Inaugural Elizabeth D.
Hay New Investigator
Award Presented to Maria
By Marsha E. Lucas
Maria Barna (left) with her former graduate
advisor Lee Niswander.
Maria Barna, Assistant Professor of Genetics and
Developmental Biology at Stanford University,
received the inaugural Society for Developmental
Elizabeth D. Hay New Investigator Award for her
outstanding research in developmental biology during
the early stages of her independent career. Barna’s
work on translational control of gene expression
through ribosome specificity has put her in a class
of her own. She showed that a mutation in a specific
ribosomal protein (RPL38) disrupted protein
synthesis in a subset of Homeobox mRNAs resulting in
tissue-specific patterning defects. She then showed
that regulatory elements within the 5’ untranslated
regions of those Hox genes are required for this
ribosome mediated control of gene regulation. Recent
work using ribosome profiling showed that key
developmental pathways like Shh and Wnt are under an
unexpectedly high level of translational control.
Barna earned her Bachelor’s degree in anthropology
at New York University in 1998. Her first biology
course at NYU was a graduate level immunology course
Carol Reiss. Having taken AP Biology in high
school and needing another science course, Barna
convinced Reiss she could handle the journal club
style advanced course.
“That was maybe the best thing that could have
happened because it gave me exposure to reading
primary literature in science. And then I got
hooked,” Barna said in a July interview.
Sensing her excitement about science, Reiss invited
Barna to work in her lab to study how viruses are
cleared from neurons.
“I was able to do a lot of really interesting
research thanks to Carol at a relatively young age
and with great independence.”
Barna may be the only anthropology major in the
history of anthropology majors to graduate with
seven peer-reviewed publications including two
first author papers on viral infections in the
central nervous system.
Unsure about a career in anthropology or biology,
Barna delayed graduate school and started working as
a technician in the lab of cancer geneticist,
Pier Paolo Pandolfi at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
His lab generated mice with a null mutation in the
promyelocytic leukemia zinc finger (Plzf) gene to
see if they would develop leukemia. Unexpectedly,
these mice had “funny looking limbs.”
Since Pandolfi was not a developmental biologist,
Barna almost immediately began collaborating with
“I just remember [going] to her office with these
skeletons and saying, ‘Lee, what do you think?’ And
us kind of brainstorming what to do,” Barna said.
This side project led to one of the most meaningful
mentoring relationships in Barna’s life and to
discovering her love for developmental biology.
In 2001, Barna entered graduate school at Cornell
University’s Weill Graduate School of Medicine and
joined Lee Niswander’s lab at Sloan Kettering. She
continued to study the role of PLZF in limb and
When Niswander moved her lab to the University of
Colorado in 2004, Barna stayed on the East Coast to
finish her degree. For three years she worked
independently with the support of her advisor,
completing her doctorate in 2007.
Instead of doing a traditional postdoc, Barna was
accepted into the
Sandler Fellows Program at the University of
California, San Francisco where she established her
own independent research program. This brought her
into the purview of legendary mouse geneticist
Gail Martin. Martin didn’t like that Barna’s lab
was isolated from other developmental biologists.
“I remember Gail just coming to my office one day
and saying, ‘I think it’s better that you’re closer
to me.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my god that would be my
biggest dream.’ And so she actually carved out space
from her own lab to allow me to have a small lab
close to her,” Barna said.
Martin offered Barna tremendous support during her
time as a Faculty Fellow and she greatly benefited
from their joint lab meetings. It was a stressful
time for Barna because her science immediately began
going in an unexpected direction.
“[The science] was pointing me to a very new
mechanism for gene regulation. And it was an
incredibly hard problem. It kind of went against
everything that was ever written in any molecular
biology textbook,” she said.
How does a mutation in ancient translational
machinery—the ribosome—give rise to defects in a
cell type specific manner and affect the expression
of genes with such specificity and selectivity?
“I was scared because I was really following the
lead of the science and not allowing myself to be
biased by anything else besides what I was seeing in
front of me. But, it was also very, very risky. So,
I remember thinking—back when I was a fellow and I
had a very small lab with only a couple of
people—that I can shelter this risk. I have this
unique opportunity where I have funding to maintain
a small lab without having to write grants, without
having to teach, and just focusing on the best
science that I can do.”
Barna needed to develop new methodologies to test
her “crazy ideas.” Her group spent many years
working on this at UCSF and then at Stanford where
she became a faculty member in 2012. Today, she is
finally seeing the fruits of that labor.
“The most gratifying moment of my career is being at
a point [now] where we have the tools, techniques,
and evidence to really make this super hard question
a tractable one,” she said. “And I’m so excited by
that because I think the next couple of years—it’s
hard to predict where things will go—but I feel
confident that we can test this grand hypothesis
that we have that there is this important new layer
of control to gene regulation.”
Barna expressed appreciation for the support she has
received throughout her career.
“I have been so
blessed with wonderful female mentors,” she said. In
addition to Reiss, Niswander, and Martin, she is
inspired by Stanford professor,
who studies asymmetric cell division in bacteria.
After a career of more than fifty years, “she’s
still doing cutting edge science,” Barna said. “She
has so much energy.”
As for her own mentoring style, Barna said, “I
really want people in the lab—similar to what was
afforded me—to develop their own independence and
for me to really be a champion or supporter of their
She strongly encourages collaborations amongst
members of her lab too. She has biochemists, RNA
developmental biologists, and computational
biologists in her lab. “I think that all of them
individually could never come and do as beautiful
science as they could in concert with each other.”
She often has papers with two or three co-first
authors. This kind of research style requires trust
among colleagues, she said. “Together they are able
to broach a problem in a completely unique way that
neither of them individually could do.”
Barna has been awarded the American Society for Cell
Biology Emerging Leader Prize and the Genetics
Society of America Rosalind Franklin Young
Investigator Award. In 2014, she was named an Alfred
P. Sloan Fellow, a Pew Scholar, and was listed as a
Top ‘40 under 40’ by Cell Press.
Being awarded the inaugural Elizabeth D. Hay Award
was “such an incredible honor,” she said. “This was
the first time that . . . when I went up to the
podium, I was really emotional. And I normally am
not. It took me a couple minutes to be able to
regain my thoughts for the talk.”
Barna has a long relationship with the Society for
Developmental Biology. She gave her first talk as a
graduate student at an SDB meeting.
“The [SDB] community kind of creates this warm
blanket where you feel there’s incredible
appreciation for junior scientists,” she said. “My
greatest heroes of science are developmental
biologists. To be awarded the first [Hay] Award was
just monumental for me.”
Watch Maria Barna's 2017
Elizabeth D. Hay Award Lecture