MPFI Researcher Receives Prominent Award to Launch New Lab

May 9, 2023
Dr. Madineh Sarvestani wearing a blue scarf and white and black blouse

JUPITER, FL: The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience announces that Dr. Madineh Sarvestani has been named a Freeman Hrabowski Scholar by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The award provides up to $8.6 million for five to 10 years to support outstanding early-career faculty members who have strong potential to become leaders in the field and who are committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in science through their mentorship of trainees from populations underrepresented in US science.

Dr. Sarvestani, who has been conducting research at MPFI as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. David Fitzpatrick, will launch her independent career as an Assistant Professor of Neurobiology & Behavior at Cornell University this summer. The focus of her research will expand on her work at MPFI, which discovered new principles of how the neural circuits that process vision are organized. The Sarvestani Lab will explore how the brain transforms light entering our eyes into visual experience and, in particular, how this processing is shaped by how we move through our environment.

“We use body movements to extract more information from the world and to test initial guesses about what we think we see or hear. This means that the brain and body work together to produce our reality,” Dr. Sarvestani explains. “But we’re just starting to explore how this actually occurs. In my lab, we’ll combine the diversity of brains, bodies, and environments that exist in nature with state-of-the-art technologies to unlock the brain/body interactions that derive meaningful information from the environment.”

Receiving this award means many things to Dr. Sarvestani, but chief among them are security and freedom as she establishes her new research group. “This award enables me to take bigger risks and do more exploratory research in my first few years. It’s also great to receive the recognition and be trusted with the responsibility that comes with long-term funding,” she said.

Mentorship and commitment to inclusivity have long been a part of Dr. Sarvestani’s career. She has worked with students and interns on a variety of scientific projects, has volunteered for Max Planck Florida’s Career Day and Brain Bee events, and was an organizer of Neuromatch Academy, a virtual computational neuroscience summer school that provided training to thousands of students in the US and beyond.

“From a mentorship perspective, my goal is universal: I want to create an intellectually stimulating environment where everyone is challenged to excel individually but feels a sense of common purpose that drives us to achieve more as a team,” she explained.

Sarvestani cites consistent and honest feedback as a critical component for good mentoring, along with empowering individuals to learn to grow and trust their own abilities.

“One key aspect of good mentorship that I’ve learned from my mentors is consistent and honest feedback, particularly constructive critical feedback. It often hurts, in the moment, to receive critical feedback. It’s not easy to give it either – it requires courage and grace. But honest feedback is necessary for growth, particularly in a field such as ours where external feedback is few and far between,” she said.

The Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program honors the contributions of Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the outgoing president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and a major force in increasing the number of scientists, engineers, and physicians from backgrounds underrepresented in science in the United States. Dr. Hrabowski’s leadership sparked the development of new and growing programs at UMBC, HHMI, and other institutions around the US, including the renowned Meyerhoff Scholars Program for undergraduate students.

As Dr. Sarvestani ends her time at Max Planck Florida, she credits the institute’s philosophy of providing researchers with stable funding and intellectual freedom as one of the contributing factors to her success. With this award, she will continue to have financial support to take risks and pursue cutting-edge science.  “The generous support of the Freeman Hrabowski Fellowship enables me to continue pursuing curiosity-driven discovery at the highest level and also creates opportunities for other scientists to explore their questions about the brain. I am excited to see what we can accomplish with this incredible opportunity.”

For media requests, please email Katie Walsh Edwards.

About the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience

The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI), a not-for-profit research organization, is part of the world-renowned Max Planck Society, Germany’s most successful research organization, with over 80 institutes worldwide. Since its establishment, 30 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, including five in the last three years alone. As its first U.S. institution, MPFI provides exceptional neuroscientists from around the world with the resources and technology to answer fundamental questions about brain development and function. MPFI researchers employ a curiosity-driven approach to science to develop new technologies that make groundbreaking scientific discoveries possible.