Brandeis students ranked well at the Putnam Math Competition

putnam competition posterThe Brandeis team did very well at the Putnam Mathematics Competition this year. The Brandeis team ranked 39 out of 456 institutions! This is a great result, especially given that small institutions are naturally at a disadvantage in such rankings.

The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition is hosted by the Mathematics Association of American (MAA). It is an annual competition that began in 1938 for undergraduate college students from the US and Canada. The event consists of two 3-hour sessions where students work individually to solve six mathematical problems. It is famous for the intricate mathematical puzzles it proposes, whose solutions require imagination and inventiveness.

Eight Brandeis students participated in the weekly competitions at Brandeis, with Ben Kamen, Issac Berger and Phong Pham going on to compose the Brandeis Team at the national competition. Student Ben Kamen received an honorable mention since he scored 58th out of 3415 participants. The other Brandeis students also did very well.

Congratulations to the Brandeis team and all participants, and a great thank you to the Putnam coaches Kiyoshi Igusa, Professor of Mathematics and PhD student Tudor Popescu!

New Undergraduate Engineering Science Program Approved

Technology is central to our society. Universities play a key role as innovation hubs in new technology development, by linking knowledge creation, workforce development and commerce. After a multi-year planning process with Brandeis stakeholders and Engineering education experts, the Brandeis Faculty and Board of Trustees has approved the creation of a distinctively Brandeisian undergraduate Engineering Science program, designed for ABET accreditation. Unlike other models in which Engineers are siloed in their own department or school, this interdepartmental program is designed to  maximize horizontal integration across and beyond the Sciences.  All hands are now on deck to make this program a reality.  Institutional Advancement is working closely with faculty to raise the funds necessary to meet our ambitious goals.

Science Engineering LogoTo build up this program, we will  capitalize on the existing synergy between the life and physical sciences, while enhancing core research areas with an emphasis on translating basic research to technological applications.  Our goal is to integrate the engineering curriculum with the social justice mission that is integral to Brandeis. We envision providing opportunities for our students and faculty to deeply engage in science, design, and problem-solving while participating in a curriculum and culture that grapples with issues of social justice, business ethics and sustainability. The curriculum will be designed with these aspirations by engaging faculty from all of arts and sciences, IBS and Heller.  Ultimately, we hope that this new program will give our students the tools to intervene in the world and challenge them to build a better one.

We welcome input from our friends and alums as we begin to engage in the task of building up this exciting new program.

Summer Research Program back to (nearly) normal in 2021

SciFest 2019With increasing vaccination rates and declining positive Covid test rates, the Division of Science is looking forward to a vibrant, in-person summer undergraduate research program kicking off right after Memorial Day. 

The Division of Science summer program pairs first-hand research, community building, and guidance from Brandeis graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to provide undergraduate students a high-quality research experience. Past summer undergraduates have gone on to make substantial contributions (even as first authors!) to peer-reviewed research publications in fields such as materials chemistry (Shi et al., “Sunlight-activated phase change materials for controlled heat storage and triggered release”), molecular biology (Lamper et al., “A phosphorylation-regulated eIF3d translation switch mediates cellular adaptation to metabolic stress”) and neuroscience (He et al., “Rapid adaptation to Elevated Extracellular Potassium in the Pyloric Circuit of the Crab, Cancer borealis).

For Summer 2021, we are excited to announce that 58 Brandeis undergraduate researchers will be supported through the Division of Science programs and funding sources including NSF, NIH, and generous Brandeis alumni and foundation donors.

Additionally, the MRSEC Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program will support 6 undergraduate students from Hampton University for a 10-week, hands-on research program that runs in parallel with the MRSEC Summer Materials Undergraduate Research Fellowship. REU participants are mentored by MRSEC graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and contribute to materials science research efforts on Brandeis’s campus.

We will conclude the summer with SciFest, our annual summer poster session showcasing undergraduate research in the sciences, on August 5. Check the SciFest website for updates about the time and details for the session. 

Congratulations to all fellowship recipients! 

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

Even Dankowicz is named 2019 Goldwater Scholar

Even Dankowicz, fly image

photo: Even Dankowicz

Even Dankowicz, a rising senior majoring in Biology, has been named a 2019 Goldwater Scholar. The Goldwater Scholarship is a national scholarship designed to encourage outstanding students in their sophomore and junior year to pursue research careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering.

He has always been particularly interested in animals (including insects), but it was a high school biology teacher that inspired Even to think more seriously about working with insects. “Insects and other arthropods seemed especially worth studying because they are disproportionately diverse and abundant, making up ~95% of the species I found in my yard. Up close, they are also often exceptionally beautiful.” The image above is one of his favorites – it is a wasp-like flower fly from his yard in Illinois.

After his freshman year at Brandeis, Even spent the summer at the Smithsonian revising the taxonomy of a tropical Asian Mydas-fly genus, discovering six new species. Last summer he worked at Harvard on a gene-sequence-based evolutionary tree of a tropical Asian butterfly genus. He has continued to be involved with both of these projects/research groups, and is currently back at the Smithsonian looking at the comparative morphology of fly pupae.

Along with Colleen Hitchcock, Assistant Professor of Ecology, Even worked on local biodiversity-focused citizen science, which has shown him the potential value of this data and motivated him to curate insect observations on iNaturalist and BugGuide, two citizen science websites. Even (with Chris Cohen from East Carolina University) recently contributed an article to Fly Times titled “Diptera and iNaturalist: A case study from Asiloidea”. The article provides a detailed description of iNaturalist. Dankowicz and Cohen used this platform extensively for their studies in Diptera.

In the future, Even says that he thinks he’d like to keep working with insects, “either to understand their evolution or another aspect of their biology.” This spring, Even took an class on evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) with Assistant Professor Maria de Boef Miara, which has been useful in his current project at the Smithsonian. Additionally, he is starting to work on applications for graduate school next year.

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.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinorgbio.2018.08.006.

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