Neuroscientist Viviana Gradinaru Receives Young Investigator Award

The Society for Neuroscience has presented a Young Investigator Award to Viviana Gradinaru (BS ’05), professor of neuroscience and biological engineering, Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, and director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech. The award, supported by Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, recognizes the outstanding achievements and contributions by a young neuroscientist who has demonstrated scholarly independence.

Gradinaru’s laboratory examines several aspects of the brain, such as neuronal circuits for sleep and locomotion, and methods of gene delivery to neurons. She focuses on developing new neurotechnologies, having created numerous optogenetic actuators and sensors, tissue clearing and imaging technologies, and gene-delivery vehicles now used by hundreds of laboratories worldwide. She continues to drive novel technology development, and her future work aims to attain a deeper understanding of the mammalian brain in health and disease. Gradinaru’s research is already being translated for human benefit, with optogenetics, tissue clearing, and viral vector technologies licensed by companies for gene therapy and diagnostics. Gradinaru has published two recent essays in Science magazine describing her work: “Expanding the brain researcher’s toolkit” and “Overriding sleep.”

“Making noninvasive deep-brain modulation a reality for treating human neurodegenerative disorders is a goal I have been working on since graduate school,” says Gradinaru. “We are hard at work at Caltech and in collaboration with groups around the world to enable interventional modalities that are precise and minimally invasive. For this purpose, we are engineering gene delivery vectors to target specific cell types underlying a broad spectrum of neurological disorders.”

Gradinaru studied physics for two years at the University of Bucharest in Romania before transferring to Caltech; she graduated with honors in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She received her PhD in 2010 in neuroscience from Stanford University. At Caltech, Gradinaru established the Beckman Institute Center for CLARITY, Optogenetics, and Vector Engineering (CLOVER Center) to provide training and access to her group’s reagents and methods for the broader research community. Among other awards, she has received the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award and Pioneer Award as well as a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She has been honored as a World Economic Forum Young Scientist and as one of Cell journal’s “40 Under 40.” Gradinaru is also a Sloan Fellow, Pew Scholar, Moore InventorVallee Scholar, and recipient of the inaugural Peter Gruss Young Investigator Award by the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience. In 2017, she received the Early-Career Scientist Award from the Takeda Pharmaceutical Company and the New York Academy of Sciences’ inaugural Innovators in Science Awards. In 2018, she received a Gill Center Transformative Investigator Award. Earlier this year, she was awarded the 2020 Outstanding New Investigator Award by the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy and the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science from the Vilcek Foundation.