Mandë Holford Is Named an Allen Distinguished Investigator

February 10, 2022

With the distinction, Holford and her research partner, Li Zhao of The Rockefeller University, received $1.5 million to study immunity and its evolution.

Close crop portrait of Mande Holford
Mandë Holford

Professor Mandë Holford (GC/Hunter, Biochemistry, Biology, and Chemistry) made CUNY history this month when she was named a 2022 Allen Distinguished Investigator. She is the first CUNY professor to receive the honor and joins 22 other academic scientists, selected for their potential to advance biomedicine. With the distinction, Holford and her research partner, Li Zhao of The Rockefeller University, received $1.5 million to study immunity and its evolution.

Holford and Zhao are leading a project to better understand how immune genes that code for tiny proteins called micropeptides evolve. The team will characterize several poorly understood immune-related micropeptides in humans and fruit flies and will zero in on newly evolved micropeptides to better understand their evolution and their role in the immune system.

Holford is best known for her study of snail venom and its potential to treat human diseases and disorders, such as cancer. She is also committed to environmental conservation and science education. She was named a 2020 Sustainability Pioneer and a 2015 New Champion Young Scientist by the World Economic Forum, a California Academy of Science fellow, and one of the Breakthrough Women in Science by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and NPR’s Science Friday. She is a recipient of the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award and an NSF CAREER award. 

Holford says that she and Zhao are building on their areas of expertise, “bridging what we know with what we’re learning.” She adds, “We’re combining our expertise in evolutionary novelty and molecular innovation to look at arms-race interactions broadly. Like venoms, immune genes are rapidly evolving to protect their host and constantly adapting to ward off invading entities. We want to know the role these micropeptides play in the arms-race of immunity.”

The co-award to Holford’s lab at Hunter College will support postdoctoral and doctoral student research.

“We didn’t think we had a shot. The list of previous awardees is really impressive, but we got it,” Holford said modestly.

She offered this advice to grant aspirants: “You have to be persistent and keep applying for grants even when you get a bunch of rejections. Put something in and then open a glass of wine to celebrate. Small victories, like micropeptides, can lead to big things.”

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Photo by Ari Mintz