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.

Ben Rogers Receives Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research

Ben Rogers

photo: Mike Lovett

Assistant Professor of Physics, Ben Rogers, was chosen to receive the Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research. This award, which is designed to launch the careers of newly independent biomedical researchers, is one of six given this year by the Smith Family Foundation. It will provide the Rogers Lab with $300,000 over three years to initiate a new direction in RNA structure and interactions.

RNA molecules are vital regulators of cell biology and their three-dimensional structures are essential to how they work. Thus having the ability to intentionally interfere with the structure of RNAs could hold immense potential for the study of their function, as well as the development of molecular medicine and other biotechnological applications. One way to do this is to bind short sequences of synthetic nucleic acids, called oligonucleotides, to specific sites on the RNA molecule. But designing oligonucleotides that bind rapidly and with high affinity to a RNA target remains a challenge. The Rogers Lab will use a combination of in vitro experiments and statistical mechanics to understand and design synthetic oligonucleotides that bind to RNA molecules in a prescriptive fashion. This work will complement existing research within the Rogers Lab, which explores the use of RNA’s chemical cousin, DNA, as a tool to study and build new kinds of materials.

Ben joined the Martin A. Fisher School of Physics at Brandeis University as an Assistant Professor in January 2016. Before coming to Brandeis, Ben was a postdoctoral fellow in the Manoharan Lab within the Department of Physics at Harvard University, where he studied assembly and optical properties of colloidal suspensions. He received his Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. At Penn, Ben used optical tweezers to study single-molecule binding. His research program combines expertise in biomolecular engineering, applied optics, and condensed matter physics to study interactions and self-organization at the molecular and mesoscales.

Breaking the barriers to manufacture thermoplastic microfluidics!

themoplastic microfluidics figure

Thermoplastics, such as Cyclin Olefin Copolymer, are used in commercial applications of microfluidics because they are biocompatible, have good material properties such as optical clarity, low fluorescence, high toughness and are cheap to mass produce. However, there are challenges for academic labs to make thermoplastic microfluidics devices. Fabricating molds for thermoplastics is expensive and other process steps, such as sealing the chip and interfacing the chip to the lab are difficult. In a recent publication, the Fraden lab described an inexpensive method for rapid prototyping of thermoplastic microfluidics suitable for academic labs for applications such as x-ray diffraction of protein crystals produced on the same chip in which they were crystallized, or for labs seeking to manufacture a thermoplastic prototype of a microfluidic device in order to demonstrate the potential for mass production. This process will facilitate the transfer of University developed microfluidics to commercialization.

Rapid prototyping of cyclic olefin copolymer (COC) microfluidic devices. S. Ali Aghvami, Achini Opathalage, Z.K. Zhang, Markus Ludwig, Michael Heymann, Michael Norton, Niya Wilkins, Seth Fraden. Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical. Volume 247, August 2017, Pages 940-949.

 

Eisenbud Lectures in Mathematics and Physics set for November 27-29, 2017

The Departments of Physics and Mathematics at Brandeis University are incredibly excited to announce that this year’s Eisenbud Lectures in Mathematics and Physics will be given Prof. James P. Sethna, a theoretical physicist whose work has often carved out new directions in condensed matter physics, in its broadest interpretation.

The Eisenbud Lectures are the result of a bequest by Leonard and Ruth-Jean Eisenbud, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of Leonard Eisenbud’s birth. Leonard Eisenbud was a mathematical physicist at SUNY-Stony Brook; upon his retirement he moved to the Boston area, as his son David was a member of the Mathematics faculty at Brandeis, and was given a desk here. The bequest is for an annual lecture series by physicists and mathematicians working on the boundary between the first two fields.

Prof. Sethna has tackled traditional and highly non-traditional topics in Physics. The title of one of his recent talks is “The Statistical Mechanics of Zombies”!. “Mosh Pit Dynamics at Heavy Metal Concerts” is another example where Jim uses the tools of statistical mechanics to understand a social phenomenon. Jim is a fascinating speaker, and these lectures promise to be enlightening and entertaining in equal measure. His playful enthusiasm for science is certain to draw you in. So, try not to miss this year’s series of three Eisenbud Lectures.

The first lecture on Monday, November 27 will be on “Sloppy models, Differential geometry, and How Science Works”, and is intended for a general science audience. This lecture will be held in Gerstenzang 121 at 4 PM. The second lecture on Tuesday, November 28 will be a colloquium-style lecture entitled “Crackling Noise” and will take place in Abelson 131 at 4 PM. The final lecture, “Normal form for renormalization groups: The framework for the logs” will be delivered at 10 AM on Wednesday, November 29 in Abelson 333.

Refreshments will be served 15 minutes prior to each talk. There will be a reception in Abelson 333 following Tuesday’s talk.

Additional information is available on the lecture’s website.

We hope to see you all at what promises to be an exciting series of talks!

Ivanovic Receives 2017 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

photo: Mike Lovett

Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Tijana Ivanovic has received a 2017 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. This award is part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, designed to fund early career investigators who propose innovative and potentially transformative projects. Ivanovic will receive $1,500,000 in direct costs over five years to spearhead a research program aimed at comprehensively characterizing molecular changes in the viral cell-entry protein hemagglutinin (HA) that define pandemic influenza viruses. With the generated insights, Ivanovic hopes to ultimately be in a position to predict the pandemic potential of influenza viruses circulating in nature.

HA densely covers the influenza virion surface, where it allows the virus to both recognize and penetrate (fuse with) the cells of its host. HA is also a key target of neutralizing antibodies that protect us from influenza infection. An influenza pandemic is characterized by the adaptation of a new HA subtype to cell entry into human cells (of what was originally an avian virus). Without the pre-existing immunity to protect us, the virus quickly spreads around the globe. During pandemic adaptation, both HA functions in target-cell recognition and membrane fusion undergo key molecular changes. Ivanovic will use a custom-built Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence Microscope (TIRFM) to visualize, in real time, individual virus particles as they engage and fuse with target cell membranes. This system will allow her to obtain large-scale quantitative information about distinct HA functions at an unprecedented level of detail. She will compare avian viruses with their evolutionary offspring that infected humans, including past pandemic strains. She hopes to develop models for predicting which viruses will lead to a major flu outbreak.

Ivanovic obtained a PhD in virology from Harvard University and carried out postdoctoral research with Stephen Harrison in molecular biophysics. She integrates these diverse backgrounds in her laboratory, where members are trained across these two and other synergistic areas (such as laser microscope optics, and analytical and computational modeling). The funds from the New Innovator award have created new opportunities for hiring, and the lab is actively recruiting postdocs, PhD students (from the Biochemistry and Biophysics, Molecular and Cell Biology, and Physics graduate programs) and undergraduate researchers to undertake this ambitious program.

Stanley Deser’s Influence on the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics

Written by Albion Lawrence

Deser, Arnowitt, & Miser

Bornholm 1959
From the left, Richard Arnowitt, Charles Misner and Stanley Deser

Today’s Physics Nobel Prize to Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for the detection by the LIGO experiment of gravitational waves is a well-deserved recognition of a remarkable achievement through perseverance. However, it is the nature of prizes such as the Nobel that they obscure the important efforts and insights of many scientists across space and time that lead to the result in question.

Stanley DeserThe extraction of a gravitational wave signal from the output of the LIGO detector requires understanding in advance what signals can be produced; these are based on numerical simulations of astrophysical events which provide templates that a signal must match.

This is possible due to the seminal work of Brandeis emeritus faculty Stanley Deser, with his colleagues Richard Arnowitt and Charles Misner, who developed the mathematical framework known as the ADM formalism, to treat general relativity as a Hamiltonian system; with this, the evolution in time of the gravitational field can be computed from initial conditions.

In addition, Stanley was instrumental in the LIGO experiment being funded in the first place. The story is best told by him in his inimitable style (here quoted from an email, and lightly expurgated):

“Marcel Bardon, then [director] of NSF physics, made me an offer I’d better not refuse. I was nominated to some advisory committee in order to plead for LIGO in front of my betters, who would then go to Congress, if convinced. Those were dark days for waves, experimentally; we (ADM) of course knew the Lord was not evil, but 3 suns’ worth we did not expect!….It worked quite well, and was duly made a line item.”

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