Keith Cheveralls ’09, Daniel Beller ’10, and Netta Engelhardt ’11 awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Former physics majors Keith Cheveralls ’09 and Daniel Beller ’10 and current physics major Netta Engelhardt ’11 have been awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The fellowship recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in the US who have demonstrated exceptional promise in science research. Keith is currently a first year graduate student at UC Berkeley; while at Brandeis he did his senior thesis with Professor Jane Kondev and was a co-author on a paper that appeared last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dan, a first year graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, completed his senior thesis at Brandeis with Professor Zvonimir Dogic and Professor Robert Meyer.  Currently, Dan is conducting research on liquid crystals in the group of Professor Randall Kamien at UPenn. Netta is currently doing her senior thesis with Professor Matthew Headrick, and is planning to attend graduate school in physics next year.

Sugars in Old and New Guises

Spontaneously formed sugar polymers have long been recognized as important components of soil (as humins) and cooked foods (as melanoidin products of non-enzymatic browning).  More recently, it has been suggested that they were also important in the advent of life on earth because they form micro-spherules that can encapsulate reactions, potentially acting as precursors of modern cells.  However, the molecular structures of these polymers has been difficult to determine because of their amorphous and insoluble nature.  All that was clear is that they contain aromatic rings that include oxygen (furans) and nitrogen (pyrroles). The further supposition was that these rings were directly linked in chains.  Now, using solid state NMR, Professor Judith Herzfeld, undergraduate Danielle Rand, graduate students Melody Mak-Jurkauskas and Irena Mamajanov, and postdoctoral research associates Yoh Matsuki and Eugenio Daviso, have shown that the polymer is much more complicated, with the aromatic rings cross-linked by variously dehydrated sugar molecules. Their paper, entitled “Molecular Structure of Humin and Melanoidin via Solid State NMR“, appeared online on April 1 in Journal of Physical Chemisty B.

Are You a Budding Entrepreneur? Find Out by Applying for a Seed Grant Now.

This semester, up to $50,000 in entrepreneurial research grants will be awarded to as many as four winning applicants. Undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty at Brandeis are eligible to apply. The seed grants will support research designed to step up the licensing and commercial potential of Brandeis technology. Projects may range from a new mobile app to initiating animal studies of a potential drug compound, to building a prototype of a microfluidics device, said Irene Abrams, Associate Provost for Innovation and Executive Director, Office of Technology Licensing.

The deadline for sprout grant preliminary proposals is April 13, 2011. Final applications are due April 29, 2011. Finalists will be invited to present to a panel of judges, made up of industry exerts, on May 5, 2011. For more information and application forms, email Irene Abrams at or contact OTL at (781) 736-2128, or visit the website at The office is located on the first floor of Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Center.

Information Sessions (along with application help) will be held April 8, 10 a.m., and April 12, 11a.m. in the fourth floor conference room of the Ros-Kos connector, which is located in the Science Complex between the Rosenstiel and Kosow buildings.

Earlier this month, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Marty Krauss introduced the Virtual Incubator as a “program to help foster entrepreneurial students and faculty in the sciences at Brandeis by providing mentorship, education and small seed grants to help them move inventions from the lab to the marketplace.”

Said Abrams, “the Virtual Incubator can become a community for science and business at Brandeis — an interdisciplinary center promoting commercial application of Brandeis science and technology.”

Susan Lindquist talks about prions on Apr 8

Susan Lindquist of the Whitehead Institute will speak about at Brandeis on April 8 at 11;30 am in Gerstenzang 121 in the Biochemistry/Biophysics Friday Pizza Talks series, by special invitation of the Biochemistry graduate students. Lindquist’s talk is entitled “25 New Prions: surprising biology, surprising biochemistry“. The Lindquist lab has made remarkable progress in understanding the role of protein folding, elucidating the role of heat shock proteins (molecular chaperones) and most recently in discovering new prions (proteins that can change into a self-perpetuating form) and suggesting new roles for prions in processes such as memory. Lindquist has received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science, Max Delbrück Medal, the Mendel Medal, and the Otto Warburg Prize.


NSF CAREER Award for Headrick

Assistant Professor of Physics Matthew Headrick has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation. Headrick’s project “CAREER: Holography, Quantum Information, and Elliptic Relativity” will fund his research exploring issues in string theory and classical and quantum gravity. The two projects address 1) study of the thermal and statistical physics of holographic systems, and quantum gravity more generally, through the lens of quantum information theory, and 2) continuing the development of practical, general methods for numerically solving the elliptic Einstein equation to find static, stationary, and Euclidean metrics for higher-dimensional black holes and compactification spaces. NSF grants require broader impact activites. Headrick will participate in TheoryNet, an NSF-funded program in which high-energy physicists visit high-school science classrooms, and will also work with the Brandeis Science Posse program.

Associate Professor Zvonimir Dogic, also in the Physics department, was a 2010 recipient of an NSF CAREER award.

Detecting Mutations the Easy Way

Recent Brandeis Ph.D graduate, Tracey Seier (Molecular and Cell Biology Program), Professor Sue Lovett, Research Assistant Vincent Sutera, together with former Brandeis undergraduates Noor Toha, Dana Padgett and Gal Zilberberg have developed a set of bacterial strains that can be used as “mutational reporters”.  Students in the Fall 2009 BIOL155a, Project Laboratory in Genetics and Genomics, course also assisted in the development of this resource. This work has recently been published in the journal Genetics.

These Escherichia coli strains carry mutations in the lacZ (β-galactosidase) gene that regain the ability to metabolize lactose by one, and only one, specific type of mutation. This set allows environmental compounds to be screened for effects on a broad set of potential mutations, establishing mutagen status and the mutational specificity in one easy step.

This strain set is improved over previous ones in the inclusion of reporters that are specific for certain types of mutations associated with mutational hotspots in gene. Mutations at these sites occur much more frequently than average and involve DNA strand misalignments at repeated DNA sequences rather than DNA polymerase errors. Such mutations are associated with human diseases, including cancer progression, and have been under-investigated because of the lack of specific assays. Using this strain set, Seier et al. also identified a mutagen, hydroxyurea, used in the treatment of leukemia and sickle cell disease, which affects only the “hotspot” class of mutations. This strain set, which will be deposited in the E. coli Genetic Stock Center,  will facilitate the screening of potential mutagens, environmental conditions or genetic loci for effects on a wide spectrum of mutational events.



Left: E. coli colonies showing lacZ mutant revertants (blue pimples) arising on a white colony on growth medium containing the beta-galactosidase indicator dye,  X-gal


Strage Award Goes to Douglas Theobald

Prof. Gregory Petsko writes:

It is with great pleasure that I announce the recipient of the 12th Annual Alberta Gotthardt and Henry Strage Award for Aspiring Young Science Faculty, Dr. Douglas Theobald of the Biochemistry Department.

Doug is one of Brandeis’ most accomplished young faculty members. Since his arrival at Brandeis, he has consistently demonstrated the ability to think deeply about some of the most fundamental problems in biology. His work on the resurrection of ancient proteins is among the most exciting research in the field of molecular evolution. Using what he terms “paleocrystallography” — in reality, a sort of Jurassic Park from ancestral molecules — he is aiming to visualize the structural changes that occur during the evolution of enzymes and protein complexes. With the high-resolution structures of reconstructed ancestral molecules, correlated with functional data from biochemical analyses, Doug will be able to test experimentally specific evolutionary hypotheses about protein evolution and gain an understanding of what functions can be rationally engineered. […] A theoretician who also has both feet firmly grounded in experiments, Doug is also a gited teacher.

The award ceremony and lecture will take place on Monday, April 11 at 1:00 pm in Gerstenzang 121. The title of Prof. Theobald’s lecture will be “Evolution of structure and function in biological macromolecules”

Mei Zeng Receives Genome Customization Award

Mei Zeng, a postdoc in Nelson Lau’s lab (Biology) has been selected to receive a postdoctoral fellowship award – the Genome Customization Award (TGCA) from Cellectis Bioresearch. The TGCA award was established by Cellectis Bioresearch in 2010 with the goal of spreading the use of meganucleases for genome customization throughout the life sciences

Meganucleases are endodeoxyribonucleases characterized by a large recognition site (12 to 40 base pairs) — so large that it  generally only occurs once in any given genome. The Lau group will apply the custom meganucleases to improve transgenesis of Xenopus tropicalis for RNA interference methodologies. The most widely used transgenesis method utilizes the yeast meganucleases I-SceI which cuts both the transgene vector and an unknown site in the genome into which the transgene gets integrated. This method has several limitations: it requires a large number of embryos for injection and screening,  the integration sites cut by I-Sce-I are unknown and likely stochastic, and it ultimately produces only 5-10% of germline transmission. The custom meganucleases engineered by Cellectis Bioresearch target a known single site (24bp) within the genome, allowing for increased specificity and efficiency of transgene intergration. Mei and colleagues hope to use the rational design to enforce the systemic constitutive expression of a short hairpin RNA cassette in a vertebrate model.

Marc Le Bozec, CEO of Cellectis Bioresearch, presented the award to Drs. Nelson Lau and Mei Zeng on March 16, 2011 at the grand opening of Cellectis Bioresearch Inc facilities in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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