SciFest VII Wraps Up Summer 2017 Undergraduate Research Session

The Brandeis University Division of Science held its annual undergraduate research poster session SciFest VII on August 3, 2017, as more than one hundred student researchers presented summer’s (or last year’s) worth of independent research. We had a great audience of grad students and postdocs (many of whom were mentors), faculty, proud parents, friends, and senior administrators.

More pictures and abstract books are available at the SciFest site.

SciFest VII by numbers

Judith Tsipis Steps Down as Director of Genetic Counseling Program

Tsipis dinner

After 25 years at the helm of the Brandeis Genetic Counseling program, Judith Tsipis has handed over the leadership reins to Gretchen Schneider.

On June 3rd, close to 100 people gathered in the Levin Ballroom at Brandeis to honor and celebrate Judith’s illustrious career as a pioneer in the field of training genetic counselors. Attendees included over 40 alumni, former and present faculty members, family and close friends.

Highlights and memories were shared by: Beth Rosen-Sheidley, an alum from the first graduating class in 1994; Kathryn Spitzer Kim, the first Assistant Director from the Program; Gretchen Schneider; Judith’s son Yanni and husband, Kosta; and two additional alumni, Christa Haun and Jason Carmichael.

Judith created the master’s program in response to her own family’s experience with Canavan disease, a recessive degenerative disorder that causes progressive damage to nerve cells in the brain. Brandeis admitted its first class in 1992 and is proud to have over 200 alumni.

Judith will continue to be involved with the program in various capacities: coordinating journal club, serving as a thesis advisor and member of the Advisory Board.

 

 

 

Garrity lab finds moisture-sensing genes in mosquitoes

Summary figure for Garrity lab paperby Zachary Knecht, PhD candidate

As the solvent of living cells, water is critical for all life on earth.  This makes monitoring how environmental conditions impact evaporation and subsequently sensing and locating water sources important for animal survival. This is particularly critical for insects, whose small body size makes them highly susceptible to dehydration. In addition, moisture sensing, or hygrosensation, is also important for the spread of insect-born disease. Mosquitoes that spread malaria or viruses like dengue and Zika, not only need to locate bodies of standing water in which to lay eggs, but also home in on the moisture that emanates from our bodies when searching for a blood meal. This dual role for hygrosensing in mosquito biology makes their hygrosensory machinery a promising target for pest control strategies. Until now though, the genes and molecules that function in insect hygrosensation have been completely unknown.

In a pair of recent papers in the journal eLife, researchers in the Garrity Lab at Brandeis University, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, have uncovered the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie insect hygrosensation using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Like mosquitoes, fruit flies detect humidity through specialized, innervated hair-like structures located on their antennae called sensilla. Each hygrosensing sensilla contains one cell that responds to increasing humidity (a moist cell), and one that responds to decreasing humidity (a dry cell).  These papers demonstrate that the balance of activity between dry and moist cells allows the insect to seek out or avoid particular humidity levels, a preference which changes depending on how hydrated or dehydrated the fly is.

To identify the molecules involved in sensing moisture, the researchers looked for mutant flies unable to distinguish between humid and dry air. They found that animals with mutations in four different genes disrupted the behavior. Strikingly, each of these genes encoded a different member of the same family of sensory receptors, the so-called Ionotropic Receptors or IRs.  Although IRs are found only in invertebrates, they belong to the same family as the ionotropic Glutamate Receptors, which lie at the heart of communication between nerve cells in the animal brain, including the human brain.  IRs differ from these relatives in that instead of sensing signals sent by neurons, they detect signals coming from the environment.  IRs are best known to act as chemical receptors, but the group found that a subset of IRs act instead to sense humidity. The researchers found two broadly expressed IRs, Ir25a and Ir93a, were required by both the dry cells and moist cells while the other two IRs, Ir40a and Ir68a, were specifically required by the dry and the moist cells, respectively. This suggests that Ir25a and Ir93a contribute to the formation of both moist and dry receptors, while Ir40a and Ir68a provide the dry- and moist-specific subunits to the receptor. Consistent with this view, the loss of either Ir68a or Ir40a alone only partially reduces the animal’s ability to sense humidity, but animals with mutations in Ir25a, Ir93a or both Ir40a and Ir68a are completely blind to moisture.

Having identified the specific genes required for sensing moisture, the next step is to determine the precise mechanism by which humidity activates these receptors. Furthermore, these genes are conserved in mosquitoes and other disease vectors, providing a clear path to translate what’s known about fly hygrosensation into the mosquito. These papers lay the groundwork for new mosquito control strategies that aim to precisely inhibit their ability to seek out water to reproduce and to seek out hosts to bite and spread deadly pathogens.

Chakraborty lab provides new understanding on the physics of granular materials

By Kabir Ramola, Ph.D

In the late 1980’s Sir Sam Edwards proposed a framework for describing the large scale properties of granular materials, such as sand or salt. In this description, similar to the well-established framework of statistical mechanics, the global properties of a complex system are determined by an average over all possible microscopic configurations consistent with a given global property. This is usually attributable to the very fast dynamics of the constituent particles making up the system. The extension of such treatments to granular systems where particles are static or ‘jammed’ represents a fundamental challenge in this field. Even so, Edwards’ conjecture postulated that for given external parameters such as volume, all possible packings of a granular material are equally likely. Such a conjecture, like Boltzmann’s hypothesis in statistical mechanics, can then be used as a starting point to develop new physical theories for such materials based on statistical principles. Indeed, several frameworks have been developed assuming this conjecture to be true.

Figure 1 : Snapshot of the system studied and illustration of the associated energy landscape at different volume fractions.

A simple illustration of this conjecture would be, if one were to pour sand into a bowl, and not bias the preparation in any way, then all the trillion trillions of configurations allowed for the grains would be equally likely. Clearly such a conjecture is utterly infeasible to test experimentally.  In a recent paper that appeared in Nature Physics, we instead performed detailed numerical computations on a theoretical system of soft disks (in two dimensions) with hard internal cores. We focused on a system of 64 disks which already pushed the limits of current computational power. We found that if one fixes the density of a given system of disks, the probability of a packing occurring depends on the pressure, violating Edwards’ proposition. However, at a critical density, where particles just begin to touch or ‘jam’, this probability remarkably becomes independent of the pressure, and all configurations are indeed equally likely to occur. This jamming point is in fact very interesting in its own right since most granular materials are found at the threshold of being jammed and ‘unjammed’. To be fair to Edwards, the hypothesis was made for ‘hard’ grains in which particles are precisely at this threshold, and therefore our numerics seem to confirm the original statement. This is the first time that this statement has been out to a direct test and will no doubt lead to many interesting directions in the future.

Links to news sources describing this article:

doi: 10.1038/nphys4168
Numerical test of the Edwards conjecture shows that all packings are equally probable at jamming.
Stefano Martiniani, K. Julian Schrenk, Kabir Ramola, Bulbul Chakraborty & Daan Frenkel.
Nature Physics
2017

 

Colleagues and Students Gather for Astrophysics Symposium

by Roopesh Ojha (PhD ’98)

Radio Galaxy NGC 4261. (credit: Teddy Cheung)

From June 28th through 30th, about fifty former and current students, colleagues and friends of Brandeis astrophysics Professors John Wardle and David Roberts gathered in the Physics building for a symposium titled “When Brandeis met Jansky: astrophysics and beyond.” This event was organized to celebrate their achievements in astrophysics and their impact on generations of students. Their work has established Brandeis as a major player in radio astronomy.

The symposium title refers to Karl Jansky who is credited with starting an entirely new means of studying the cosmos using radio waves. Radio astronomy arrived at Brandeis with Professor Wardle in 1972. He was joined in 1980 by Professor Roberts and together they pioneered a very powerful observational technique called Very Long Baseline Polarimetry. This involves the use of telescopes separated by thousands of kilometers to produce the sharpest images available to astronomers. Their methods allow astronomers to map the magnetic fields in and near celestial objects. With their students and colleagues, John and Dave have exploited this technique to study the magnetic fields in quasars and active galaxies, and near super massive black holes far outside our Milky Way galaxy as well as black holes closer to home.

Physics Conference Group

Professors John Wardle and David Roberts (front right) with former students and colleagues on the steps of the Abelson physics building (photo: Mike Lovett)

The reach of John and Dave’s work was reflected in the content of the presentations and the composition of the attendees, some of whom had traveled from as far afield as South Korea, India, and Europe. All major centers of radio astronomy were represented. At the conference dinner, several former students expressed their appreciation for the roles Dave and John have played as their mentors.

In their presentations, Dave and John described their current projects and highlighted the work of their undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who have all gone on to successful careers in academia and industry.

The nineteen PhD theses produced by the Brandeis Radio Astronomy group

Professor Roberts has decided to retire at the end of August, though his retirement plans include a huge program of continuing research into unusual-shaped radio galaxies. These may represent galaxy mergers and the possible merger of their central black holes, and is being carried out with colleagues in India. Professor Wardle has no intention of retiring and is expanding his horizons so to speak — he is part of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, an international team of astronomers that is attempting to make the first image of the ‘event horizon’* of a black hole!

The symposium was organized by Teddy Cheung (PhD ’05, now at the Naval Research Laboratory) and Roopesh Ojha (PhD ’98, now at NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center), with generous help and support from the Physics Department.

* The boundary around a black hole beyond which nothing can escape.

Summer SciFest 2017 to Showcase Undergrad Research on August 3

SciFest 2016Brandeis Summer Scifest, an Undergraduate Research Poster Session, will be held on Thursday, August 3. The poster session will be 1:00 to 3:00 pm in the Shapiro Science Center atrium.

SciFest is an annual poster session for undergraduates who have spent their summers working in both on-campus and off-campus labs doing scientific research, usually alongside grad students, postdocs and faculty members. It an opportunity for undergraduates from across the Division of Science, including summer visitors and Brandeis students, to present posters summarizing their research.

There were 106 posters presented last year. Prospective presenters for this year should note that the deadline to register for this event is July 25. Early registrants will get the prime locations for their posters!

The public is invited to attend and to discuss research with the students. As always, refreshments will be served.

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