Generating a Research Award: Assistant Professor Celina Juliano Wins Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award

Celina Juliano
Juliano studies the regenerative capabilities and “biological immortality” of Hydra (Hydra vulgaris), a small freshwater invertebrate. Courtesy photo

Assistant Professor Celina Juliano, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, was recently named as the winner of the 2020 Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award. The award, given by the Society for Developmental Biology, recognizes researchers “who have performed outstanding research in developmental biology during the early stages of their independent career.”

“I’m completely overwhelmed,” said Juliano. “I ‘grew up’ scientifically in this society and some of the scientists I most admire are part of this society. This is my community. To be honored by them is an amazing feeling.”

Juliano studies the regenerative capabilities and “biological immortality” of Hydra (Hydra vulgaris), a small freshwater invertebrate. Hydra boasts stem cells that exist in a continuous state of renewal. Every 20 days the organism renews its entire body thanks to this bottomless well of stem cells.

In July 2019, Juliano and her colleagues published a study in Science that documented their use of single-cell sequencing techniques to track the developmental trajectory of the three stem cell developmental lineages in Hydra. They created a “single-cell molecular map” of nearly all cell types in Hydra and gleaned further insight into the structure of the Hydra nervous system.  

“Regeneration in Hydra was discovered over 250 years ago, yet there is still so much to learn,” said Juliano. “I hope that over the course of my career we can really dig in there and learn the molecular mechanisms that control Hydra’s remarkable regenerative capacities.”

Coincidentally, Hay, who the award is named after, also studied regeneration.     

Hydra boasts stem cells that exist in a continuous state of renewal. Stefan Siebert/Juliano Lab

Juliano was nominated for the Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award by B. Duygu Özpolat, a Hibbitt Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Özpolat met Juliano in 2017 when the latter visited the Marine Biological Laboratory.

“I have followed her research for almost a decade,” Özpolat said of Juliano. “In the letters submitted during Dr. Juliano’s nomination for this award, everyone talked about the excellent scientist she is, with concrete examples of the exceptional independence she displayed since she was a graduate student.”

“She had been setting an example as the wholesome and well-rounded scientist we all want to see in a new investigator: an exceptional, creative, independent scientist, a natural leader, a great mentor and a role-model colleague,” added Özpolat.

In addition to research, Juliano advocates for Hydra as a research organism and actively takes measures to spread its use in North American laboratories and beyond. She’s a founder of both the Cnidarian Model Systems Meeting (Cnidofest), the Hydra recourse hub website and the annual Hydra workshop held at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

“I am fortunate to work with amazing people, both the members of my lab and my collaborators,” said Juliano. “I have had fantastic mentors and I have fantastic and supportive colleagues at UC Davis. Finally, I have a great support system of other Assistant Professors in the developmental biology field, as well as in club Cnidarian, that all really help to keep me sane.”

Asked what advice she’d give fledgling scientists, Juliano said, “Pursue questions that interest you and don’t worry if some people think what you are up to is weird. When figuring out who to collaborate with, choose people you truly enjoy rather than the ‘most successful.’ But finally, everyone has a different path so, take all advice with a grain of salt and do what works for you.”

Stay Informed! Sign up for our monthly email newsletter

Pottery art
Hydra are named after the famed serpent of Greek mythology which grew two new heads for each one cut off. This ancient water jar depicts the Lernaean Hydra battling Heracles (Etruscan, c. 525 BCE). J. Paul Getty Museum