Graduate Studies wants to congratulate Ernest Heimsath on his new position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Ernest recently defended his dissertation in biochemistry in December, under the guidance of Professor Henry Higgs. He will be moving down to Bethesda, Maryland, in March to work as a postdoctoral researcher with Dr. Bechara Kachar in the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), focusing on the functioning of auditory cells.
Ernest grew up in both Texas and Virginia and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), where he was supported by the NIGMS-funded Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program. While a junior at UTSA, he participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program—now the Academic Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (ASURE) program—at Dartmouth. He enjoyed working in the Department of Biological Sciences that summer and appreciated the friendly, open-door policy of Dartmouth faculty. Ernest notes that he chose Dartmouth for graduate school partly as a result of this positive experience, as well as out of a desire to get to know a new area of the country.
While at Dartmouth, Ernest’s research has focused on polymerization of the protein, actin, which is the basis for many cellular structures. In particular, actin helps form filopodia, which are protrusions some cells use to sense their environment and help them migrate throughout the body. In a recent article published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Volume 287, Issue 5, Ernest examined a particular type of formin, which are proteins that regulate actin polymerization. He discovered that one formin in particular, called FMNL3, has unique effects on actin dynamics, which help to explain its role in assembling filopodia.
Ernest met Dr. Kachar in 2011 at the American Society for Cell Biology annual meeting, after being inspired by his work on sensory neurons in the inner ear, which was recently featured in Cell Picture Show. Ernest’s work at the NIDCD will relate to his previous research in that these neurons contain structures called stereocilia, which share much of the same actin-based architecture as filopodia, although they can be orders of magnitude larger and also more stable. Once formed during development, stereocilia last throughout your entire life and do not regenerate. As stereocilia are directly responsible for hearing, and dysfunctions in many of the components within them are attributed to hearing disorders, Ernest is excited about the clinical relevancy of the work he will be doing.
Ernest observes that his experience in Professor Higgs’ lab has prepared him well for this next career move. He says that he will miss the sense of community in the lab, as well as the unique Dartmouth environment. Dartmouth professors, explains Ernest, are “approachable,” and “faculty really care about developing grad students.” They are “down-to-earth” and open to being corrected, which is conducive to productive learning and research. Overall, Ernest is very satisfied with his graduate experience and looking forward to getting to know another new area of the country as a postdoc.
We wish him the best in his new position!
by Elizabeth Molina-Markham