Zachary Knight Receives Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

By Nina Bai

Zachary Knight standing outside

Zachary Knight, PhD

Zachary Knight, PhD, a UC San Francisco neuroscientist who studies the neural mechanisms that control hunger, thirst and thermoregulation, is among the 315 researchers selected for this year’s Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor given by the U.S. Government to scientists and engineers who are in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Knight, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology, investigates how the brain senses the needs of the body and then generates specific behaviors to restore physiologic balance – sometimes in surprising ways. In just the last few years, he has upended long-held textbook theories of hunger and thirst.

It had been thought, for example, that neurons in the brain motivate eating and drinking by reacting to the body’s internal nutrient and water balance. But Knight’s team, by precisely recording the activity of specific neurons in mice, found that hunger neurons turn off as soon an animal sees or smells food, seeming to anticipate food intake. Similarly, thirst neurons turn off at the first taste of water, long before any change in the body’s fluid balance. More recently, Knight’s team has identified warm-sensing neurons that control thermoregulation, including an animal’s conscious and unconscious responses to heat.

Knight is a member of the UCSF Weill Institute of Neurosciences and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. He received his PhD in chemical biology from UCSF and joined the faculty in 2012.

The PECASE awards were established in 1996 and are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. The awards recognize early-career researchers who are pursuing innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and who demonstrate commitment to community service through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach. Each award winner receives a citation, a plaque and research funding from their agency for up to five years.