Student Research Results in Recent JIB Paper

Images from research paper from Pochapsky and Lovett labsBy Thomas Pochapsky, Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry

We don’t usually consider PineSol, Vick’s VapoRub and Lemon Pledge as food, but it is a good thing that some bacteria can.  The active components of those products are terpenes, small organic molecules that are produced by evergreens to repel insects, promote wound healing and prevent infection.  The bacteria that can use terpenes as food are a critical part of the forest ecosystem:  Without them, the soil would rapidly become saturated with toxic terpenes.  Members of the Pochapsky and Lovett laboratories in Chemistry and Biology are curious about what enzymes are involved in terpene metabolism.  In particular, why would one bacterial strain feast on a particular terpene (camphor, for example) while ignoring others?

The first step in terpene breakdown by bacteria is often the addition of an oxygen atom at a particular place in the terpene molecule, providing a “handle” for subsequent enzymes in the breakdown pathway.  The enzymes that catalyze these oxygenation reactions are called cytochromes P450.  P450 enzymes perform important reactions in humans, including steroid hormone biosynthesis and drug metabolism and activation.  Human P450s are targets for cancer chemotherapy and treatment of fungal infections.  A specific inhibitor of P450 is a component of the AIDS “cocktail” treatment, slowing the breakdown of the other cocktail components so the drugs do not have to be taken as often.

Despite the importance and wide scope of the P450 enzyme family, we don’t know much about how a particular P450 goes about choosing a molecule to work on (the substrate) or where it will put the oxygen (the product).  This is what the Brandeis labs are interested in finding out.  What particular sequence of amino acids gives rise to the substrate/product combination of a given P450? Answers to this question will aid in drug design and bio-engineering projects.

The project employs multiple scientific techniques in order to get at the answers to these questions, including bacterial genome sequencing, messenger RNA transcription, enzyme isolation, activity assays, mass spectrometry and enzyme structure determination.  As complicated as it sounds, though, the project lends itself nicely to undergraduate research:  Three of the authors on this paper are undergraduates, Phillix Esquea ‘18, Hannah Lloyd ’20 and Yihao Zhuang ’18.  Phillix was a Brandeis Science Posse recruit, and is now working with a Wall Street investment bank in NYC.  Yihao is enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Pharmacy, and Hannah Lloyd is still at Brandeis, continuing her work on the project.  Even high school students got in on the act:  Teddy Pochapsky and Jeffrey Matthews are both seniors at Malden Catholic High School, and collected soil samples used for isolation of terpene-eating bacterial strains.  (One of the newly isolated bacterial strains is named in their honor, Pseudomonas strain TPJM).

“A new approach to understanding structure-function relationships in cytochromes P450 by targeting terpene metabolism in the wild.” Nathan R.Wong, Xinyue Liu, Hannah Lloyd, Allison M. Colthart, Alexander E. Ferrazzoli, Deani L. Cooper, Yihao Zhuang, Phillix Esquea, Jeffrey Futcher, Theodore M. Pochapsky, Jeffrey M. Matthews, Thomas C. Pochapsky.  Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. Volume 188, November 2018, Pages 96-101.

How do batteries work?

How do batteries really work? A convincing simple yet quantitative answer to this question has remained elusive. Textbooks and on-line sources have provided only descriptions but not explanations of basic electrochemistry. All calculations in electrochemistry are based on measured voltages, not atomic or molecular properties. Made-up explanations of batteries in terms of different “electron affinities” of different metals are widely believed but easily disproved, e.g. by concentration cells using the same metal for both electrodes.

A paper in the Journal of Chemical Education by Klaus Schmidt-Rohr (Chemistry) explains how batteries store and release energy, in quite simple terms but based on quantitative data. In the classical Zn/Cu galvanic cell, it is the difference in the lattice cohesive energies of Zn and Cu metals, without and with d-electron bonding, respectively, that is released as electrical energy. Zinc is also the high-energy material in a 1.5-V alkaline household battery. In the lead–acid car battery, intriguingly the energy is stored in split water (two protons and an oxide ion). Atom transfer into or out of bulk metals or molecules plays as big a role as electron transfer in driving the processes in batteries.

How Batteries Store and Release Energy: Explaining Basic Electrochemistry, Klaus Schmidt-Rohr, Journal of Chemical Education, 2018, 95 (10), pp 1801–1810.

HSSP undergraduate receives Critical Language Scholarship

CLS logoRegina Tham’20 has been awarded a Critical Language Scholarship. She is among the approximately 200 Brandeis students and recent alumni to receive fellowships and scholarships this year. A pre-health student majoring in Health: Science, Society, and Policy, Regina also works in the Leslie Griffith lab and is a Teaching Assistant for General Chemistry Lab.  Regina will be using her scholarship to study Mandarin Chinese in an intensive language program this summer.




2018 Prizes and Awards Announced

Congratulations to all recipients of the 2018 prizes and awards for the Division of Science and the departments and programs within the Division.

Division of Science Prizes and Awards

  • Doris Brewer Cohen Award: Richard Haburcak (Math, Chemistry)
  • Rishon M. BIaler ’64 Memorial Prize: Abraham Cheloff (Biology, Neuroscience, Chemistry)
  • Schiff Memorial Award in Science: Meisui Liu (Biology) and Kathryn Shangraw (Biology)
  • Division of Science Prize for Outstanding Research Accomplishment: Heather Schiller (Biology, Neuroscience) and Jordan Saadon (Biology, Neuroscience)
  • Dr. Ralph Berenberg ’65 Prize (dentistry): Brandon Tran
  • Elihu A. Silver Prize (junior research): Julia Tartaglia (Biochemistry)
  • Steinberg Prize (Physical Science with interest in History): Mihir Khanna (Physics, Art History minor)

Biochemistry Prizes and Awards

  • Nathan O. Kaplan Prize in Biochemistry: Jessie Moore (Senior)
  • Professor Dagmar Ringe Biochemistry Award: Miriam Hood (Senior)
  • William P. Jencks Award in Biochemistry: Senmiao Sun (Senior)

Biology Prizes and Awards

  • Biology Department Award For Excellence in Research: Jason Xin
  • Chandler Fulton Prize for Undergraduate Research: Theresa Weis

Chemistry Prizes and Awards

  • Anatol Zhabotinsky Memorial Prize: Sumner Alperin-Lea
  • American Chemical Society Division of Physical Chemistry 2018 Undergraduate Award: Sumner Alperin-Lea
  • Chemistry Department Excellence Award: Samantha Shepherd
  • Melvin M. Snider Prize in Chemistry: Jamie Soohoo
  • American Chemical Society Division of Inorganic Chemistry 2018 Undergraduate Award: Elishua D. Litle
  • American Chemical Society Division of Organic Chemistry 2018 Undergraduate Award: Elishua D. Litle
  • Emily Dudek Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Award: Miriam Hood; Steven Wilhelm

Mathematics Prizes and Awards

  • Jerome Levine Thesis Prize (given annually to a graduate student in mathematics finishing with an outstanding PhD thesis): Yan Zhuang
  • Arnold Shapiro Prize in Mathematics (to a senior who has shown unusual talent and accomplishments in mathematical studies): Richard Haburcak

Neuroscience Prizes and Awards

  • Reis and Sowul Family Prize in Neuroscience: Amanda Shilton
  • John Lisman ’66 Memorial Award for Excellence in Neuroscience Research: Megan Leubner and Casey Lamar

Physics Prizes and Awards

  • Stephan Berko Memorial Prize (This endowed prize was established in 1991 by the family of the late Dr. Berko to annually recognize an outstanding student in Physics): Ali Aghvami (graduate); Carl Merrigan (graduate); Zachary Sustiel (undergraduate)
  • David L. Falkoff Prize (The Falkoff  Prize annually recognizes a graduate student in Physics who demonstrates excellence in teaching): Daichi Hayakawa
  • Physics Faculty Prize (Awarded to a graduating senior for excellence in Physics): Guillermo Narvaez Paliza; Liana Simpson



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.

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