Marnie Halpern Named Chair of the Dept. of Molecular and Systems Biology

Marnie E. Halpern, PhD, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science and adjunct professor of biology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, has been named the Chair of the Department of Molecular and Systems Biology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

Marnie Halpern, PhD (Photo by Rob Strong)

“I am looking forward to joining Dartmouth and for the opportunity to lead this talented department,” says Halpern. “It is an exciting time for basic research, when genetic, genomic and molecular tools are allowing biologists to explore many unsolved questions relevant to human development, physiology, and disease.”

As a staff member of the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore, Maryland, since 1994, Halpern has used the tiny zebrafish (Danio rerio) to study left-right differences in the brain, how they arise, the genes that govern this asymmetry, and its functional significance. Zebrafish are ideal for this type of research as they develop quickly and are prolific breeders. Also, zebrafish embryos are transparent, allowing researchers to more easily observe nervous system development.

“There are many popular misconceptions about left- and right-brain differences, which are in reality quite complex,” says Halpern. “To study these differences, my lab can label particular groups of neurons with fluorescent proteins to image how they connect up in the brain and are activated in live zebrafish. This led us to identify left-right differences in neural responses to negative stimuli.  We’ve also used methods to make the brains of zebrafish develop symmetrically or left-right reversed and found that this alters their behavioral responses to fearful cues.”

"I am very pleased that Dr. Halpern has agreed to join us here at Dartmouth to serve as chair of Geisel's department of Molecular and Systems Biology,” says Duane Compton, PhD, dean of the Geisel School of Medicine. “She is a world-renowned scientist for her contributions to developmental genetics and the underpinnings of neural development. Dr. Halpern brings fresh ideas and experimental approaches to our campus and I look forward to working with her to build and grow the department."

Originally from Canada, Halpern received her Bachelor’s degree in biology from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and her Master’s degree at McMaster University Medical Center, where she focused on Herpes gene regulation. She went on to Yale to obtain her PhD in biology, studying Drosophila (fruit fly) neuromuscular development, before going to the University of Oregon for her post-doctoral research on zebrafish. In 1994, she joined the staff of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Embryology and John Hopkins University as an adjunct faculty member.

Halpern has been recognized for her work with many awards, including being named a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2017, she also earned a prestigious Merit Award from the National Institutes of Health to support her research on left-right differences in the brain. Halpern has also served on scientific and professional society boards, including the Society for Developmental Biology and the Genetics Society of America.

Founded in 1797, the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth strives to improve the lives of the communities it serves through excellence in learning, discovery, and healing. The Geisel School of Medicine is renowned for its leadership in medical education, healthcare policy and delivery science, biomedical research, global health, and in creating innovations that improve lives worldwide. As one of America’s leading medical schools, Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine is committed to training new generations of diverse leaders who will help solve our most vexing challenges in healthcare.