Karthik Shekhar has been named a 2023 McKnight Scholar

June 14, 2023

Illustration of neural network

Illustration of neural network. Courtesy of the McKnight Endowment Fund.

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience has announced the selection of ten neuroscientists to receive the 2023 McKnight Scholar Award. Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UC Berkeley, Karthik Shekhar, has been awarded a scholarship for his project entitled Evolution of neural diversity and patterning in the visual system.Prof. Shekhar is also a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

The McKnight Scholar Awards are granted to young scientists who are in the early stages of establishing their own independent laboratories and research careers and who have demonstrated a commitment to neuroscience. Since the award was introduced in 1977, this prestigious early-career award has funded more than 260 innovative investigators and spurred hundreds of breakthrough discoveries.

“The committee is delighted to congratulate an array of splendid new Scholars,” said Richard Mooney, PhD, chair of the awards committee and George Barth Geller Professor of Neurobiology at the Duke University School of Medicine. “Each is committed to solving the most fundamental problems in neuroscience, from identifying the molecules that build a nervous system to decrypting the neural computations that enable us to see, learn new skills, and even form social bonds.

Karthik Shekhar

About Prof. Shekhar's project

Evolution of neural diversity and patterning in the visual system

Prof. Shekhar’s lab seeks to understand how diverse neural types and their organization evolved to serve the needs of different animals. His research focuses on the visual system of the brain, specifically the retina and the primary visual cortex, which are remarkably well conserved across species separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. By understanding the neuronal composition in the retinas of different species, and how those neurons are organized, he hopes to uncover how evolution has acted to accommodate distinct visual requirements – and furthermore, uncover the genetic underpinnings of neural network and brain evolution.
Prof. Shekhar's research will examine the evolutionary conservation and divergence of neuronal types in the retina of several vertebrate species, from fish to birds to mammals, and use computational approaches to reconstruct the evolution of neural diversity. He will examine if evolution led to the rise of new types or modification of existing types, including changes in morphology, function, or connectivity. A concurrent effort will investigate the visual cortex, a structure common to all mammals, and will focus on tracing the origins of early developmental epochs known as “critical periods”, where neural networks in the brain show exquisite plasticity to sensory experience. The research will help show how evolutionary adaptations occurred in the visual system, which will also point the way for further research into how other parts of the brain evolved. A guiding principle underlying  his approach is that interdisciplinary collaborations – with engineers, neuroscientists, clinicians, and computational scientists – can bring new approaches to tackle some of the big questions in neuroscience.

About The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience

This is the first year McKnight has made these awards under the program’s new guidelines, which places additional emphasis on increasing diversity, equity and inclusion to enhance the excellence and impact of the scholarships. There were 56 applicants for this year’s McKnight Scholar Awards, representing the best young neuroscience faculty in the country.

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is an independent organization funded solely by The McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is led by a board of prominent neuroscientists from around the country. The McKnight Foundation has supported neuroscience research since 1977. The Foundation established the Endowment Fund in 1986 to carry out one of the intentions of founder William L. McKnight (1887-1979). One of the early leaders of the 3M Company, he had a personal interest in memory and brain diseases and wanted part of his legacy used to help find cures. In addition to the Scholar Awards, the Endowment Fund makes grants to scientists working to apply the knowledge achieved through translational and clinical research to human brain disorders though the McKnight Neurobiology of Brain Disorders Awards.

Learn more about this year's award program here>