Dr. James Haber is to be named the 2011 Thomas Hunt Morgan medal recipient

Much like the scientist after whom this prestigious award is named,  Jim Haber has spent his scientific career asking big questions about genetics with the help of a small organism.  Instead of the humble fruit fly employed by Thomas Morgan, Jim and his students use the even humbler baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to study the complicated mechanisms of DNA recombination and repair.

Angie Brooksby (www.atelierfige.com)

Packed inside each little yeast cell is approximately 6000 genes worth of DNA, and the cell’s molecular machinery works very hard to fix any mistakes that might get incorporated into the genetic code.  Such mistakes can be caused by ultraviolet irradiation, mutagenic chemicals, and may even arise during the process of DNA replication itself.  Understanding how the yeast cell copes with these blows to its genetic integrity, as well as the consequences of mistakes gone unfixed, has been the focus of the Haber lab for over 20 years– but you don’t have to take my word for it.

In addition to recognizing purely scientific accomplishments, the Thomas Hunt Morgan medal is awarded to scientists who have proven to be excellent mentors to the students they work with.  In the spring of 2008, former students and post-docs of the Haber lab gathered at Brandeis to participate in a symposium honoring Jim’s 60th birthday, and the turn-out made clear that a sizeable amount of those who worked with Jim have either gone on to start successful labs of their own or entered into post-doctoral positions in labs of good repute.

When asked to reflect on what it’s been like to work with Jim, recent Haber lab graduate Dr. Wade Hicks answered that Jim “was a great mentor for me because he was always available to listen and talk about science.”  When further pressed against the journalistic blade and asked if Jim hosts any great parties, Wade coughed up that  “[Jim] does host the annual Halloween/pumpkin carving party that all the lab members’ kids enjoy…  What’s better than pumpkins, large knives, kids, and alcoholic beverages!?”

And finally, Jim’s eager willingness to talk about science extends beyond his lab and into the larger Life Sciences community– and likely beyond that.  Graduate students at departmental social events would be wise to chat Jim up regarding their projects– not to mention their gardens, favorite books, wine recommendations, etcetera.  In addition to being a great scientist, Jim is an all-around Good Guy.

Congratulations, Dr. Haber!

For further press see:

The Justice

Brandeis NOW

Brandeis Undergrad chooses Science Museum over the Dorms

…but the housing lottery is a lot more competitive!

Alex Dainis, an undergraduate student in the Garrity Lab, has made it to the final five of over one-thousand people competing to spend an entire month living in the Chicago Museum of Science.  Her responsibilities will include blogging, tweeting, plus getting her typing hands dirty doing science demonstrations– ultimately communicating science to the public using diverse media.  Alex comes well-equipped with a double major in film and biology, and wants to use her expertise to shatter (nay, “DESTROY”)  stereotypes regarding both science and scientists.

So please take a moment to vote for Alex, and help her help Science make friends with the public!

See coverage of the competition on Wired.com and Huffington Post here and here, respectively.

Congratulations, Alex!

Announcing the First Annual Shapiro Science Center Chili Cook-off!

Friday, June 4th


2nd floor Shapiro Science Center atrium

This Friday, amaze your colleagues with your culinary prowess and throw together your favorite chili recipe– who knows, it could get you inducted into the Waltham Academy of Colon Chaos!

Just bring in some chili, crockpotted or not, cornbread optional (but encouraged!), and enjoy a drink and good company while you sample the chilies of your peers.  You will have the chance to vote for your favorite, and a winner will be chosen.  There are already at least FOUR confirmed competitors– and we hope to see YOU there!

“My God, what have [we] done?”

A slightly modified lyric from the Talking Heads’ hit “Once in a Lifetime,” well sums up the media‘s reaction to Craig Venter’s recently published (express published, actually) work describing the construction of a bacterial cell that runs on a synthetic genome he and his two teams of researchers call “JCVI-syn1.0.”

What do you think about this?

I asked several Brandeis Life Sciences faculty what they thought, and encouraged creativity in their responses.  Dr. Jim Haber sums up his feelings in the form of a Haiku:

Craig Venter plays God
creates new Mycoplasma
press screams Frankenstein!
Please feel free to leave any comments you have.  To quote Venter himself, “We encourage the continued discourse” (translation: bring it).

Department of Education grant awarded to Dr. Melissa Kosinski-Collins

As a former T.A. for Introduction to Biology Lab, the core Biology course required of all undergraduate Biology and Pre-med majors, I remember the challenges of trying to help 25 students all try to load their DNA samples onto one gel.  Then there was the subsequent Great Trek to the Gel Doc which was housed up a flight of stairs in a space only large enough to permit groups of 4 students to see what was going on.  Yes, Science is tough– but limited equipment should not be the main reason for this.

Thanks to Dr. Melissa Kosinski-Collins‘ efforts in applying for and receiving a grant from the Department of Education, future students of Intro Bio Lab will have access to their own Gel Doc, specrophotometers, new incubators, a fluorimeter, and perhaps most impressively an atomic force microscope.  And all of this housed in beautiful new teaching labspace  in the Shapiro Science Center.

The official title of the grant is “Key to the university program: Equipment for development of an interdisciplinary research experience into the undergraduate science laboratory.”

Finding “The One” in a sea of many

Last week the Biochemistry Department hosted Dr. Phillip Zamore from UMass Worcester to talk about the complexities of RNA interference at the molecular level, and what his lab has learned using Drosophila melanogaster as a model system.  It was quite the seminar– dense and enthusiastically delivered.  You should have been there!

For those of you who couldn’t be, two things in particular stirred up that good old sense of wonderment surrounding the reality that, for the most part, all the molecular events occurring in cells are successfully executed and keep us all swinging.

The first is related to the title of this blurb.  In order for RNA interference to be carried out, a small interfering RNA (siRNA) must be matched to its target– a specific unlucky messenger RNA (mRNA) who will never grow up to be a protein.  Once the siRNA has bound to the mRNA, degradation machinery sets to work “killing the messenger” and when it’s done the central dogma for this gene reads: DNA -> RNA -> nucleotide offal.  Amazingly, this very specific search-and-destroy mission is carried out in the bustling cellular milieu with little else to go by other than base pair recognition.  And just as the difficulty of such a task was beginning to sink in, Dr. Zamore told us that it is possible for siRNAs to find their specific target even when they only differ from another message by a single base pair.

The second is that Argonaute, the protein responsible for facilitating the pairing of an siRNA to its target mRNA, doesn’t just hold the siRNA like a limp noodle, but instead twists the linear molecule into a more energetically favorable shape that allows half of it to easily bind its target while keeping the other half out of the way until the first half has bound.

For more information about these interesting tidbits, see the following articles:

1.  Designing siRNA that distinguish between genes that differ by a single nucleotide

2.  Machines for RNAi

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