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Upstate researcher receives prestigious award, named 2022 Klingenstein-Simons Fellow

Upstate Medical University researcher Marie Bechler, PhD, has been named a 2022 Klingenstein-Simons Fellow. Bechler is one of 13 investigators across the United States, who received the prestigious award, given out to “highly promising, early career scientists” to support research that may “lead to a better understanding of neurological and psychiatric disorders.”

Bechler, an assistant professor in the Cell and Developmental Biology and Neuroscience and Physiology departments, is honored for her research that focuses on myelin sheaths, the lipid-rich membrane encasing most neurons in the brain and spinal cord.

“As the neuroscience community strives to understand how the numerous cell-cell interactions enable complex information processing in our nervous system, myelin sheaths will be a critical piece of the picture,” Bechler said.

Bechler explains how researchers are working on ways to restore myelin, as studies reveal changes in myelin structure occur in many neurological disorders like schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis.

“The goal of our work is to identify factors that determine myelin sheath structure,” Bechler said. “This is the critical first step to understanding how myelin sheaths contribute to healthy nervous system function. Determining mechanisms that control the natural process of myelin formation is expected to reveal how myelin can be properly restored in disease.”       

Bechler became fascinated with myelin sheath-forming cells called oligodendrocytes when learning about their incredible abilities: expanding their size several thousand-fold to create the myelin membranes that maintain the health of neurons and control neuronal signaling.

“While we know that the loss of myelin leads to devastating neurological diseases, we have yet to really understand how oligodendrocyte cells precisely form these expansive membranes and how exactly the structure of these myelin membranes enables function in the nervous system,” explains Bechler. “I was drawn into studying myelin by my fascination with how the myelin-forming cells can create such intricate structures—and the potential impact that understanding this process will have for our understanding and future treatment of the spectrum of neurological disorders and diseases across the lifespan.”          

The Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship works to encourage early career scientists to pursue “high-risk, high reward” projects. Bechler says this is the kind of support that’s crucial in establishing a research team.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot that needs to ‘hit the ground running’ to be successful,” she said. “Projects need to carefully balance assured productivity with creative, high-reward potential. It is also a key time to gain visibility so that others know you and your research—potential collaborators, future research team members, future funders, etc. This award comes with the recognition that my research vision and plans for my lab group were selected for outstanding merit by highly accomplished neuroscientists, leaders in the field who see my potential for success as a new independent investigator.”