Piasta Receives the Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching

Kene PiastaKene Piasta, Assistant Professor of Biology, has been presented the 2023 Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching. This prestigious award is given each year to a faculty member of any rank that exhibits outstanding teaching skills. Piasta was selected by Dorothy Hodgson, the Dean of Arts and Sciences based upon recommendations from a faculty committee (including previous prize recipients) and input from the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Decisions are based on student nominations, teaching evaluations, Faculty Activity Reports and CVs.

Liz Hedstrom, Professor of Biology and Chemistry and Biology Department Chair, said “Kene is a remarkable educator and an exceptionally worthy recipient of the LDB Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Kene has a gift for making dry subjects like statistics engaging without losing rigor and he somehow manages to create personal interactions in the largest introductory courses.  We are very lucky to have him at Brandeis.”

Piasta received his PhD in Biochemistry from Brandeis University in 2011.

Congratulations, Kene!

Eva Silverstein is 2023 Eisenbud Lectures speaker

Eisenbud poster The Mathematics department is pleased to announce that this year’s speaker for the Eisenbud Lectures in Mathematics and Physics is Eva Silverstein of Stanford University. The lectures will take place at Brandeis University from March 28th – March 30th. The Eisenbud Lectures are the result of a generous donation by Leonard and Ruth-Jean Eisenbud intended for a yearly set of lectures by an eminent physicist or mathematician working close to the interface of the two subjects.

Professor Silverstein is an eminent theoretical physicist who has done creative, pioneering and influential work in string theory, quantum field theory, and both conceptual and observational aspects of cosmology. She was a Sloan Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow; she is currently a Simons investigator; a fellow of the American Physics Society; and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science.

Silverstein is a fascinating speaker, and these lectures promise to be enlightening and entertaining in equal measure. Here’s the lecture schedule (refreshments will be available before each talk):

  • Tuesday, March 28th at 4pm in Abelson 131: “The accelerating universe and rigid Einstein manifolds”.  For Zoom link, please contact Catherine Broderick.
  • Wednesday, March 29th at 11am in Abelson 333: “The accelerating universe and integrable deformations of quantum field theories”
  • Thursday, March 30th at 10am in Abelson 333: “Optimization and sampling from energy-conserving Hamiltonian dynamical systems”

There will be a reception held on campus at Feldberg Lounge in the Hassenfeld Building after the first colloquium on Tuesday, March 28th.  All are invited to attend.

Prof. Albion Lawrence and Prof. Bong Lian are hosting the 2023 lecture series.

Albion Lawrence receives 3-year funding from NASA’s Physical Oceanography program

Albion Lawrence

The ocean is a highly complex, multiscale system, with many types of motions occurring simultaneously. Ocean turbulence between 1km and hundreds of kilometers (the *submesoscale* and *mesoscale*) contains about 90% of the kinetic energy of the ocean, and is crucial for understanding the vertical and horizontal transport of heat, salt, carbon, and microorgamisms; and for understanding the coupling between the ocean and atmosphere. At these scales, internal waves driven by tides and wind also propagate through the ocean and play an important role in mixing such quantities. Characterizing and disentangling these different classes dynamics, and understanding how they interact, is a central problem in physical oceanography. This has become particularly salient with the December 2022 launch of the Surface Water and OceanTopography (SWOT) satellite, which will observe the ocean from space with unprecedented resolution.

Typical studies focus on the kinetic energy as a function of physical scale, (the “power spectrum”), to characterize ocean turbulence. However, this is a fairly blunt instrument and requires more precision than is available. Thus, Joern Callies, Assistant Professor for Environmental Science and Engineering at Caltech and Albion Lawrence, Professor of Physics, intend to use high-order statistical tests, inspired by tools used by observational cosmologists, quantum field theorists, and statistical physicists, to study mesoscale and submesoscale ocean dynamics using satellite observations, direct measurements made in the ocean, and numerical modeling. Their proposal, “Higher-order statistics of geostrophic turbulence and internal waves”, for which Professor Lawrence is the PI and Professor Callies is the Co-PI, was just selected for funding by the Physical Oceanography program at NASA. It was one of nine proposals selected out of 40 in 2022.

Professor Lawrence has been a theoretical high energy physicist for over thirty years, and has only recently begun working in climate-related physics problems. He just co-wrote two papers (arxiv.org, arxiv.org) on black holes and quantum gravity. To further help his move into this new field, he was also awarded a Simons Foundation Pivot Fellowship to spend the 2023-24 academic year embedded in Professor Callies’ group at Caltech. Brandeis’ collegial and interdisciplinary environment had a lot to do with the success and fun Professor Lawrence has had to date. This direction of his research was spurred by his involvement in a large multi-department NSF IGERT grant in “Geometry and Dynamics” that ran from 2011-2018; and got a very important boost from a Provost’s Innovation on “Nonequilbrium Statistical Mechanics of the Ocean and Atmosphere” that Lawrence received in 2019.

Han receives DoD award to purchase X-ray diffraction instrument

Congratulations to Grace Han, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Landsman Career Development Chair in the Sciences. She has been awarded funds from the Department of Defense to purchase a bench-top X-ray diffraction instrument. This award is part of the DoD’s Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP) that will provide $59 million in FY 2023 to purchase research equipment at 77 institutions across 30 states.

Changes in the properties of organic materials undergoing transition between solid and liquid phases are employed in a variety of applications, including thermal energy storage, cooling, and actuation. The ability to regulate such phase transitions by light opens up new opportunities to achieve functions with a high spatial precision, triggered by the rapid, remotely applied, and non-invasive stimulus. This capability enables novel applications including photo-controlled heat storage, adhesion, actuation, and catalyst recovery, which the Han group investigates.

The DURIP award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Department of Defense (DoD) will enable the Han team to build a new research capability on campus. A non-ambient, benchtop X-ray diffractometer, equipped with light sources and a heating/cooling stage, will allow the group to study how molecules change their geometry and intermolecular interaction in response to irradiation and temperature change. This will yield a deep understanding of photoswitch designs that undergo facile structural changes in solid phase, assisting the discovery and development of light-responsive functional materials.

Math Receives Gift for Berger-Leighton Endowed Professorship

Bonnie Berger

The entire Mathematics Department at Brandeis feels grateful and deeply honored by the recent gift by Bonnie Berger ’83, a former Brandeis trustee and the Simons Professor of Mathematics at MIT, and her husband, Dr. Tom Leighton, Professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT and CEO and cofounder of Akamai Technologies. This gift is very timely for the Mathematics department, as they are experiencing a generational transition, and look to attract a new generation of scholars that will help shape the direction and reputation of the department for the next decades.

The Brandeis Mathematics Department has an illustrious history, and many prominent mathematicians have flourished at Brandeis. The Berger-Leighton Endowed Professorship will be a crucial tool to renew this tradition of excellence. They will aim at hiring new faculty of the highest caliber, which will serve as anchors for future research groups within the department and beyond.

Brandeis prides itself in having a faculty body that both radiates internationally and takes good care of its students internally. The Mathematics department is a prime example of this aspiration, and they are excited that the Berger-Leighton Endowed Professorship will help them achieve this vision. The first recipient of the Endowed Professorship will be hired this year. The department has an abundance of exceptional candidates. They are looking forward to welcoming a new colleague soon, and helping them bloom and become an influential mathematician.

Additional information: Brandeis Alumni, Friends and Families

Natasha Baas-Thomas & Don Katz Receive 2022 Gilliam Fellowship

Natasha Baas-Thomas and her thesis adviser, Donald Katz, Professor of Neuroscience have received the 2022 HHMI Gilliam Fellowship. The Gilliam Fellowship is awarded to both the graduate student and the student’s adviser with each pair receiving an annual award of $53,000 for up to three years.

The Gilliam Program goal is to assist graduate students from populations historically excluded and underrepresented in science. Recipients are chosen based upon their scientific and leadership potential, the quality of and commitment to mentorship and to the development of a more inclusive environment in the sciences.

Natasha noted “I am honored to be selected as a 2022 Gilliam Fellow. I hope to use the award to advance my leadership abilities as I work towards a professorship position. I am also excited by the mentorship focus of this award, which I can implement to improve diversity and inclusivity at Brandeis.”

Donald Katz said “I’m thrilled that the HHMI has recognized Natasha to be both a stellar scientist and a vital force for change in the field — a future leader. And I’m excited to learn from the expert mentorship training team that HHMI has put together. The Gilliam program is quite unlike anything that has come before, in the multi-pronged approach that it takes to promoting diversity and opportunity in science.”

When discussing her research plans, Natasha said “during my PhD in the Katz lab, I will be studying the gustatory system in rats. Specifically, I will be investigating the signal sent from the gustatory cortex to the motor circuit. Focusing on how the gustatory cortex guides the decision to either consume or expel a taste stimulus.”


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