Brandeis goes to Capitol Hill

The vast majority of biomedical science research done in the United States is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This research funding educates thousands of Ph.D. candidates in the U.S. each year that go on to do health research at universities, work in private sector biotechnology companies or become educators (among many other things). Given the tremendous impact government funded biomedical research has for advancing medical science, educating the workforce and underpinning the biotechnology sector, it is important for the American economy that government officials continue to support federal funding for NIH and NSF over the long-term.

Capitol HillOn September 12th a Brandeis University delegation was invited to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. by the Coalition for Life Sciences to meet with Massachusetts representatives. The purpose of the delegation was to advocate for continued support for biomedical research funding in this time of national financial uncertainty. Massachusetts receives the 2nd most NIH funding after California, an impressive statistic considering that California has approximately 5 times the population of the Bay State and highlighting how important the academic and biotechnology sectors are to the local economy.

MarkeyThe delegation consisted of a Brandeis graduate student (Mike Spellberg), a Brandeis post-doctoral researcher (Tilman Kispersky) and a licensing associate from the Brandeis technology transfer office (Christine Taft). These three people are at different stages of their scientific careers and will likely participate in the scientific community and the Massachusetts economy in very different ways. However, they all shared a history of funding from the NIH. Throughout the day on Capitol Hill the Brandeis team met with Congressional staffers including those from Rep. Barney Frank’s and Senator John Kerry’s offices. During meetings, the Brandeis team thanked the staff for the strong support from Massachusetts elected representatives for the NIH over the years. Specific funding priorities, like additional support for young investigators, were suggested and discussed as highly effective methods to support biomedical research long-term. At the end of the day, the delegation had a meeting with Rep. Edward Markey’s staff. Brandeis is a part of Rep. Markey’s district and we were fortunate enough to meet the Congressman personally. Rep. Markey noted his interest in Neuroscience and talked about his strong support for adequate funding for the NIH. In return, we extended an invitation to Rep. Markey to visit research labs at Brandeis.

Throughout the day and with the training from the Coalition for Life Sciences, the delegation learned about public policy, science advocacy and got an inside view of how legislation is crafted and federal funding decisions are made. The opportunity to advocate for science and science funding on behalf of Brandeis and the research community was an excellent experience.

Summer course on building a microscope from simple components

This past June the MRSEC Center offered a condensed summer course based on the popular graduate course QB120: Quantitative Biology Instrumentation Laboratory.

Professor Dogic

The course was taught by Zvonimir Dogic of the Physics Department (pictured).   Prof. Dogic has extensive experience with several forms of microscopy and his Lab features several home-built or heavily modified optical setups.

The course is designed to offer students hands on experience with building their own optical setups from basic components as well as learning how to optimally acquire imaging data from commercial microscopes.  The focus was on understanding the physics behind microscope function and leveraging that knowledge towards improving data acquisition in the lab.

Initially, students used basic lenses, apertures, an objective, a camera and a light source to build the simplest possible light microscope.  This initial setup was quickly extended to include Köhler illumination, a core principle in microscopy which allows even illumination of the sample as well as access to the conjugate image plane for image filtering.

The next project required students to build a fluorescence microscope, a highly relevant and ubiquitous technique in biological imaging.  To image a slide with fluorescently labeled beads students used a dichroic mirror to separate excitation light at one wavelength from emission light at another wavelength.  A schematic diagram, a photo of this setup with the light path superimposed and actual data acquired with one of these microscopes can be seen in the video below.

Next, a more advanced technique in microscopy, total internal reflection microscopy (TIRF), was introduced and an imaging setup using this technique was built.  TIRF microscopes excel at imaging small molecules that are immobilized in a small area.  A laser beam was pointed to shine through a prism at an angle sufficient to cause total internal reflection and the resulting evanescent wave caused fluorescent excitation of the sample.  The video below shows a schematic and imaging data of a TIRF microscope built by students.

Finally, students used commercial microscopes to understand the principles behind phase contrast and difference interference contrast microscopy, both techniques well suited for imaging samples that are nearly transparent.

Overall the Course provided an excellent introduction to the physical principles behind microscope function.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in using microscopes in their research!

Life science grads and postdocs pack room for Career Panel

On Monday, Brandeis University hosted a Career Panel specifically devoted to discussing job opportunities and career paths for individuals with life science PhDs.  The event, sponsored by the Genetics Training Grant, was organized and hosted by Prof. Bruce Goode (Biology) and was very successful in drawing a crowd, with an audience estimated at 90 students and postdocs,

The professional credentials of the assembled panelists reflected the purpose of the seminar itself: a broad sweep of career paths each making use of post-secondary education in the life sciences.  Beyond professional success, the panel was further notable because it was composed largely of women, most of whom managed families along with their careers.

First, representing the academic research career path, was the likable Prof. Avital Rodal of the Brandeis Biology Department.  As a recent hire, Prof. Rodal was extensively queried about the process of applying and successfully being offered a tenure track academic position.  Prof. Rodal cited receiving her own grant funding as well as a strong record of publication as reasons for her success.  Michelle Hoffmann (Back Bay Life Sciences Advisors) has built a career in business and management consulting and discussed which skills from her academic training prepared her for her success in the consulting industry.  Shoumita Dasgupta is an eight year veteran of the teaching faculty at Boston University and advised the audience on how to obtain relevant teaching experience during graduate training and also described how her own career as an educator has begun to include higher positions (she is now an assistant dean) in the admissions department at the medical school.  Meredith LeMasurier works as an editor for the journal Neuron and provided insight into the process of academic publishing.  Her role in the organization involves assessing the merit of submitted articles in the context of the literature and coordinating the efforts of reviewers and authors.  Finally, Jake Harrison (Joule Unlimited) works as an experimental scientist for a small biotechnology sector company.  Jake noted that, like academia, the small company environment allows him to pursue a rigorous scientific agenda combined with the professionalism of a corporate workplace.

After brief introductory statements from each of the panelists, the floor was open for questions, and audience members were interested to learn about job availability and job security.  Jake advised trainees to invest time in building comprehensive profiles on employment focused social networking sites such as LinkedIn.  Shoumita urged students to build their professional network by talking about their career aspirations often with peers and mentors as opportunities can often arise through existing connections.  Michelle emphasized the importance of putting together a sharp professional resume (different than an academic CV) and doing ample homework before contacting a company.

After the event, attendees expressed great interest in having panels on a regular basis, with panelists from additional areas of the job market. A particular interest was in individuals employed by the government or working in a public health or in health policy related fields.

An over arching theme of the discussion was that jobs in any of the career paths are highly competitive but, nevertheless, many exciting options exist for individuals with PhDs in the life sciences.  Overall, given the highly pertinent career information and the opportunities to network directly with individuals in a variety of career paths, all trainees would be well advised to attend future versions of this career panel.

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