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Serena Dudek tenured

By Larry Lazarus
November 2010

Serena Dudek, Ph.D.
Dudek said that NIEHS "funds me to do what I love to do most - science." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The National Institutes of Health Central Tenure Committee granted tenure to Serena Dudek, Ph.D., Oct. 21. Dudek leads the Synaptic and Developmental Plasticity Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Neurobiology headed by David Armstrong, Ph.D.

Armstrong said the decision to grant tenure was largely influenced by Dudek's discoveries linking electrical signaling and rapid gene expression in neurons, and the regulation of synaptic plasticity. Armstrong also emphasized Dudek's enthusiasm for collaborating with NIEHS staff. "She interfaces with all the other investigators in our branch," he said. "She is the scientific hub of the laboratory."  

Dudek also received support from NIEHS Acting Scientific Director David Miller, Ph.D., who was delighted with the confirmation of her tenure, stating, "Serena is a bright and accomplished neurobiologist who has already made a name for herself."

Finding the proper sentiment to explain her feelings on getting tenure was difficult for Dudek. She admitted, "It's really gratifying that my colleagues find my research at a high enough caliber." Jokingly, she confessed that the prospect of moving to a new office with a window was frosting on the cake. Dudek hopes that tenure will also bring more space and resources for her research in the future. 

Writing from Moscow, Natalia Bastrikova, Ph.D., Dudek's former research fellow from 2004 to 2009, emphasized three personality traits that make Dudek highly successful: innovative, open-minded, and supportive. She continued, "For her, science is never tight and defined facts. This is a journey into discovery."

Dudek's career researching synaptic plasticity has spanned almost 25 years. She began studying the topic as an undergraduate and, in 2010, received the A.E. Bennett Research Award from the Society of Biological Psychiatry for research by a young investigator. 

Dudek outlined three directions for her ongoing studies:  

  • The first concerns the pruning of excess synapses, which is critical for completing brain circuitry development. Based on her discovery that stimulating patterns induce long-term depression (LTD) in the hippocampus, she hypothesized and found that repeated LTD leads to synapse elimination. Dudek mentioned that she is currently investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying this structural change in brain circuitry. 
  • A second project involves how neuronal activity rapidly regulates gene transcription. Excitedly, Dudek explained that several genes are up-regulated by experience within 5 minutes. Her group found evidence that action potentials are likely the trigger for this extremely fast gene regulation.  
  • Finally, a specific set of neurons in area CA2 of the hippocampus is the topic of her third program. The hippocampus is part of the brain's limbic system, the seat of emotion and memory transfer, but plasticity in this particular area had never been studied. Growing evidence suggests that the CA2 is important for social behavior and is impaired in cases of bipolar disease and schizophrenia. 

Based on the unique complement of neurotransmitter receptors and other molecules, Dudek predicts that the CA2 will play an important role in the pathology associated with autism spectrum disorders. Her work on CA2 has already led her to discover a new role by which caffeine exerts its effects and the remarkable role of the CA2-enriched "Homer Simpson gene (RGS14)." 

Dudek's studies permit insights into how environmental factors cause brain disease through its impact on neural circuitry. Her research succinctly fits the mission of the NIEHS, a vigorous supporter of her tenure application.

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