2018 Prizes and Awards Announced

Congratulations to all recipients of the 2018 prizes and awards for the Division of Science and the departments and programs within the Division.

Division of Science Prizes and Awards

  • Doris Brewer Cohen Award: Richard Haburcak (Math, Chemistry)
  • Rishon M. BIaler ’64 Memorial Prize: Abraham Cheloff (Biology, Neuroscience, Chemistry)
  • Schiff Memorial Award in Science: Meisui Liu (Biology) and Kathryn Shangraw (Biology)
  • Division of Science Prize for Outstanding Research Accomplishment: Heather Schiller (Biology, Neuroscience) and Jordan Saadon (Biology, Neuroscience)
  • Dr. Ralph Berenberg ’65 Prize (dentistry): Brandon Tran
  • Elihu A. Silver Prize (junior research): Julia Tartaglia (Biochemistry)
  • Steinberg Prize (Physical Science with interest in History): Mihir Khanna (Physics, Art History minor)

Biochemistry Prizes and Awards

  • Nathan O. Kaplan Prize in Biochemistry: Jessie Moore (Senior)
  • Professor Dagmar Ringe Biochemistry Award: Miriam Hood (Senior)
  • William P. Jencks Award in Biochemistry: Senmiao Sun (Senior)

Biology Prizes and Awards

  • Biology Department Award For Excellence in Research: Jason Xin
  • Chandler Fulton Prize for Undergraduate Research: Theresa Weis

Chemistry Prizes and Awards

  • Anatol Zhabotinsky Memorial Prize: Sumner Alperin-Lea
  • American Chemical Society Division of Physical Chemistry 2018 Undergraduate Award: Sumner Alperin-Lea
  • Chemistry Department Excellence Award: Samantha Shepherd
  • Melvin M. Snider Prize in Chemistry: Jamie Soohoo
  • American Chemical Society Division of Inorganic Chemistry 2018 Undergraduate Award: Elishua D. Litle
  • American Chemical Society Division of Organic Chemistry 2018 Undergraduate Award: Elishua D. Litle
  • Emily Dudek Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Award: Miriam Hood; Steven Wilhelm

Mathematics Prizes and Awards

  • Jerome Levine Thesis Prize (given annually to a graduate student in mathematics finishing with an outstanding PhD thesis): Yan Zhuang
  • Arnold Shapiro Prize in Mathematics (to a senior who has shown unusual talent and accomplishments in mathematical studies): Richard Haburcak

Neuroscience Prizes and Awards

  • Reis and Sowul Family Prize in Neuroscience: Amanda Shilton
  • John Lisman ’66 Memorial Award for Excellence in Neuroscience Research: Megan Leubner and Casey Lamar

Physics Prizes and Awards

  • Stephan Berko Memorial Prize (This endowed prize was established in 1991 by the family of the late Dr. Berko to annually recognize an outstanding student in Physics): Ali Aghvami (graduate); Carl Merrigan (graduate); Zachary Sustiel (undergraduate)
  • David L. Falkoff Prize (The Falkoff  Prize annually recognizes a graduate student in Physics who demonstrates excellence in teaching): Daichi Hayakawa
  • Physics Faculty Prize (Awarded to a graduating senior for excellence in Physics): Guillermo Narvaez Paliza; Liana Simpson



Raul Ramos Pays It Forward in His Home State of Texas

photo credit: Simon Goodacre

Helen Wong | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Raul Ramos, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience, spent the five-hour flight from Boston to Austin, Texas trying to think of what to say to a classroom full of adolescents who had been sentenced to juvenile detention, like he had been once when he was a teenager.

“I was trying to get into the mindset of it all,” he says of those nerve-wracking hours before arriving in Austin. “I was trying to remember how I felt when I had been in their shoes.” He had put together a talk and a script, but the moment he entered the first classroom at the Austin Alternative Learning Center, all of it went out the window. “Instead of giving a lecture, I had an actual conversation with the kids,” says Ramos. “They could relate to me. I was someone who looked like them, talked like them, moved like them. So they listened when I told them about my story and how, despite what they were facing now, their outcomes could be different too.”

Ramos first started working with high school students after he moved to Waltham. Anique Olivier-Mason PhD’12, Director of Education, Outreach and Diversity at the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center had arranged “Pizza Talks,” a program where graduate students in the sciences visit classrooms at Waltham High School and discuss their decisions to pursue careers in science, their experiences as investigators and their research. The program has been a great success and now serves as the model for similar talks taking place nationally, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Ramos volunteered to give a talk when he first heard about the program.

“Waltham High has a large Hispanic student population,” says Ramos. “These groups underrepresented in science. I really liked going to speak to them and talking about my own journey and its relation to my identity.” AAAS became aware of this community outreach and contacted the university to learn more. Ramos has always been open about the troubles in his own past, so when AAAS were looking for scientists to speak to students in alternative learning centers in Austin, they asked him if he would like to go. “I said yes, of course,” says Ramos. “I’m from Texas originally, so I agreed to fly down and talk to the kids.”

What began as originally just one or two schools became six upon his arrival in Austin as word got around of his visit. During the trip, Ramos gave sixteen talks and spoke to around two hundred students. “I went to juvie centers, alternative learning centers, drug rehabilitation facilities,” he says. “The level of engagement was amazing. For every kid that didn’t want to engage, there were a few more who wanted to talk to me and learn about how I’d gotten to where I am. One of the most frequent questions they asked me was, ‘Sir, what do I do when I get out of here?’ and I would tell them the truth. I told them that once they got out, they would have to actively avoid situations and people that would get them in trouble. I said that if that meant having to hole up in their room to study and get away from it all, then doing that would absolutely be worth it in the long run. Their environment matters.”

But even after telling them his advice, Ramos knew that advice alone wasn’t going to be enough for many of the kids he was speaking to. “You need a support network,” he says. “A lot of these kids don’t have that. Some of them are safer in detention than at home. So many of them are angry–why wouldn’t they be? They’re supposed to become upstanding members of society, but the way the system goes about that is to lock them up and isolate them. That’s not how rehabilitation should work.”

At some of the facilities he visited, Ramos saw kids as young as eleven or twelve being escorted by armed guards from classroom to classroom despite some of them being barely half his size. For Ramos, the sight was jarring. “It looks like overkill,” says Ramos. “I know they’re here because they did something wrong, but at the end of the day, they’re just kids.”

It also struck Ramos, as he made the rounds in each facility, that the kids incarcerated at these centers were all people of color despite Austin being in a majority white part of Texas. “Brandeis is all about recruiting underrepresented minorities into its science programs,” he says. However, the challenges of recruiting students of color for doctoral programs in science are significant, and Ramos realized during his trip to Texas that “part of the reason for the absence of black and brown individuals in science was that so many of them, who could potentially be scientists someday, are stuck in juvie–stuck in environments that deprive them of opportunities and healthy role models.

“And people like me that manage to get an education, we make it out and we leave. We come over here to go to college, we leave Laredo [Ramos’ hometown], and these kids don’t get to have good role models. They make mistakes fueled by a terrible home environment and get stuck in the juvie-to-prison pipeline. They repent and feel bad in juvie, but once they get out, if they don’t have a support network, it starts all over again. The system tries them as full adults at seventeen, when they’re not even old enough to vote. Things have to change. I want to help make that happen and to show them that right now, there are still opportunities open to them.”

Despite all of the system’s shortcomings, the alternative learning centers and similar institutions are making a tangible difference. “The system’s not perfect,” says Ramos. “It’s deeply flawed. But things are already better now than when I was in. Back then, I was put in what would conventionally be considered a prison cell. At least most of these kids get an education, space to walk, and are surrounded by people who care about them. Everyone working at the Austin Alternative Learning Center was so motivated and clearly cared about the kids.”

Upon his return to Brandeis, Ramos decided that he would dedicate more time to community outreach and consider the possibility of working in science policy after earning his doctorate. He wants to do work that not only has value in the scientific world, but that also actively helps bolster diversity and inclusion in the field, helping fight back against larger societal and institutional structures that disadvantage people of color.

“We need representation to show kids that the journey is possible,” says Ramos. “The cards feel like they’re stacked almost the entire way through. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get the message out there to those kids who are hardest to reach and who need to hear from us the most.”

Maria de Boef Miara Promoted to Assistant Professor

Maria MiaraMaria de Boef Miara was recently promoted to Assistant Professor of Biology. Since joining Brandeis five years ago as an adjunct instructor, she has particularly enjoyed teaching the Human Physiology course and is excited to be developing an accompanying lab course for Fall 2018. This course will give students the opportunity to learn about human physiology experientially, using the most up-to-date technology. It will also allow students interested in health careers an opportunity to complete an important prerequisite.

By studying how their physiology changes under a variety of conditions, students will get a hands-on feel for the subject. For instance, they will observe how cardiovascular and respiratory systems change when they exercise. They will witness how muscle activation differs between different body positions, such as the difference between winning and losing an arm wrestling match. They will determine whether they are able to respond more quickly to visual or auditory stimuli. And, by the end of the semester, they will be able to design and conduct their own experiments to study a physiological phenomena of their choosing.

Maria is excited for the opportunity to work more closely with her students in these smaller lab sections. She feels very fortunate to be able to work with the motivated, curious, and collaborative undergraduates found at Brandeis and she looks forward to giving them the space and support to explore their interests in human physiology.

Congratulations to Maria!


Brandeisians Receive 2018 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

NSF Graduate Research FellowshipFive Brandeisians (past and present) have received NSF Graduate Research Fellowships for 2018. Also, one current graduate student received an honorable mention.

This program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based advanced degrees at U.S. institutions. In 2018, the National Science Foundation (NSF) received over 12,000 applications, and made 2,000 award offers. This fellowship provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution).

Alyssa Garcia, a Brandeis Physics graduate student, received a fellowship. Marcelle Soares-Santos, Assistant Professor of Physics, is Alyssa’s advisor. Marcelle said “Alyssa will work on obtaining a sample of neutron star collisions with the goal of using them as standard sirens to determine the rate of expansion of the Universe.  This is very timely after the discovery of the groundbreaking neutron star collision GW170817 as the gravitational wave detectors are now being upgraded and when they come back later this year, they are expected to yield almost 10 times more detection’s per year. That wealth of data, is a very exciting prospect for a student starting their PhD career!”

Christopher Konow, a Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry, received an honorable mention. He works in the Irving Epstein lab analyzing the Turing Pattern formation in Growing Domains using the CDIMA (chlorine dioxide-iodine-malonic acid) chemical reaction.  For the NSF GRF, he proposed developing a novel self-oscillating hydrogel that could have uses in drug delivery.  He plans to start this project in late summer/early fall of 2018.

The Brandeis undergraduate alumni receiving 2018 NSF GR fellowships are:

  • Caroline Cappello graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Theater Arts. She is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington.
  • Emma Chad-Friedman received a BA in Psychology and Anthropology in 2014 and is in the PhD. Psychology program at the University of Maryland at College Park.
  • Jung Park also graduated in 2014 with a degree in Neuroscience and Psychology. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University.
  • Stanislav Popov received his B.S. degree in Mathematics and Chemistry only 2 years ago (2016). While at Brandeis, Stanislav worked in Isaac Krauss’ lab. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at UCLA.

Two new faculty members join the Chemistry department

The Chemistry department welcomes two new Assistant Professors who will be arriving on-campus in the summer/fall 2018.

Rebecca L.M. Gieseking

Rebecca GiesekingRebecca Gieseking‘s research is focused on developing computational models to understand materials for emerging energy technologies in the fields of solar energy, batteries, and fuel generation. The critical steps in these technologies involve electron transfer at complex interfaces. Her work will focus on revealing design principles that connect molecular structure to the important material properties required for these applications.​​

She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University working with George Schatz and Mark Ratner. She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry from Georgia Tech and a B.S. in Chemistry and Studio Art from Furman University.​

Grace Han

Grace HanGrace Han will be joining the Department of Chemistry as a new Assistant Professor in July 2018. Her research focuses on the design and synthesis of light-responsive organic materials for various applications such as energy conversion, storage, and optoelectronics.

Grace received her PhD from the Department of Chemistry at MIT in 2015. She has been a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT after the graduation. At Brandeis, she will be teaching Inorganic Chemistry (CHEM 121) in the Spring 2019.

Advanced spectroscopy reveals mechanism of vectorial action in a membrane pump

Judith Herzfeld research imageSome proteins in cell membranes are responsible for actively pumping desired molecules in or unwanted molecules out. Since their discovery, it has been expected that their vectorial action involves the existence of two protein conformations, one in which the active site has a low affinity for substrate and is open to the discharge side of the membrane and the other in which the active site has a high affinity for substrate and is open to the uptake side of the membrane. The driver of the pump is a source of energy that converts the pump from the lower energy state to the higher energy state, from which it can relax back and begin the cycle anew.

However, this model has never fit the longest-studied pump, the light-driven ion pump bacteriorhodopsin. At rest, the active site has a high proton affinity but is open to the discharge side of the membrane. Disruption of the active site by light reduces the proton affinity, but it has been a decades-long mystery how this occurs while maintaining access to the discharge side of the membrane. This mystery has now been solved through advanced spectroscopic studies of photocycle intermediates trapped at low temperatures. Obtained collaboratively by Judith Herzfeld’s group at Brandeis and Robert Griffin’s group at MIT, the spectra trace the establishment of an essential U-shaped pathway to the discharge side of the membrane. The results also explain how this pathway is broken as soon as the proton is released, thereby preventing back flow and enforcing the vectorial action of the pump.

“Primary transfer step in the light-driven ion pump bacteriorhodopsin: an irreversible U-turn revealed by DNP-enhanced MAS NMR.” Qing Zhe Ni, Thach Van Can, Eugenio Daviso, Marina Belenky, Robert G. Griffin, and Judith Herzfeld. J. Am. Chem. Soc., DOI: 10.1021/jacs.8b00022. Publication Date (Web): February 28, 2018

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