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May we introduce: Audrey and Baile, Rising Star Fellows 2022

Audrey M. Proenca

Rising Star Fellow Audrey M. Proenca

Rising Star Fellow Audrey M. Proenca
Image Credit: private

The evolutionary microbiologist Audrey M. Proenca came to Freie Universität Berlin as a Rising Star Fellow in January 2022.

She would like to use the scholarship to study what makes bacterial cells different from each other, when the genome and extrinsic environment are the same. Bacteria are much like us in that sense: no two individuals are identical. Even when they share the same genetic code, some cells age faster, some stop growing, and some might grow so much they forget to divide. This is what we call phenotypic heterogeneity.

This current project aims to investigate the deterministic and stochastic processes shaping phenotypic heterogeneity, using bacterial populations as a model system. Researchers at the Institute of Biology at Freie Universität have shown expressive contribution for the matter, demonstrating the large dominance of stochastic heterogeneity and its impact over bacterial lifespans. Together with other scientists Audrey M. Proenca will provide a framework for studying the progression of aging, the robustness of individual heterogeneity, and the sources of differential stress responses within microbial populations.

Audrey M. Proenca studied Biological Sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. Subsequently she obtained her Ph.D. degree in Biology at the University of California, San Diego. During her academic carrier she acquired several awards, published in top jounals and and has gained experience in the field of teaching.

“I applied for the Rising Star Fellowship to further my research on the evolutionary processes shaping aging and heterogeneity. After the end of my Ph.D., I was eager to continue contributing toward the field and to expand my network. This fellowship offered a great opportunity to continue my research in Germany, while giving me freedom to define the goals of this new project. Dr. Ulrich Steiner (main host) and I had met at a conference in 2018, and we were both excited at the opportunity of joining our complimentary backgrounds. Whereas Dr. Steiner had studied phenotypic heterogeneity with an emphasis on stochasticity, I had approached similar questions from a deterministic perspective. We realized that a great project could come from a combination of these different ideas, and the Rising Star Fellowship helped materializing this plan. I am grateful for the opportunity to expand my connections in Europe and further my research here in Berlin.”

“Immediately upon arriving, I was amazed at the receptiveness of the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy and my working group. My new colleagues were immensely helpful and made this transition easy, so I could quickly get my work started. Sometimes research tends to keep you isolated within your research group or laboratory. I particularly like that this is not the case here. Different research groups are well integrated, both in their science and in their personal connections, which contributes to make it a welcoming and supportive environment. I look forward to a pleasant and enriching experience developing my research at Freie Universität Berlin.”

Baile Xu

Porträtfoto von Baile Xu, im Hintergrund Landschaft mit Sternenhimmel

Rising Star Fellow Baile Xu
Image Credit: private

The biogeochemist Baile Xu came to Freie Universität Berlin as a Rising Star Fellow in April 2022. He would like to spend his time in the lab of biology professor Matthias Rillig to study how microplastic and currently-used pesticides affect soil health and functions. Microplastics and pesticides are considered to be important anthropogenic stressors in the context of global environmental changes. Microplastics can have a negative effect on soil physical structure and ecosystem functions, and pose a potential environmental risk to terrestrial ecosystems. Currently-used pesticides are distributed ubiquitously on land, and more importantly, the co-existence of multiple pesticides in soil can threaten soil biodiversity that maintains ecosystem services. Therefore, Baile Xu wants to gather more information to understand the effect of microplastics combined with pesticides (particularly, the increasing number of pesticides) on soil ecosystem functions.

Baile Xu obtained his Ph.D. degree in Soil Science at Zhejiang University. For one year he was also at the Department of Environmental Science at University of California, Riverside as a visiting Ph.D. student. In his academic career he has published more than 10 peer-reviewed papers (one highly-cited paper), and one of his papers won the Excellent Paper Award. He also served as a guest editor of Frontier in Environmental Chemistry andthe reviewer for many scientific journals.

“The primary reason why I applied for this junior fellowship was the motivation to work with Prof. Dr. Matthias Rillig, who earns the prestige across Soil Science, Environmental Science and Ecology. Coincidently, we both are interested in the effect of microplastic pollution in soil ecosystems. Moreover, I have never been to Europe before, and the academic experience in Germany would be intriguing to me.“

“Freie Universität Berlin is different from both Chinese and American universities where I stayed. As like in this department, three institutes are geographically separated but organically connected. Especially for me, we have an in-depth collaboration with Prof. Dr. Sebastian Riedel to investigate F-containing chemicals’ impact on soil health. I like my working group here. We have a lot of brainstorms and share knowledge and skill unconditionally, which can bridge the gap across multiple disciplines.“

“All in all, I am so excited and honored to win this junior fellowship, and during my stay here, I would expect to put some environmental chemicals seasoning into the ecology dish to bridge the knowledge gap between ecology and environmental changes.”