Five University of Minnesota Medical School faculty were presented with 2021 McKnight Awards, which recognize excellence in research, scholarship and leadership. The McKnight Awards are made possible through generous donations from the McKnight Foundation. These awards include:

McKnight Land-Grant Professorship

The McKnight Land-Grant Professorship aims to advance the careers of assistant professors at crucial points in their professional lives. The McKnight Land-Grant Professorship is held by recipients for a two-year period. 

2021 McKnight Land-Grant Professors:

Kate Adamala, PhD - Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development

Kate Adamala works on building synthetic cells. Such organisms, engineered from non-living components, give us the ability to control every element of a cell and to study behaviors and properties of life with unprecedented precision. Synthetic cells are used for both basic research and practical applications, to study the origins and evolution of life, to make drugs and novel biomaterials, to understand properties of normal cells and to study mechanisms of disease.

Sarah Heilbronner, PhD - Department of Neuroscience

Cells in the brain connect and communicate with each other in complex and fascinating patterns. Dr. Heilbronner’s research aims to uncover these patterns, especially for parts of the brain that are demonstrably different in psychiatric disorders. Her research bridges nonhuman animal models and humans, allowing us to make inferences about neural mechanisms in humans and more effectively model brain disorders in animals.

Distinguished McKnight University Professorship

The Distinguished McKnight University Professorship recognizes outstanding faculty members who have recently achieved full professor status. Recipients hold the title “Distinguished McKnight Professor” for as long as they remain employed at the University of Minnesota. 

2021 Distinguished McKnight Professors:

Mark Thomas, PhD - Department of Neuroscience

Addiction is one of our most challenging societal problems; it is widespread, costly and difficult to treat. Dr. Thomas’ research is built on the idea that addiction is not a moral failure, but a biological one. By using state-of-the-art technology to examine the brain’s role in addiction, his lab is making discoveries expected to unlock transformative new therapies and break the stigma that surrounds this devastating brain disorder.

McKnight Presidential Fellows

The McKnight Presidential Fellows program is a three-year award presented to promising faculty who have been granted both tenure and promotion to associate professor in an academic year. It recognizes recipients who are recommended by their college dean and chosen at the discretion of the executive vice president and provost based on excellence in research and scholarship, leadership, potential to build top-tier programs and ability to advance University of Minnesota priorities.

2021 McKnight Presidential Fellows:

Emilyn Alejandro, PhD - Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology 

Type 2 diabetes is the most common chronic disease affecting about 420 million people worldwide. To stop the vicious cycle of the disease, Dr. Alejandro’s team combine integrative approaches and using both animal models and human studies to uncover the role of nutrient-sensor protein mTOR and OGT in the placenta and pancreas, to ultimately predict individuals who are at risk for obesity and diabetes and to find ways to increase insulin secretion to improve clinical interventions for patients with diabetes. The team is shedding new light on the fetal origins of pancreatic-β-cell dysfunction, obesity and diabetes.

Esther Krook-Magnuson, PhD - Department of Neuroscience

Dr. Krook-Magnuson is a neuroscientist seeking to improve our understanding of how cells interact within a network, how networks interact with each other and the physiological roles of neuronal populations. Neuronal networks, diversity and specificity of function are important to both physiological processes and neurological disorders. The Krook-Magnuson lab utilizes models of temporal lobe epilepsy and essential tremor, and a range of techniques including electrophysiology, optogenetics, imaging and behavioral experiments to address fundamental questions in the field of neuroscience.