Alum, Past Postdoc Receive Awards from Breakthrough Prize Foundation

Netta Engelhardt

Netta Engelhardt. photo: MIT

Lisa Piccirillo

Lisa Piccirillo. photo: Quanta Magazine.

Lisa Piccirillo, a recent Brandeis postdoc and Netta Engelhardt, a Brandeis undergraduate alumni have received two awards from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. While the Breakthrough Prizes are intended to help scientific leaders gain financial freedom, the New Horizons award and the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize focus on young scientists early in their careers.

The Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize is awarded to early-career women mathematicians. Lisa Piccirillo received this prize for her work in resolving the Conway Knot problem. Piccirillo was a postdoc working with Daniel Ruberman, Professor of Mathematics, from 2019 until her recent appointment as Assistant Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Netta Engelhardt, is part of a group that received the 2021 New Horizons in Physics Prize. Netta and three other scientists were awarded for their research in calculating the quantum information content of a black hole and its radiation. Engelhardt is currently an Assistant Professor of Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was a 2011 graduate who majored in Physics. She received a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship prior to graduating from Brandeis.


Meet the Science UDRs at the Ultimate Science Navigation Event (9/23)

Ultimate Science Navigation posterAt The Ultimate Science Navigation event TOMORROW (9/23), students can collaborate with the science UDRs to learn about the different offerings in the sciences, how to navigate each major/minor, what each major/minor has to offer, all with an emphasis on exploring the intersections between different programs in the sciences. We will have UDRs representing biochemistry, biology, neuroscience, chemistry, physics, and biophysics!

Students can join in the morning on Zoom from 9:30-10AM, or for the rest of the day through the new Brandeis science community Slack workspace to discuss their questions related to the majors with the UDRs! Email Lance Babcock (, Maggie Wang ( or the other science UDRs for the Zoom link and Slack workspace link.

DNA molecules tell nanoparticles how to self-assemble

Nature uses self-assembly to make a diversity of complex structures, such as biomolecules, virus shells, and cytoskeletal filaments. Today a key challenge is to translate this assembly process to artificial systems. DNA-coated nanoparticles provide a particularly promising approach to realizing this vision, since the base sequences can be designed to encode the formation of a chosen structure.

A recent publication from the Rogers Lab shows that interactions between DNA-coated particles can be encoded using DNA oligomers dispersed in solution that bind the particles together.  By changing the linker sequences in solution, Ph.D. students Janna Lowensohn and Alex Hensley showed that the same set of components can be directed to form a variety of different crystal structures. Going forward, this approach may be used to create programmable materials that can sense and respond to their environment.


DNA instructions

Paper: Self-Assembly and Crystallization of DNA-Coated Colloids via Linker-Encoded Interactions. Lowensohn J, Hensley A, Perlow-Zelman M, Rogers WB. Langmuir. 2020 Feb 18. doi: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.9b03391. (PubMed abstract)

The Rogers Lab receives a prestigious international grant to study the origin of life

HFSP logoProfessor W. Benjamin Rogers in the Department of Physics has been awarded a 2020 Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) collaborative Program Grant to create a self-propagating synthetic cell. The HFSP Program Grants aim to tackle big questions in the life sciences by supporting and bringing together researchers with different backgrounds from different countries. Professor Rogers’ team grant was one of 20 successful Program Grants that went through a year-long global selection process.

The project aims to build a stably-propagating cell from simple components. The cell will have a lipid membrane encapsulating DNA and transcription-translation machinery, and be able to grow and divide by internally synthesizing its own membrane material.

The project is significant because a stably propagating cell is a vital element of natural selection. Extant life on Earth is a consequence of natural selection acting upon earlier forms of life, shaping the lineages over time. Thus at some point early in life’s origins, a sustainably propagating cell must have emerged, allowing selective advantages to accumulate over successive generations. For daughter cells to have retained the attributes of their parent, both the genetic information and the cell contents must have been replicated with reasonable fidelity.  However, it is currently unclear how controlled cell division could have first emerged from relatively simple molecules. It is precisely this mystery that the team hopes to understand by attempting to recreate it in a test tube.

Professor Rogers’ grant is shared with Dr. Yutetsu Kuruma from Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and Professor Anna Wang from University of New South Wales in Australia.

Gelation without Attraction

By Bulbul Chakraborty

Gels are one of the most puzzling of all solids. Originally coined as a short form of gelatin, gels can be jelly-like as in Jello, or quite hard as in silica gels. They appear in suspensions of particles at extremely low volume fractions, and yet they are rigid. The conventional wisdom is that gels are a consequence of arrested phase separation of the suspended particles from the fluid. A natural mechanism for the arrest is attraction between the particles, which leads to the formation of filamentous networks of particles weaving through the suspending fluid.

Attraction has been viewed as being essential to the formation of gels. However, a new study published in Physical Review Research led by Carl Merrigan from the Chakraborty group, shows that “active particles” can gel even in the absence of physical attraction. Active matter, composed of particles that convert ambient energy to directed motion, has emerged as an important model for the collective behavior of biological matter such as bacterial suspensions. Using a combination of theoretical analysis and numerical simulations, the collaboration between the groups of Chakraborty and Shokef (Tel Aviv University) showed that the directed motion acts like an effective attraction, leading to gelation of the active particles.

The figure below shows the structure of these gels. As the particles become more active, they jam into clusters of immobile particles (red) surrounded by fluid regions (blue), and often opening up voids. Intriguingly, these active particles, which repel each other also show a transition from a dense glassy solid to a gel as the speed of directed motion is increased. The remarkable similarity between the behavior of passive particles with attraction and active particles suggests that biological entities could form solid-like aggregates without any physical or chemical attraction, purely as a consequence of their dynamics.

Reasearch image from Gelation without Attraction post

SPROUT and I-Corps Applications are Open

Sprout logoThe Brandeis Innovation SPROUT and I-Corps programs offer support for bench and non-bench research. Both programs offer funding in different amounts, mentorship, training and help in further exploring the commercial potential of inventions. SPROUT supports bench research, while I-Corps emphasizes training for both bench and non-bench researchers in developing the commercial potential of discoveries, with small grants and extensive training programs. You can apply to one or both programs.

  • If you have a technology / solution that you have started developing and you would like to get funding for it via SPROUT and/or I-Corps, then please complete this form
  • If you do not already have a technology, then you can complete this form to qualify for the I-Corps training program and be matched with a team

Icorps logo

SPROUT teams will get the chance to qualify for up to $30,000 in funding. The I-Corps program provides entrepreneurial training and covers the core of commercializing a technology or building a startup. It comes with an NSF $750 travel and training stipend and an NSF I-Corps certificate/digital badge.

Apply by February 25, 2020 at 11:59PM

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