Close up photo of Maiko Kitaoka

Courtesy of Maiko Kitaoka

Maiko Kitaoka chosen as a HHMI Hanna Gray Fellow

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has selected Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researcher Maiko Kitaoka as a Hanna H. Gray Fellow. As one of 25 scientists selected for the prestigious appointment this year, Kitaoka will receive funding that supports her postdoctoral training and may continue into her early career year as independent faculty.

“I’m incredibly thankful to HHMI for believing in my potential as a scientist,” says Kitaoka, who is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Whitehead Institute Member Yukiko Yamashita. “I am also immensely grateful to the mentors who supported me throughout my science journey so far.” Those mentors have included Yamashita and former Whitehead Institute Member Terry Orr-Weaver, in whose lab Kitaoka conducted research while earning her B.S. in biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), before going on to earn her PhD in molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kitaoka studies how sperm genomes — which face unique and long-lasting challenges to their DNA integrity as they mature — are safeguarded and filtered to ensure sperm quality and fertility. In seeking to untangle crucial quality control mechanisms that guard genomes across generations, her Fellowship-supported research will explore the intersections between DNA damage responses, genome architecture, and sperm developmental dynamics.

However, in keeping with HHMI’s philosophy of supporting “people, not projects,” Kitaoka will have the freedom to follow her curiosity and study the scientific questions that matter most — changing direction as needed — for the duration of the award.

“From my own experience, I know that giving researchers freedom to follow unanticipated scientific paths is extraordinarily important,” observes Yamashita, who is also professor of biology at MIT and an HHMI Investigator. “And I have no doubt that Maiko will make excellent use of the Fellowship to pursue novel ideas and make pioneering discoveries.”

Kitaoka is the third Whitehead Institute researcher to receive a Hanna Gray Fellowship over the past five years. Lehmann lab postdoctoral fellow Ngoc-Han Tran received the Fellowship last year and Bartel lab postdoctoral researcher Jarrett Smith was a 2018 recipient.

The goal of HHMI’s Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program is to reach, recruit, and retain individuals from the diverse talent pool of early career scientists in the United States. In addition to receiving funding, Fellows participate in professional development, mentorship, and networking with their community of peers and the broader HHMI community of scientists. Through their successful careers, HHMI Hanna Gray Fellows go on to become leaders in academic research who inspire, train, and mentor future generations of scientists.

More information about the Gray Fellowship can be found at




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Yukiko Yamashita stands smiling, arms folded.

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