The University of Nevada, Reno has added three new faculty members to its Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology this fall. Felicia Jefferson, Mitchell Omar and Meet Zandawala bring unique research expertise and projects that will play a pivotal role in advancing research initiatives in the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources and as part of its Experiment Station unit. Their research areas are diverse, including the use of AI tools in sleep science; understanding the relationship between stress hormones and genetic mutation in humans; and using fruit flies to better understand the internal clock in animals and the impact of circadian dysregulation on sleep, metabolic and mood disorders.
"We are thrilled to welcome these three professors to our department,” said Robert Ryan, the chairperson of the department. “Their expertise and dedication to teaching and research will undoubtedly enrich our academic community and contribute to the advancement of our department's teaching and research mission."
Jefferson joins the college as an associate professor and as a member of the graduate faculty in several other programs.
Jefferson’s research in neuroscience has earned her recognition by the National Science Foundation. As a principal investigator, she has been awarded more than $1.5 million in competitive research funding for her ongoing research in sleep science and neural engineering.
“Our most recently funded project focuses on improvement in the sensitivity and precision of deep learning algorithms in order to increase the reliability of the output received from an AI tool for use in future sleep studies,” Jefferson said. “As a part of this project, students gain firsthand knowledge of not only the molecular genetics and biochemical and technical requirements for product development, but also get to meet some of the patients and consumers that are impacted by our scientific research and outputs daily.”
Jefferson has presented findings from her research at multiple conferences, and more than 40 of her peer-reviewed publications have been cited by others. She is also an author of numerous book chapters and her upcoming chapter, "Environmental contaminants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals: Effects on women and men," will be published this month by Oxford University Press. She contributes as a committee member on various scientific advisory boards and has received invitations to serve as a panelist from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
Prior to her current appointment, she served as an associate professor of biological and environmental sciences at Fort Valley State University in Georgia. During her tenure, she oversaw the neuroscience, bioengineering and sleep labs.
After receiving her doctorate in neuroscience and biomedical science from Morehouse School of Medicine, Jefferson transitioned into a post doctorate fellowship at Emory University School of Medicine. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Rochester Institute of Technology and a master’s in molecular genetics and biochemistry from Georgia State University.
Omar has been appointed as an assistant professor of human health and disease and will be teaching and conducting research in the field.
His research primarily focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying stress hormone production and the formation of tumors and chronically elevated stress hormone levels in patients with an illness called Cushing's syndrome as a result of genetic mutations. He also investigates the connections between brain cells, called synapses, and how they are altered during regular learning and illness.
Omar is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles, appearing in respected biology journals such as eLife, Cell Reports, Biochemical Journal and Trends in Pharmacological Sciences. His research has earned him invitations to prominent scientific meetings, including the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, where he recently chaired a session on kinases and phosphatases. Through this exposure, he is gaining recognition for his work on how proteins are organized within cells and the impacts of genetic mutation in conditions such as adrenal Cushing's syndrome and fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer.
As a first-generation college graduate from a rural environment, Omar's introduction to biomedical research did not occur until his mid-twenties. Now, he is dedicated to mentoring and educating interested undergraduates on the academic and professional prospects within the scientific field.
"I am honored to join the University and I look forward to guiding my students to different areas of research so that they can find their passions earlier in their academic journeys,” Omar said. “All students who show genuine interest in research should receive all the support necessary to achieve their dreams, and I’m committed to that endeavor.”
Omar received his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University and holds bachelor's degrees in English (Minnesota State University) and biology (University of Iowa).
Zandawala joins the department as an assistant professor following successful research tenures at Brown University, Stockholm University and the Queen Mary University of London.
He is a leading invertebrate neuroendocrinologist who uses fruit flies as a model to understand how the small signaling molecules in the brain known as neuropeptides influence animal behavior and physiology. His recent study reveals the comprehensive neural connectivity map of the internal clock in animals, which could contribute to understanding the impact of circadian dysregulation on sleep, metabolic and mood disorders.
Zandawala is an active participant in international working groups and has authored more than 30 peer-reviewed articles in prestigious biology journals, including PLoS Genetics, PLoS Biology and Open Biology. He is currently a guest editor for General and Comparative Endocrinology, as well as for Current Opinion in Insect Science, and serves as an associate editor for Frontiers in Endocrinology.
“I am looking forward to this exciting new chapter in my career and exploring the unique landscape Nevada has to offer,” Zandawala said. “I am also excited to collaborate with my colleagues and explore neuropeptide signaling in arthropod disease vectors.”
Zandawala previously taught at the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg in Germany, where he continues to lead a research group in the Department of Neurobiology and Genetics. He earned his bachelor's degree in biology and a doctorate in cell and systems biology from the University of Toronto Mississauga.