First Rosbash-Abovich Award Recipients Announced

Michael Rosbash, the Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience and Professor of Biology and his wife, Nadja Abovich, established the Rosbash-Abovich Award as a way to inspire and acknowledge excellence in research by post-doctoral fellows and graduate students in the Brandeis life sciences. The Rosbash-Abovich award will be awarded annually.

The award honors the most outstanding papers published the previous year that have been authored by a Brandeis postdoctoral fellow and a Brandeis PhD student. In addition to the honor being selected, each winner is presented with a monetary award.

Future winners will present their talks at upcoming Volen Scientific Retreats, but due to COVID restrictions, the 2020 winners will be presenting their talks during the Molecular Genetics Journal Club meetings.

Most outstanding paper by a post-doctoral fellow

Michael O'Donnell

Michael O’Donnell, PhD

The 2020 winner for the most outstanding post-doctoral paper is Michael O’Donnell for the publication titled “A neurotransmitter produced by gut bacteria modulates host sensory behavior“. O’Donnell, is a former postdoc in the Piali Sengupta Lab. Sengupta said

Mike is a remarkable scientist and mentor. He single-handedly and independently established a new research direction in my lab. He also served as an informal mentor to many graduate students and has continued to do so even after he left my lab. I greatly appreciated our long discussions and arguments, and he is very much missed.

Sengupta also noted that O’Donnell was chosen to receive this award

on the basis of the creativity and novelty of his work that was published in Nature. The committee was particularly interested in nominating a researcher who was a driving force behind the work and Mike certainly fulfilled this criteria.

O’Donnell is now an assistant professor at Yale and recently formed the O’Donnell lab. He presented his talk to the Molecular Genetics Journal Club on December 2, 2020. He spoke about his work on neuromodulators produced by different bacteria.

Most outstanding paper by a PhD student

James Haber & Gonen Memisoglu

Professor James Haber & Gonen Memisoglu, PhD

The recipient of the 2020 award for the most outstanding PhD student paper is Gonen Memisoglu for the publication “Mec1 ATR Autophosphorylation and Ddc2 ATRIP Phosphorylation Regulates DNA Damage Checkpoint Signaling.“ She was a PhD student in James Haber’s lab. She received her PhD in 2018 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. She will be presenting her talk at the Molecular Genetics Journal Club on February 2, 2021.

When asked about his former PhD student, Haber said

I was delighted to learn that Gonen was the recipient of the Rosbash/Abovich award for the best publication by a graduate student last year; but I had to ask “which paper” because Gonen made two important discoveries last year about the way cells respond to DNA damage. Gonen helped develop a highly efficient way to edit the yeast genome and to create dozens of very precise mutations in the Mec1 gene that is the master regulator of the DNA damage response.  When there is a chromosome break, the Mec1 protein phosphorylates a number of proteins that creates a cascade of signaling to prevent cells from progressing through mitosis until damage is repaired. Gonen discovered that the extinction of the this signal depended on Mec1’s autophosphorylation of one specific target and that changing that specific amino acid to one that could not be phosphorylated was enough to cause cells to remain arrested. She also identified several alterations of the Ddc2 protein that associates with Mec1 that were also critical for its normal activation.

During her time in my lab Gonen was a super hard-working and exceptionally insightful grad student, but also incredibly generous with her time, helping others in the lab

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.

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