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    The smart money is on these researchers

    When it comes to producing whip-smart scientists, Boston dominates the field. Again.

    The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit research organization, on Wednesday named 15 post-doctoral researchers who have won fellowships that provide each with up to $1.4 million to do work over the next eight years.

    Seven of the 15 recipients are from the Boston area, more than from any other part of the country.

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    The local scientists are plumbing mysteries ranging from whether stem cells can be used to engineer new liver tissue to what precise nerve circuitry underlies the sense of touch.

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    “We all know that touch sensation is very important for performing daily tasks and social interaction, but compared to other senses like vision and hearing, we know very little about how touch sensation develops,” said Shan Meltzer, 29, a post-doc at Harvard Medical School and a native of Beijing who was named one of the 15 Hanna H. Gray Fellows.

    The fellowship program funds biomedical researchers through early post-doc training and then several years of research in tenure-track faculty positions.

    In particular, the program is designed to help scientists who are underrepresented in life sciences, including women, minorities, and researchers from underprivileged backgrounds. Nearly 350 applicants competed for the fellowships.

    This year’s Boston-area winners are affiliated with Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

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    The program started in 2017.

    “It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Jarrett Smith, 28, a post-doc at the Whitehead institute in Cambridge who is studying why disease and exposure to heat produce “stress granules” in cells.

    The Howard Hughes institute, based in Chevy Chase, Md., also names a cadre of seasoned medical investigators every three years who divvy up millions of dollars to do whatever research they want. In May, 19 new investigators received a total of $200 million. And for the second time since 2013, roughly a third of those investigators were based in the Boston area, more than in any other region.

    Carolyn Elya

    Scott Eisen/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

    Where she is a post-doc: Harvard University

    Focus: How microbes hijack insect nervous systems. Insects with certain parasitic fungal infections end their lives like zombies, compelled to climb to a high point before spores explode from their bodies. By exploring parasitic mind control in flies, she hopes to get a better understanding of animal behavior.

    Shan Meltzer

    Scott Eisen/Howard Hughes Medical Institute
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    Where she is a post-doc: Harvard Medical School

    Focus: How the nerve circuitry underlying the sense of touch develops. Using new genetic tools, she plans to find and manipulate the molecules that control touch sensory neuron development in mice. Her research could lead to new treatments for restoring touch in people with disorders or injuries.

    Michelle Richter

    Scott Eisen/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

    Where she is a post-doc: Harvard University

    Focus: She wants to improve the genome editing tool kit that includes CRISPR. These protein tools can add or remove parts of mutated genetic information — and could potentially treat diseases such as cystic fibrosis and cancer.

    Thiago Monteiro Araujo dos Santos

    Scott Eisen/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

    Where he is a post-doc: Harvard University

    Focus: He wants to figure out how bacteria build their outer walls, which feature stabilizing protein “bricks,” and what can inhibit the process. That could lead to the development of antibiotics to halt deadly infections.

    Jarrett Smith

    Scott Eisen/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

    Where he is a post-doc: Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

    Focus: Why does exposure to viruses, heat, chemicals, and radiation cause the formation of mysterious clumps called “stress granules” in cells? A better understanding of these granules could lead to treatments for cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and other conditions.

    Quinton Smith

    Scott Eisen/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

    Where he is a post-doc: MIT

    Focus: Can “mini livers” be engineered in the lab from stem cells? He hopes the research can lead to new treatments for people with liver disease and offer hope to patients with liver failure who are awaiting organ donations.

    Matheus Victor

    Scott Eisen/Howard Hughes Medical Institute

    Where he is a post-doc: MIT

    Focus: Reprogramming human skin cells in the lab to grow into brain immune cells called microglia. These cells orchestrate inflammatory responses in the brain, a feature of Alzheimer’s disease. He hopes his research leads to a better understanding of how Alzheimer’s progresses.

    Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.