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Yale Genetics Postdoc Valerie Tornini Awarded K99 Pathway to Independence

May 05, 2023
by Felicia Zheng

Dr. Valerie Tornini, a postdoctoral researcher and developmental biologist in the Yale Department of Genetics, was recently awarded the National Institutes of Health’s K99 Pathway to Independence award. This award provides funding for exceptional postdoctoral scholars as they make the transition to independent research.

Dr. Tornini is a member of the Giraldez lab where her scientific interests center around “understanding the genetic, molecular, cellular, and evolutionary mechanisms that specify diverse cells to collectively build an organism.” She is particularly interested in cell specification; the process by which cells become committed to a particular fate. Disruptions to correct cell specification can lead to developmental disabilities and disorders. Dr. Tornini’s goal is to discover what enables the correct process of cell specification. The research she proposed for the K99 award will seek to understand how the kmt2a/mll1 chromatin modifier affects neural cell specification, neural activity, and organismal behavioral circuits. Her research will have broad applications in future research into developmental disorders.

Looking forward, Dr. Tornini will be establishing her own independent research lab as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology & Physiology and the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA. The K99 award will fund the foundational research for her independent research program at Yale in the meantime, before she begins her tenure-track appointment. Dr. Tornini’s goal is to continue her investigation into the agents that shape the gene networks that specify and specialize vertebrate cells. This work will have far-reaching implications on our knowledge of the evolution of cell states and developmental disorders.

To other scientists planning to apply for a K99, Dr. Tornini has a few pieces of advice. She encourages scientists looking at this award to start planning and creating a timeline early. This includes steps like writing out the specific aims of your research and identifying a good home for your application. “Check out different NIH institutes, check out what their funding priorities are, check out how the funding rate for K99s for each institute – they are very different!” She advises.

Dr Tornini also recommends having a strong support network and proactively asking for help. “Ask for help, anywhere you can get it. Your advisor is not your only resource. [...] You may be surprised at how generous people want to be with their time and expertise. [...] Then, when it’s your turn, pay it forward– share your lessons and application materials (within reason) with others.” An active support system in the scientific community can be a source of crucial encouragement and information in the tough application process.

Finally, Dr. Tornini advises applicants not to be discouraged if they are not awarded the K99 in the first round. Addressing the feedback received and resubmitting or looking for a different grant are both excellent next steps. “The K99 is not the only route to success. [...] There are private foundations and other funding sources that now have a similar mechanism of funding late postdoctoral training or your early lab, so even if one application is not successful your ideas can be recycled for other funding opportunities.” says Dr. Tornini. The application process itself is an opportunity to examine your goals as a scientist and gain insight into what path is best for you.

The future of genetics looks bright to Dr. Tornini. “Emerging technologies and understanding will really enable the next generation of genetics research. [...] This is an active interdisciplinary field of inquiry and one that presents opportunities to build connections with communities and spaces beyond academia.”

Submitted by Neltja Brewster on May 05, 2023