New Faculty 2014-15

The Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences is excited to welcome new faculty for the 2014-15 year.

Nine new faculty members have joined the Ayala School, bringing a breadth of expertise that includes marine ecology, biodiversity, epigenetics, neural mechanisms of memory and cognition, and bacterial molecular biology and biochemistry.  They were welcomed to UCI by Chancellor Gillman at the New Faculty Welcome and Chancellor’s Reception on September 23.  Read more about these dynamic individuals and their backgrounds:

Matthew Bracken, Associate Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 

Bracken.M-150x150Dr. Bracken is a marine ecologist who seeks to understand the causes and consequences of biodiversity changes in ecosystems. His work includes studies showing how nutrients, consumers, and stress modify diversity in marine communities and how species diversity and identity affect key biogeochemical processes. He is interested in how an interdisciplinary approach to biology, which explores the linkages between processes at different levels of biological organization, can enhance our understanding of how natural systems work. Dr. Bracken has worked in many different marine ecosystems, including the coasts of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, California and New England, as well as the South Island of New Zealand.

He received a B.S. in Biology (1997) from the University of Puget Sound and a Ph.D. in Zoology (2003) from Oregon State University. His postdoctoral research was conducted at UC Davis, working at the Bodega Marine Laboratory and in the Section of Evolution and Ecology. In 2007, he was hired as an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department and at the Marine Science Center at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and he was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2013. While at Northeastern, he advised three Ph.D. students and nine M.S. students. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant Program. 

Timothy Bredy, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology and Behavior

Bredy.TThe main aim of Dr. Bredy’s research is to understand how epigenetic mechanisms contribute to the formation and maintenance of long-term memories, particularly within the context of psychiatric disorders such as phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the addictions. More generally speaking, he is interested in elucidating how the genome is connected to the environment, and how this relationship shapes brain and behavior across the lifespan.

Dr. Bredy completed his B.Sc. (Hon) in Experimental Psychology at Dalhousie University. In 2004, he earned a Ph.D. in Neurological Sciences from McGill University, and from 2005 to 2009 was awarded three prestigious research fellowships to pursue postdoctoral training at UCLA. From 2009-2013, he was a senior research fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute in Brisbane, Australia where he was awarded an ARC Research Fellowship and the University of Queensland’s award for Research Excellence. Dr. Bredy has published over 30 papers, including recent discoveries on epigenetics and memory in the Journal of Neuroscience, Nature Neuroscience and PNAS. A recent recipient of the A. E. Bennett Research Award from the Society for Biological Psychiatry, he has a current H-index of 20 and he has over 1700 citations of this work. 

Christie Fowler, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology and Behavior

CDFowlerDr. Fowler’s cutting-edge research seeks to determine how drugs of abuse modulate brain circuitries and epigenetic mechanisms involved in the emergence of behaviors that characterize addiction. Recently, she established a key role for nicotinic signaling in the medial habenula and its major afferent target, the interpeduncular nucleus, in controlling the addictive properties of nicotine. These findings likely explain the increased vulnerability to tobacco dependence found in humans with allelic variation of the alpha5 nicotinic subunit gene. Dr. Fowler’s current work seeks to further define the neurobiological mechanisms underlying nicotine dependence, with an underlying goal of identifying novel targets for therapeutic development.

She earned her PhD (2004) from Florida State University, taught courses as an adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University, and then obtained postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Dr. Paul Kenny at The Scripps Research Institute.  She holds a BA (1998) in Psychology/Neuroscience from Baldwin-Wallace College.

Julia Massimelli, Lecturer PSOE, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

MassimelliDr. Massimelli majored in Microbiology and then obtained her Ph.D. in Biology at National University of Rio Cuarto, Argentina. During her Ph.D. studies in Argentina, she won an American Society for Microbiology international fellowship award, which allowed her to visit Dr. Herbert Schweizer’s laboratory at Colorado State University, where she received specific training in bacterial molecular biology. Upon completion of her Ph.D., she moved to the United States and joined Dr. Zhi-Ming Zheng’s virology and RNA biology laboratory at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health where she pursued her postdoctoral training in the area of onco-virology and posttranscriptional gene regulation. After her postdoctoral training, Dr. Massimelli joined Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges as a visiting assistant professor in the Keck Science Department. As a visiting faculty member, she taught both lower and upper division courses, including Introductory Biology, Molecular Biology and Genetics. She also participated as instructor for the Scripps College Academy Math and Science Scholars program, designed to address the academic needs of young women who attend Los Angeles urban high schools. Last year, she was selected for the 2013 American Society for Microbiology Science Teaching Fellows program, which aims to prepare doctoral-trained students for science teaching positions at a variety of academic institutions. Dr. Massimelli also received an early-career travel award to attend and present at the 2014 American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate educators. 

Bruce McNaughton, Distinguished Professor, Neurobiology and Behavior 

McNaughtonDr. McNaughton joins two other Ayala School faculty members with the Distinguished Professor title — one of the campus’s highest academic ranks — and is one of only 28 campus-wide to receive this designation.  Dr. McNaughton’s work integrates theory, computational modeling and technological development to decode the neural mechanisms of learning and memory, and his research contributions have significantly advanced the understanding of memory. Much of his research program is founded on the idea that to truly fathom cognition, one needs to study neural “population codes” that can only be understood by recording the activity of many neurons simultaneously. Dr. McNaughton has been a pioneer in the development of technologies to enable the study of these neural codes for memory. Prior to his breakthrough work, it was impossible to take readings simultaneously from large numbers of neighboring neurons.

Dr. McNaughton comes to UC Irvine from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, where he was a professor of neuroscience. He was the first recipient of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research’s Polaris Award, the largest biomedical sciences research grant in Canada ($20 million over 10 years). Before his appointment at Lethbridge, he was on the faculty at the University of Arizona from 1990 to 2008. McNaughton has also been awarded other high-profile prizes during his career, including a Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke and a MERIT Award from the National Institute of Mental Health.  He holds a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Biology from Carleton University and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Dalhousie University.

Jessica Pratt, Lecturer PSOE, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Pratt.J.1Dr. Pratt is a community ecologist broadly interested in education and research in the fields of conservation biology and restoration ecology. She has conducted research on animal behavior, tropical bird foraging ecology, the conservation value of tropical agricultural ecosystems, the dynamics of butterfly species range shifts in response to climate change, and most recently for her Ph.D., the effects of plant species responses to environmental change on associated animal communities.  Her teaching experience spans middle school up to the university level and she has taught courses ranging from genetics to conservation biology. As an educator, she is particularly interested in how field-based and experiential learning environments increase knowledge retention and influence attitudes regarding Earth stewardship.  Dr. Pratt therefore strives to get her students out of the classroom to do real science in the field as much as possible.

She received a B.S. in Biology (2003) from Grand Valley State University, a M.S. in Zoology (2005) from North Carolina State University, and a Ph.D. in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (2013) from UCI. During her final year of the Ph.D. program and until beginning her faculty position, she worked as the Education & Outreach Coordinator for UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology, directing research and outreach internship programs and service-learning activities for undergraduates. She is the co-founder and current President of the Orange County Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology and serves on that organization’s Education Committee for the North America Section.

Cascade Sorte, Assistant Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Sorte.CDr. Sorte is a marine ecologist who studies the impacts of climate change across scales, from individual physiology up to species ranges. She is best known for her work showing that climate change can favor invasive species, leading to increased impacts on native species. Her recent research interests include exploring “coping mechanisms” that could allow species to persist in a changing climate and using field experiments to predict impacts of climate change on intact communities.

Dr. Sorte earned her B.A. (1999) at Whitman College, M.A. (2003) at UC-Santa Barbara and Ph.D. (2010) at UC-Davis before conducting postdoctoral work in the Northeast (2010-2013 at UMass-Boston). She has served as primary advisor for three Master’s students (all of whom published their work and are now in Ph.D. programs) and over ten undergraduate research interns. In addition to her love of research, she is strongly committed to mentoring and teaching and is excited to be bringing those passions to UC-Irvine. 

Michael Yassa, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology and Behavior

Yassa.M_reducedDr. Yassa is a systems and cognitive neurobiologist who is interested in understanding how the brain learns and remembers information and in applying this knowledge to translational research. He hopes to uncover the brain mechanisms underlying learning and memory deficits in aging and Alzheimer’s disease as well as other clinical disorders that range from depression to traumatic brain injury. He uses a combination of experimental psychology techniques and high-resolution neuroimaging approaches in humans and animal models to address these questions. Prior to joining UCI, he was a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University for three years.

Dr. Yassa holds a B.A. (2002) in Neuroscience and an M.A. (2007) in Psychological and Brain Sciences from Johns Hopkins University. He gained his Ph.D. in neurobiology at UCI in 2010 with Dr. Craig Stark.

Katrine L. Whiteson, Assistant Professor, Molecular Biology & Biochemistry 

Dr. Whiteson is a biochemist who is interested in understanding how individual and persistent human-associated microbial and viral communities affect health. She is working on understanding the role of persistent microbial colonization in triggering inflammatory episodes in Cystic Fibrosis patients. She uses metagenomics, metabolomics, microbial genetics and ecological statistics to answer questions about how microbes and viruses affect human health.


Dr. Whiteson earned her A.B. (2000) in Molecular Cell Biology and Biochemistry at University of California, Berkley and a Ph.D. (2007) in Biochemistry from University of Chicago.