Brandeis Psychology PhD Alumna Elected to AAAS

Brandeis University congratulates Judith Kroll for her election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, April 22, 2021.  Dr. Kroll received her Masters and PhD degrees in the Brandeis Department of Psychology and is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Linguistics, and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Irvine.  The election honors the rigor and breadth of Dr. Kroll’s research into the science of bilingualism.

Over her career, she has studied bilingualism for its own sake and as a tool for unveiling general cognitive and brain process.  She has discovered how a second language is learned and how it co-evolves with the native language, what brain systems are shared, what previously unknown cognitive processes must be present to permit bilingualism.  For example, she showed that when a bilingual speaks or listens to one language the other language is active, as measured by brain activity and cognitive priming.  Her work has also changed the perspective on bilingualism from being a capacity that competes with others to being one that enhances non-language specific capabilities such as information filtering and multi-tasking.  One of her intriguing findings in this domain is that monolinguals in a bilingual compared to a monolingual living situation show increased sensitivity to distinctions between heard language features in measures of brain activity before behavioral distinctions are evident.  Her discoveries have had impacts in education and medicine, where, for example, the task-switching and perceptual discrimination advantages of bilinguals have been shown to accelerate learning for children in a range of school subjects and to be associated with delayed onset of Alzheimer’s Disease in aging.  Dr. Kroll has pioneered multiple new linguistic technologies and analytic systems that were necessary for the rigor of her own work and have become widely used by others.

Dr. Kroll is active not only in the laboratory but has taken the lead in science in society.  For example, she is the principal investigator for an NSF Partnerships for International Research and Education Grant for “Translating Cognitive and Brain Science in the Laboratory and Field to Language Learning Environments”, and she is the co-Founder of Women in Cognitive Science.  An enduring trait of Dr. Kroll is her gracious, generous acknowledgement of the collaborators who have contributed to her scientific and societal work.  Many current Brandeis faculty have inspiring memories of visiting Dr. Kroll when she at Penn State, and seeing her dedication to mentoring such a large and vibrant group of students of all levels.


Brandeis Innovation Announces 2021 Sprout Program

Brandeis Innovation logoBrandeis Innovation is pleased to announce the kickoff of its annual Sprout program that supports bench research with grants up to $25,000, funded by the Office of the Provost and Office of Technology Licensing. Teams and individuals working on innovative projects and research within the Division of Science are eligible to apply.

Sprout helps bring scientific research and entrepreneurial ambitions to life by providing seed funding. As an added bonus, recipients will also have the option to choose to participate in our spring cohort of the NSF I-Corps fellowship, which provides training in technology commercialization and a stipend up to $750 for related expenses.

Interested applicants can complete this pre-application form, due on February 19th.

Ruth Charney to become AMS President on Feb. 1

Ruth CharneyRuth Charney, the Berenson Professor of Mathematics, will become the President of the American Mathematical Society on February 1.  The Notices of the American Mathematical Society recently published an interview with Charney. In the interview, Charney was asked about COVID’s impact on her own teaching, AMS’s response to COVID and the impact of the crisis on job prospects for new PhDs and postdocs.

Charney, whose research focus is geometric group theory, discussed how she first became involved with AMS and AWM (Association for Women in Mathematics) at a time when there were very few women in the field. One of Charney’s priorities as AMS president will be to increase diversity and inclusion into the study of mathematics.

Charney finished the interview by discussing the importance of professional societies like AMS to the mathematics community.


Tijana Ivanovic selected to speak at 2021 Future of Biophysics Burroughs Wellcome Fund Symposium

Tijana IvanovicTijana Ivanovic, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, has been selected as one of four young scientists to speak at the 2021 Future of Biophysics Burroughs Wellcome Fund Symposium on February 23, 2021. This symposium is part of the 65th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society and due to COVID concerns, will be held virtually.

The purpose of this symposium is to highlight the work of young researchers who are currently conducting research at the intersection of the physical and life sciences. Research in the Ivanovic Laboratory uses biophysical methods to uncover fundamental molecular mechanisms of virus translocation across biological membranes.

The other speakers selected for the 2021 Symposium are Elisabeth Fischer-Friedrich, TU Dresden, Germany; Abhishek Singharoy, Arizona State University, USA; and Chen Song, Peking University, China.

Turrigiano lab uncovers sources of neuronal heterogeneity

High activity neurons have greater instrinsic excitability and response to local inputs, but no difference in total input type or amount

Mammalian cortex has long been one of the most widely studied systems in neuroscience, dating back to the pioneering work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal in the late 19th century. The cortex is much larger in primates than other mammals, and is thought to be responsible for the advanced cognitive abilities of humans. Today, models of cortical connections and computations form the basis for some of the most powerful deep learning paradigms. However, despite this success, there is still much that is unknown about how cortex functions. One feature of cortex that has recently been discovered is that neurons that appear to be similar to each other can have very different baseline activity levels: some neurons are 100x more active than their neighbors. We don’t know how neurons that are otherwise highly similar in shape and genetic makeup can maintain such different activity levels, or if the neurons with high and low activity levels have different functions in the brain. These neurons are otherwise so similar to each other that it is difficult to tell them apart without recording their activity directly, and current techniques for recording the activity of many neurons simultaneously in live animals do not allow us to later re-identify them for further study.

In a paper recently published in Neuron, the Turrigiano lab, led by postdoctoral researcher Nick Trojanowski, reported a new approach for permanently labeling high and low activity neurons in live animals, and then determining what makes them different. To do this they used a fluorescent protein called CaMPARI2 that changes from green to red as activity increases, but only when exposed to UV light. By shining UV light into the brain, they caused neurons with high activity to turn red, while neurons with low activity remained green. This procedure allowed them to run a series of tests on high and low activity neurons to identify differences between them. They found that high activity neurons would intrinsically generate more activity than low activity neurons when presented with the same stimulus. These high activity neurons also receive more excitatory input specifically from nearby neurons of the same type. Surprisingly, however, they found that the total amount of excitatory and inhibitory input that high and low activity neurons received from other neurons was not a major factor in determining their activity levels. Together, these results tell us that the differences in activity between neurons are due to intrinsic differences, as well as their pattern of connectivity to their nearby partners. This has deep implications for how the networks that underlie cortical computations are built and maintained.

With these tools in hand, it is now possible to further explore the differences between high and low activity neurons. Do these neurons serve different functions? Are the baseline activity levels specified from birth? How do these activity levels affect the mechanisms of plasticity that are responsible for learning and memory? The recently published results represent just the tip of the iceberg of information that can be learned with this new technique, in the mammalian cortex as well as other brain regions.

Learning from how viruses assemble

Capsid image from paper

credit: eLife

Michael Hagan, Professor of Physics, is quoted extensively in the Chemical & Engineering News article, Lessons learned from watching viruses assemble. The paper discusses how scientists are studying the ability for viruses to self-assemble. During a viral infection, infected cells manufacture the genetic material and other components of the virus. These components then self-assemble, or build themselves into complex shapes, to form new viruses capable of infecting additional cells.

Many viruses contain their genetic material within a protective shell known as a capsid. Michael Hagan is one of the scientists studying how these capsids are formed by modeling the conditions and chemical properties that allow viruses to build themselves. Once understood, researchers hope this will help in drug design and delivery.

Article: Lessons learned from watching viruses assemble, Laura Howes, Chemical & Engineering News-C&EN,  December 15, 2020.

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