Author: Sarah Tarney
Headshot of Justus Kebschull in an open area

Justus Kebschull, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has been awarded a 2022 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, a prestigious early-career award for scientists that provides “flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields of study.” Each recipient receives $875,000 over five years.

Since its founding, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has awarded fellowships to 16 scientists and engineers (including this year’s honorees) affiliated with Johns Hopkins.

The brain is arguably the most complex organ in many species. Kebschull is trying to understand how that vital organ changed and evolved over time.

His lab is engineering novel techniques to map connections and gene expression at high-resolution in a broad range of vertebrate species, ranging from mammals to birds and amphibians. He then compares the resulting maps to understand how the vertebrate brain was constructed over time, and if there are any organizing principles that shed light on why each species’ brain is shaped the way it is.

“The question we want to answer is ‘How do you build a complex brain? How do you start with a simple circuit and add to it to support more complex behaviors?'” said Kebschull. “We also use the same tools we develop for our evolutionary work to compare the brains of animals during different stages of disease to understand how brain structure changes over these short time scales. For example, in rodents, we look at what happens to brain structure during long-term opioid use to help understand how those changes may lead to relapse.”

Kebschull explains that understanding the differences between human and animal brains can provide the foundation for translational research, where treatments in animal models could eventually lead to cures for human disease.

“Support from the Packard foundation is invaluable at this early stage in my career,” said Kebschull. “It allows us to follow bold ideas and more unconventional approaches without the constraint of more traditional funding bodies.”

Ed Schlesinger, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, said “Packard Fellowships recognize creativity and innovation, both of which Justus’s research exemplifies. His work in evolutionary biology seeks not only to understand how the brain works at a molecular level, but also holds promise for better treatment for neurological diseases. It is tremendously exciting to see his work acknowledged in this way.”

(A version of this article originally appeared in The Hub).