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Joe Aung awarded a Pathway to Independence Award

Kyaw (Joe) Aung, a post-doc in the He lab, has won a 2016 National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Award that will provide up to $837,000 of financial support over 4 years.

Joe’s research will focus on how harmful bacteria infect plants.

The program, “provides an opportunity for promising postdoctoral scientists to receive both mentored and independent research support from the same award.” The goal is to help awardees transition towards independent careers in two phases. The first provides 1-2 years of mentored support while the second is activated once the person is at an appropriate independent research position and provides 3 years of support.

Portrait of Joe
Joe Aung

Studying bacterial invasions

Scientists have known for a while about the fascinating battle that goes on when bacteria try to invade plants. The plants can recognize the invasion with special receptors that activate their defenses. But the bacteria counter with an injection of over thirty molecules into plant cells in order to overcome these defenses.

Joe wants to look at what happens once the bacteria have infiltrated the host tissues, and the motivation behind this research is to tackle a food security matter by understanding how bad bacteria make plants sick.

Plant under a microscope
Gorgeous confocal microscopy plant image 
By Joe Aung

“I want to reveal how the bacteria manipulate the communication network between the plant cells. Perhaps hijacking the plant cell-to-cell communication network is the way it spreads the damage.” 

“I also want to look at how the different compartments inside each plant cell respond to and coordinate with each other upon bacterial infection. This is unexplored ground in scientific circles.”


Joe was born and raised in Burma/Myanmar. At 18 years of age, he moved to Taiwan where he obtained a B.S. and a M.S. in Horticulture from the National Chung Hsing University, followed by over four years in a research position at the Institute of BioAgriculture Sciences, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He obtained his PhD at MSU in the Hu lab and has been a post-doc for almost five years in the He lab, studying the cell biology of plant and bacteria interactions.  

Three plants in the lab
Smaller plants indicate successful bacteria invasion
By Joe Aung

“I have been extremely fortunate to have had trained at the PRL over the past ten years. Sheng Yang He is one the most inspirational people I know and is able to push me out of my comfort zone in order to attain goals beyond my wildest dreams. He has given me tremendous freedom, guidance, and support over the years to prepare my future career in science.”

Sheng Yang He adds of his mentee, “Joe is clearly one of the most capable, yet extremely modest and nicest postdocs I have mentored in my scientific career. Receiving a NIH K99 award is both a well-deserved recognition of Joe’s achievements and a great opportunity for launching his independent scientific career."

Joe remembers feeling simultaneously excited and overwhelmed when he got the news about the award. "It is a humbling experience to know that I was chosen among a group of talented post-docs. I feel especially proud to be awarded as a plant person since this award historically funds research in advancing human disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.”

But Joe thinks that his unique angle in studying how bad bacteria manipulate communications between plant cells won over the funding reviewers. “In certain ways, we react to our surroundings in similar ways to plants. This research might give us a new angle into studying why and how we humans get sick.”

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