federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”

Upon learning of her selection, Cornelison said she was “deeply humbled by the recognition.” She was quick to praise the graduate and undergraduate students who have worked with her in the lab since she joined MU as an assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences in 2005.

“This award reflects the quality of the students who have gone through my lab,” she said. “I am so grateful for how lucky I’ve been to have such spectacularly talented and creative students walk through my door and work with me on these questions.”

Established in 1996, the PECASE program honors scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, have blended excellence in innovative research and service to their communities through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach. Recipients are nominated by federal departments and agencies, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, Energy, Agriculture, Education, Commerce, and Veterans Affairs. Cornelison was nominated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Cornelison and her students study how skeletal muscles develop and regenerate. Most of her research has focused on the role of muscle stem cells, called satellite cells, in the regeneration process. These stem cells are unusual in that they inhabit the edges of muscle fibers, patiently waiting for something to happen. When a muscle is damaged, they ‘wake up,’ make more of themselves, migrate to the site of injury, and rapidly and efficiently start repairing the muscle fibers. How this happens – what sets these cells in motion and then directs their action – has been the fundamental question guiding Cornelison’s research.

Her research has contributed greatly to the current understanding of satellite cell behavior. Using timelapse movies taken through a microscope, her lab was the first to analyze their movements on muscle fibers and to identify key molecules that direct where, when, and how fast these cells move. More recently the lab has identified a class of signals that govern the interactions between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ muscle fibers and the neurons that stimulate them, and they are now working to understand how these signals contribute to communication between muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue to repattern the regenerating muscle.

Satellite cell based therapy is seen as a promising approach for treatment of various muscle degenerative diseases, especially muscular dystrophy. Understanding how satellite cells move and behave in normal muscle may help to develop new therapies that could eventually be used to ameliorate or cure this disease.

Cornelison’s research has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Since 2010, Cornelison has devoted considerable energy into bringing science to the public as part of the team that organizes Saturday Morning Science. Held on most Saturday mornings on MU’s Columbia campus, the popular science lecture series has hosted hundreds of talks that have been attended by thousands of people from the local community.

Cornelison is a celebrated teacher and mentor of students at MU, where she teaches courses on developmental and molecular biology. She has been the primary research and thesis advisor to seven graduate students and has supervised over two dozen undergraduate research students in her lab, most of whom have gone on to graduate or professional school. She is the recipient of both teaching and mentoring awards from the University of Missouri.

Cornelison is an alumna of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she received her bachelor’s degree in biology in 1990. She completed her doctoral research with Barbara Wold, a leader in the field of muscle development at the California Institute of Technology in 1998, and then returned to the University of Colorado to do her postdoctoral work with Brad Olwin.

Cornelison will be formally recognized at the White House later this year.

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