Grants for undergraduate research in computational neuroscience

The Division of Science is pleased once again to announce the availability of Traineeships for Undergraduates in Computational Neuroscience through a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Traineeships will commence in summer 2021 and run through the academic year 2021-22.

From former trainee Dahlia Kushinksy’s first-author paper published in Journal of Experimental Biology, “In vivo effects of temperature on the heart and pyloric rhythms in the crab, Cancer borealis”

Please apply to the program by March 2, 2021 at 6 pm to be considered.


Traineeships in Computational Neuroscience are intended to provide intensive undergraduate training in computational neuroscience for students interested in eventually pursuing graduate research. The traineeships will provide approximately $5000 in stipend to support research in the summer, and $3000 each for fall and spring semesters during the academic year. Current Brandeis sophomores and juniors (classes of ’22, ’23) may apply. To be eligible to compete for this program, you must

  • have a GPA > 3.0 in Div. of Science courses
  • have a commitment from a professor to advise you on a research project related to computational neuroscience
  • have a course work plan to complete requirements for a major in the Division of Science
  • complete some additional requirements
  • intend to apply to grad school in a related field.

Interested students should apply online (Brandeis login required). Questions may be addressed to Steven Karel <divsci at> or to Prof. Paul Miller.

Turrigiano lab uncovers sources of neuronal heterogeneity

High activity neurons have greater instrinsic excitability and response to local inputs, but no difference in total input type or amount

Mammalian cortex has long been one of the most widely studied systems in neuroscience, dating back to the pioneering work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal in the late 19th century. The cortex is much larger in primates than other mammals, and is thought to be responsible for the advanced cognitive abilities of humans. Today, models of cortical connections and computations form the basis for some of the most powerful deep learning paradigms. However, despite this success, there is still much that is unknown about how cortex functions. One feature of cortex that has recently been discovered is that neurons that appear to be similar to each other can have very different baseline activity levels: some neurons are 100x more active than their neighbors. We don’t know how neurons that are otherwise highly similar in shape and genetic makeup can maintain such different activity levels, or if the neurons with high and low activity levels have different functions in the brain. These neurons are otherwise so similar to each other that it is difficult to tell them apart without recording their activity directly, and current techniques for recording the activity of many neurons simultaneously in live animals do not allow us to later re-identify them for further study.

In a paper recently published in Neuron, the Turrigiano lab, led by postdoctoral researcher Nick Trojanowski, reported a new approach for permanently labeling high and low activity neurons in live animals, and then determining what makes them different. To do this they used a fluorescent protein called CaMPARI2 that changes from green to red as activity increases, but only when exposed to UV light. By shining UV light into the brain, they caused neurons with high activity to turn red, while neurons with low activity remained green. This procedure allowed them to run a series of tests on high and low activity neurons to identify differences between them. They found that high activity neurons would intrinsically generate more activity than low activity neurons when presented with the same stimulus. These high activity neurons also receive more excitatory input specifically from nearby neurons of the same type. Surprisingly, however, they found that the total amount of excitatory and inhibitory input that high and low activity neurons received from other neurons was not a major factor in determining their activity levels. Together, these results tell us that the differences in activity between neurons are due to intrinsic differences, as well as their pattern of connectivity to their nearby partners. This has deep implications for how the networks that underlie cortical computations are built and maintained.

With these tools in hand, it is now possible to further explore the differences between high and low activity neurons. Do these neurons serve different functions? Are the baseline activity levels specified from birth? How do these activity levels affect the mechanisms of plasticity that are responsible for learning and memory? The recently published results represent just the tip of the iceberg of information that can be learned with this new technique, in the mammalian cortex as well as other brain regions.

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. 

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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