Physics Graduate Student Receives Kavli Fellowship

Cesar Agon at Kavli Institute Cesar Agon, a graduate student in the High-Energy and Gravitational Theory group, was awarded a prestigious Graduate Fellowship at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. KITP is one of the world’s leading centers for research in all areas of theoretical physics. In addition to having its own faculty and postdocs, it hosts visiting faculty from around the world and holds conferences and semester-long programs on topics of current interest. The Graduate Fellowship program allows exceptional students to benefit from this activity and the scientific ambience of KITP by spending a semester there. This is a very competitive program, with only about half a dozen students coming from around the world each semester. Agon, who is advised by Profs. Matthew Headrick, Albion Lawrence, and Howard Schnitzer, is currently spending the spring term at KITP, before heading off to Stony Brook University as a postdoc in the fall.

Back in the summer of 2015, Agon had the opportunity to visit KITP during two important programs on the physics frontiers, both of special interest to him, namely ”Entanglement in Strongly-Correlated Quantum Matter” and ”Quantum Gravity Foundations: UV to IR”. That was a great opportunity to meet in person the leaders of the field from around the world in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the KITP. Discussions among the researchers and students were tremendously common all around the institute and there were many activities that facilitated such discussions such as daily coffees, lunches, and dinners.

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From PhD to Life

By Craig W. Stropkay, (PhD ’13, Molecular and Cell Biology, Ren lab)

Reach for the stars, they said. You should definitely go get your PhD, you’d be great for it, they said. Well, I guess they did have a point. Pursuing my doctorate degree in Molecular Biology at Brandeis was definitely one of the most challenging things that I have ever had to do in my life. I could spend hours telling you about the long hours I spent trying to construct my dissertation or the countless nights that I had to wake up and drive into the lab from Medford just to “feed” my cells — but that’s not the point of this article. I want to talk about something that I wish was more openly discussed when I first started my journey towards pursuing a PhD. Something that I believe is important to anyone who is currently working their way towards earning their doctoral degree: a job.

Now I know what you may be thinking: why would I need to worry about a job when I know I will continue onto a postdoc and then a tenure-track academic post? Isn’t that what everyone does? That is precisely my point. Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely nothing wrong with continuing a career in academia upon completion of your doctorate. It takes a lot of patience, skill, and dedication to remain in the field after you have literally spent years becoming an expert in everything dealing with Life Science. Maybe you’ve considered going that route, feeling that your choices are limited. Many people believe that apart from academia, their only “alternative” option is to go into industry and work in biotech or pharma.

Image from Naturejobs article

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The Benefits of Middle Age

Almost all our cells harbor a sensory organelle called the primary cilium, homologous to the better known flagella found in protists. Some of these cilia can beat and allow the cell to move (eg. in sperm), or move fluid (eg. cerebrospinal fluid) around them. However, other specialized cilia such as those found in photoreceptor cells and in our olfactory neurons function solely as sensory organelles, providing the primary site for signal reception and transduction. The vast majority of our somatic cells display a short and simple rod-like cilium that plays crucial roles during development and in adulthood. For instance, during development, they are essential for transducing critical secreted developmental signals such as Sonic hedgehog that is required for the elaboration of cell types in almost every tissue (eg. in brain, bones, muscles, skin). In adults, cilia are required for normal functioning of our kidneys, and primary cilia in hypothalamic neurons have been shown to regulate hunger and satiety.

Given their importance, it is not surprising that defects in cilia structure and function lead to a whole host of diseases ranging from severe developmental disorders and embryonic lethality to hydrocephalus (fluid accumulation in the brain), infertility, obesity, blindness, and polycystic kidney among others. Often these diseases manifest early in development resulting in prenatal death or severe disability, but milder ciliary dysfunction leads to disease phenotypes later in life.

Much is now known about how cilia are formed and how they function during development. However, surprisingly, how aging affects cilia, and possibly the severity of cilia-related diseases, is not well studied. A new study by postdocs Astrid Cornils and Ashish Maurya, and graduate student Lauren Tereshko from Piali Sengupta’s laboratory, and collaborators at University College Dublin and University of Iowa, begins to address this question using the microscopic roundworm C. elegans (pictured below). These worms display cilia on a set of sensory neurons; these cilia are built by mechanisms that are similar to those in other animals including in humans. Worms have a life span of about 2-3 weeks, thereby making the study of how aging affects cilia function quite feasible.


They find that cilia structure is somewhat altered in extreme old age in control animals. However, unexpectedly, when they looked at animals carrying mutations that lead to human ciliary diseases, the severely defective cilia seen in larvae and young adults displayed a partial but significant recovery during middle-age, a period associated with declining reproductive function. They went on to show that the heat-shock response and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, two major pathways required for alleviating protein misfolding stress in aging and neurodegenerative diseases, are essential for this age-dependent cilia recovery in mutant animals. This restoration of cilia function is transient; cilia structure becomes defective again in extreme old age. These results suggest that increased function of protein quality control mechanisms during middle age can transiently suppress the effects of some mutations in cilia genes, and raise the possibility that these findings may help guide the design of therapeutic strategies to target specific ciliary diseases. Some things can improve with aging!

Introduction to Microfluidics Technology – June 13-17, 2016

2016 MRSEC Summer Course Announcement

Registration for our annual, one-week summer course, “Introduction to Microfluidics Technology” at Brandeis University, near Boston, MA, is now open. The application deadline is March 31, 2016.

Introduction to Microfluidics Technology is a hands-on laboratory course sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Bioinspired Soft Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at Brandeis. It will be offered during the week of June 13 ‐ 17, 2016. The course is intended for graduate students, post docs, faculty, and industrial scientists/engineers interested in utilizing microfluidic technology in their work, both in the physical and life sciences. The course does not assume any specific prerequisites.

“Introduction to Microfluidics Technology” (June 13 – 17, 2016)
will be taught by Dr. Nathan Tompkins.

The $750 fee covers course tuition, housing in double-occupancy rooms, and breakfast/lunch/coffee from Monday through Friday. Single rooms are not available. Local students who do not need housing will pay a non-resident fee of $500 (cash and check only please).

More information is available.

Gio Biosco (P’98) gets NIH Pioneer Award

Molecular and Cell Biology alum Giovanni Bosco Giovanni Bosco Ph.D. ’98, currently Associate Professor of Genetics at Dartmouth, recently received a Pioneer Award from the NIH.

Gio Bosco is a die-hard chromatin regulation guy who became interested in whether long-term changes in DNA structure are involved in long-term behavioral plasticity. Gio did his PhD work in Jim Haber’s lab and provided some of the earliest and strongest evidence for a critical DNA repair mechanism called break-induced replication, which plays an essential role in maintaining the integrity of chromosome ends when the normal end-addition of DNA by telomerase is absent.

In his postdoctoral work, Giovanni turned from using yeast as a model system to Drosophila.  In the lab of Terry Orr-Weaver at MIT he focused his attention on the role of DNA replication in regulating gene amplifications and became interested in the importance of post-translational modifications (acetylations and phosphorylations) of the histone proteins that wrap the DNA into chromatin.

Approximately 7 years ago Gio started contemplating the question of how these post-translational histone modifications change during behavior and learning. He returned to his Brandeis roots to develop tools and approaches to address this problem. He received an NIH K18 grant to fund a sabbatical in Leslie Griffith’s lab in 2010. He and his behavior group have remained connected to Brandeis since then through frequent joint group meeting visits.

We’ll be interested to hear more about the role of histone modifications in how learning and memory occurs in the context of social behavior, and in how social behavior can be inherited through multiple generations, as the result of the Bosco lab research funded by this award.


Putting “umpolung” to work in synthesis of nitrogen-bearing stereocenters

Professor Li Deng‘s lab in the Brandeis Chemistry Department has recently published a high-profile paper in Nature, disclosing an important advance in the chemical synthesis of organic molecules containing nitrogen. Li Deng writeup 1

A great number of important drugs contain at least one nitrogen atom connected to a “stereogenic” carbon atom. Stereogenic carbons are connected to four different groups, making possible two different configurations called “R-” or “S-”. In synthesizing a drug, it can be disastrous if the product does not have the correct R/S configuration.  For instance, the morning-sickness drug Thalidomide caused birth defects in ~10,000 children because it was a mixture of R and S molecules.Li Deng writeup 2

Selective preparation of only R or only S molecules containing nitrogen is a major challenge in organic chemistry. Many recent approaches have formed such stereocenters by use of an electron rich “nucleophile” to attack an electron poor “imine”. Deng is now the first to report an unconventional strategy in which the polarity of the reaction partners is reversed. In the presence of base and a creatively designed catalyst, the imine is converted into an electron rich nucleophile, and can attack a variety of electrophiles. Deng’s catalysts are effective in minute quantities (as low as 0.01 % of the reaction mixture), and yield products with R- or S- purities of 95-98 %.

In addition to Professor Deng, authors on the paper included former graduate student Yongwei Wu PhD ’14, current Chemistry PhD student Zhe Li, and Chemistry postdoctoral associate Lin Hu.

Wu Y, Hu L, Li Z, Deng L. Catalytic asymmetric umpolung reactions of imines. Nature. 2015;523(7561):445-50. (commentary)

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