Hunting Novel Viruses in a Lab Course

Last Fall the Biology department mounted a new course (BIOL 152B),  the Virus Hunter Lab. This course combines practical experience in the lab with computer based approaches in bioinformatics. Students in the class isolated a type of virus that infects bacteria called a bacteriophage. In the wet lab, they learned basic microbiology techniques for isolating the viruses and basic molecular biology techniques for extracting the DNA of the viral genomes. With the biological material in hand the class prepared next generation sequencing libraries. The students assembled and annotated the complete genome of two previously unknown bacteriophage using next generation sequencing data from the samples they prepared. To find out more about it you can read their paper. Grad students Meghan Harris (MCB), their TA, and Tereasa Ho (Biotechnology) along with the inaugural group of undergraduate students are all authors on a paper recently published in the journal Microbiology Resource Announcements (MRA).

Harris MT, Ho TC, Fruchtman H, Garin ME, Kubatin V, Lu T, Xue L, Marr MT. Complete Genome Sequences of Two Vibrio natriegens Bacteriophages. Microbiology Resource Announcements. 2020;9(45).

Electron microscope image of the novel bacteriophage (VH2), photo by Jesse Cochrane

Griffith lab finds that time-keeping brain protein influences memory

Figure from Griffith lab paperIn the Journal of Neuroscience, members of the Griffith Lab found that memory impairments can result from disruptions in the release of the peptide Pigment-dispersing factor (PDF). PDF aligns the brain’s time-keeping mechanism to the correct time of day.

Upsetting the brain’s timekeeping can cause cognitive impairments, like when jetlag makes you feel foggy and forgetful. These impairments may stem from disrupting a protein that aligns the brain’s time-keeping mechanism to the correct time of day, according to new research in fruit flies published in JNeurosci.

The brain contains ‘clock’ neurons that collectively mold circadian behaviors and link them to cues from the environment, like light and seasonal changes. In fruit flies, the peptide Pigment-dispersing factor (PDF) is released from the clock to both synchronize the activity of the clock neurons and to drive time-based behaviors like mating and sleep. PDF may also underlie memory formation, explaining the cognitive dysfunction that occurs when the clock is desynchronized from the environment.

Flyer-Adams et al. tested how well fruit flies with a functioning core clock, but lacking the PDF output signal, could learn. They found that without PDF signaling, flies had severely impaired memory. Interestingly, memory regulation by PDF likely occurs without direct signaling to the main memory structure of flies. Their results suggest that PDF from the clock may promote normal memory throughout the day by acting as a timestamp to learning. The VIP pathway in humans may play a similar role.


Regulation of olfactory associative memory by the circadian clock output signal Pigment-dispersing factor (PDF). Johanna G. Flyer-AdamsEmmanuel J. Rivera-RodriguezJunwei YuJacob D. MardovinMartha L. Reed and Leslie C. Griffith. 

Hedstrom Receives NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award

Liz HedstromBrandeis University chemical biologist Lizbeth Hedstrom received one of nine Director’s Transformative Research Awards this year from the National Institutes of Health under its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program.  The 5-year, $3.5 mil grant will support the development of new methods for drug design relying on targeted protein degradation.  This emerging strategy has several potential therapeutic advantages over traditional approaches, including the development of more potent, longer acting, drugs.

The rational design of ‘degraders’ has focused almost exclusively on degradation induced when the target protein is modified with ubiquitin.  In contrast, Hedstrom will be developing ubiquitin-independent strategies.

Former Marder Student Receives Prestigious Award

Vatsala Thirumalai

Photo: NCBS

A former graduate student from Eve Marder’s lab has received the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for 2020.  Vatsala Thirumalai was a graduate student in the Marder lab from 1996 to 2002. She received her PhD in Neuroscience from Brandeis University in 2002.

Thirumalai was one of twelve researchers to receive India’s highest science award. She is a faculty member in the Biochemistry, Biophysics and Bioinformatics department at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India. Her lab is focused on neural circuits that control movement during development and adulthood in animals.

The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize is awarded by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to Indian scientists below the age of 45 for outstanding research in seven fields—Biology, Chemistry, Environment Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine and Physics.

After receiving her degree from Brandeis, Vatsala did post-doctoral fellowships in Neuroscience at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY and the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.

More info: CSIR Announces Awardees of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for 2020Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize 2020: 12 researchers receive India’s highest science award.

Meet the Science UDRs at the Ultimate Science Navigation Event (9/23)

Ultimate Science Navigation posterAt The Ultimate Science Navigation event TOMORROW (9/23), students can collaborate with the science UDRs to learn about the different offerings in the sciences, how to navigate each major/minor, what each major/minor has to offer, all with an emphasis on exploring the intersections between different programs in the sciences. We will have UDRs representing biochemistry, biology, neuroscience, chemistry, physics, and biophysics!

Students can join in the morning on Zoom from 9:30-10AM, or for the rest of the day through the new Brandeis science community Slack workspace to discuss their questions related to the majors with the UDRs! Email Lance Babcock (, Maggie Wang ( or the other science UDRs for the Zoom link and Slack workspace link.

Working towards diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences

Bulbul ChakrabortyBulbul Chakraborty
Enid and Nate Ancell Professor of Physics
Division Head, Sciences, School of Arts and Sciences

This blog is addressed to my colleagues in the division of science. 

As scientists, we pride ourselves on solving problems, often ones that lead to paradigm shifts.  A challenge that we have all grappled with is how to cultivate and nurture a truly diverse community of scientists.  How do we create an environment that is inclusive and accessible to all that seek to enter the sciences and experience the invigorating practice of  science that  we live and breathe?  How do we open our doors and not be gatekeepers? 

I am writing this blog because the many conversations that I have had over this summer has convinced me that this is the right time for a concerted effort to push towards our objectives. As scientists we know that half the battle is going to the core of a problem, and representing it in a way that tells us what actions to take.   What I have become aware of is  that the anecdotal evidence on who leaves the sciences is being made quantitative and rigorous.  Words are being put to our experiences and structures are being offered that we can use to take actions.  We have colleagues at Brandeis and in the broader community of science educators that have thought long and hard about how to bring about change in STEM education. We can all learn from them.  

I am urging all of you to share resources that you are aware of that will help us create actionable goals and structural changes.  Towards that, here is a link to an organization called “SEA CHANGE”, within the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:  In particular, they are hosting a series of Webinars under the banner “Talking about Leaving Revisited”:  that I have registered for and I encourage you to do so if you can.

I intend to make this a monthly blog that reflects my thoughts on diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences at Brandeis.

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