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Debra Lynn Silver

Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
Molecular Genetics and Microbiology


How is the brain assembled and sculpted during embryonic development?  Addressing this question has enormous implications for understanding neurodevelopmental disorders affecting brain size and function. In evolutionary terms, our newest brain structure is the cerebral cortex, which drives higher cognitive capacities. The overall mission of my research lab is to elucidate genetic and cellular mechanisms controlling cortical development and contributing to neurodevelopmental pathologies and brain evolution. We study neural progenitors, essential cells which generate neurons and are the root of brain development. We are guided by the premise that the same mechanisms at play during normal development were co-opted during evolution and when dysregulated, can cause neurodevelopmental disease.

My research program employs a multifaceted strategy to bridge developmental neurobiology, RNA biology, and evolution. 1) We investigate how cell fates are specified, by studying how progenitor divisions influence development and disease.  2) We study diverse layers of post-transcriptional regulation in neural progenitors. We investigate RNA binding proteins implicated in development and neurological disease. Using live imaging, we also investigate how sub-cellular control of mRNA localization and translation influences neural progenitors. 3) A parallel research focus is to understand how human-specific genetic changes influence species-specific brain development. Our goal is to integrate our efforts across these three major lines of research to understand the intricacies controlling brain development.

Current Appointments & Affiliations

Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology · 2024 - Present Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Basic Science Departments
Co-Vice Chair in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology · 2024 - Present Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Basic Science Departments
Professor of Neurobiology · 2024 - Present Neurobiology, Basic Science Departments
Professor in Cell Biology · 2024 - Present Cell Biology, Basic Science Departments
Investigator in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences · 2010 - Present Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, University Institutes and Centers
Member of the Duke Cancer Institute · 2010 - Present Duke Cancer Institute, Institutes and Centers
Associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society · 2017 - Present Duke Science & Society, Initiatives
Affiliate of the Duke Regeneration Center · 2021 - Present Duke Regeneration Center, Basic Science Departments

Education, Training & Certifications

Johns Hopkins University · 2003 Ph.D.
Tufts University · 1993 B.S.