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

Rodal lab find surprising new link between inflammation and Lowe Syndrome

Could a disease with symptoms in the brain, eyes, and kidneys actually be caused by problems with immune cells? A team of scientists from the Rodal Lab, co-first authored by Steven Del Signore and Sarah Biber and including three Brandeis undergraduates (Katy Lehmann ‘16, Stephanie Heimler ‘17, and Ben Rosenfeld ’18), think this just might be the case with Lowe Syndrome, in a new paper published Oct 13th in PLOS Genetics.

Patients with Lowe Syndrome suffer from kidney failure, congenital cataracts, and several neurological problems including intellectual disability and seizures. Scientists have known for some time that the disease is caused by mutations in a gene called OCRL, but remain unsure how its loss causes such a diverse array of symptoms. A big problem has been that OCRL appears to do many different jobs inside cells, including controlling how they divide, how they sense their surroundings, and how they store and transport materials inside small packages called endosomes.

Fly immune cells showing the tracks of moving endosomes. Single tracks represent the path of individual endosomes over time.

To try to solve this mystery, a team of researchers from the Rodal lab used the fruit fly, which has its own version of the OCRL gene and allowed the investigators to perform powerful genetic experiments to figure out precisely what OCRL is doing, and where. To do this, the group created a fly missing its OCRL gene. They were surprised to find that, rather than eye or neurological defects, loss of OCRL hyper-activated cells of the innate immune system. The innate immune system is the first line of defense against infection in humans (and the only defense in fruit flies), when cells release inflammatory signals that mobilize specialized cells to attack invading pathogens.

The team determined that OCRL is required in one of these specialized immune cells in the fly, and that the immune-cell activation was caused by problems in a particular step of intracellular transport. Every cell of the body has its own postal service, which is used to pack and ship signals that tell the cell or its neighbors to grow, divide, or jump into action (see movie here to watch endosomes moving inside living fly immune cells). The OCRL mutant immune cells had a problem in a key step that controls whether signals get thrown in the trash or shipped outside the cell, and this caused the immune activation.

How do these findings relate to Lowe Syndrome? The authors think these results suggest a possible cause for the seizures that patients experience. When similar immune-like cells in the brain release excessive inflammatory signals, it can cause several forms of epilepsy. Further, OCRL has been linked to at least one mouse model of epilepsy. Going forward, the researchers will try to identify which immune signals are responsible, and how these findings translate to human cells.

Del Signore SJ (*), Biber SA (*), Lehmann KS, Heimler SR, Rosenfeld BH, Eskin TL, Sweeney ST, Rodal AA. dOCRL maintains immune cell quiescence by regulating endosomal traffic. Plos Genet. 2017;13(10):e1007052.



Searches for Tenure-Track Faculty in the Sciences, 2017

Brandeis has six open searches for tenure-track faculty in the Division of Science this fall, with the intent to strengthen cross-disciplinary studies across the sciences. We are looking forward to a busy season of intriguing seminars from candidates this winter.

  1. Assistant Professor of Biochemistry. Biochemistry is looking for a creative scientist to establish an independent research program addressing fundamental questions of biological, biochemical, or biophysical mechanism, and who will maintain a strong interest in teaching Biochemistry.
  2. Assistant Professor of Chemistry. Chemistry seeks a creative individual at the assistant professor level for a tenure-track faculty position in physical (especially theoretical/computational) chemistry, materials chemistry, or chemical biology.
  3. Assistant Professor of Computer Science. Computer Science invites applications for a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor, beginning Fall 2018, in the broad area of Machine Learning and Data Science, including but not limited to deep learning, statistical learning, large scale and cloud-based systems for data science, biologically inspired learning systems, and applications of analytics to real-world problems.
  4. Assistant Professor in Soft Matter or Biological Physics. Physics invites applications for the position of tenure-track Assistant Professor beginning in the fall of 2018 in the interdisciplinary areas of biophysics, soft condensed matter physics and biologically inspired material science.
  5. Assistant Professor or Associate Professor in Psychology. Psychology invites applications for a tenure track appointment at the rank of Assistant or Associate Professor, with a specialization in Aging, to start August 2018. They seek an individual with an active human research program in any aspect of aging, including cognitive, social, clinical and health psychology.
  6. Tenure Track Assistant Professor in Applied MathematicsMathematics invites applications for a tenure-track position in applied mathematics at the rank of assistant professor beginning fall 2018. An ideal candidate will be expected to help to build an applied mathematics program within the department, and to interact with other science faculty at Brandeis. Candidates from all areas of applied mathematics will be considered.

Brandeis University is an equal opportunity employer, committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community, and strongly encourages applications from women and minorities.  Diversity in its student body, staff and faculty is important to Brandeis’ primary mission of providing a quality education.  The search committees are therefore particularly interested in candidates who, through their creative endeavors, teaching and/or service experiences, will increase Brandeis’ reputation for academic excellence and better prepare its students for a pluralistic society.

2nd Boston Symposium of Encoded Library Platforms was held Aug. 4

BSELP imageThe Brandeis Chemistry Department, together with GlaxoSmithKline and Pharmaron, is hosting the 2nd Boston Symposium of Encoded Library Platforms on August 4th in the Shapiro Theater. This symposium will feature 8 speakers from industry and academic labs, covering the newest developments in the technology of encoded small molecule libraries and related topics.

For several decades, major efforts have gone into discovering drug leads by high-throughput screening, in which “libraries” of thousands to millions of random compounds are tested in a highly repetitive fashion for biological activity, such as the ability to inhibit an enzyme. A new and elegant alternative to this process is the use of encoded libraries, in which each random molecule within the library bears a “tag” of DNA with a unique sequence. Libraries containing hundreds of millions of DNA-tagged compounds can be incubated with a target protein in a single tube, and those which bind to the target can be identified by high-throughput sequencing of the DNA barcodes in the protein-bound fraction. This approach has gained great popularity in the last few years, and is just this week the cover story of Chemical & Engineering News.

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