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.

NeuroSeq and cell diversity in the nervous system

The central nervous system has the most cellular diversity of any organ in the body, but how does this diversity arise?

While the presumption is that genetic programs specify each neuron type, our understanding of these programs is in its infancy. To begin uncovering the underlying design principles of neuronal architecture in the brain, scientists from the Nelson Lab at Brandeis University and the HHMI Janelia Research Campus jointly formed the NeuroSeq project to profile genetic programs in a monumental number of neurons throughout the nervous system. Selected neurons were from transgenic animals to facilitate access among the scientific community for future functional studies. While single cell sequencing is the most popular method for transcriptome profiling, its technical limitations only provide a shallow view of molecular profiles. To go deeper, the NeuroSeq program assessed transcription in pools of nearly 200 genetically identified mouse cell types. NeuroSeq captured 80% of single gene copies and could even assess splice isoforms.

What did the NeuroSeq effort find?

Interestingly, two unique classes of genes lie at the heart of adult neuronal identity. Homeobox transcription factors and long genes explain a great deal of the neuronal diversity in the central nervous system. This extends the role of homeobox genes well beyond development and into neuronal identity maintenance. It also highlights long genes as an important class of neuronal identity effectors. Long genes are long due to insertion of foreign elements, and they come with costs, namely increased energy consumption and risk of mutations. These costs seem to be overcome by the benefits of neuronal diversification. We are excited to spotlight the NeuroSeq project in providing a unique resource for future discoveries concerning neuronal diversity and function.

The data resource is available at neuroseq.janelia.org, and the findings are described in a recent paper in eLife. Brandeis-affiliated authors on the paper include Professor Sacha Nelson, former postdoc Ken Sugino PhD ’05 (now at HHMI Janelia), current postdoc Erin Clark, and former research scientist Yasuyuki Shima.

Genome illustration

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.

2019 Sprout Awards Competition Announced

SPROUT logoThe Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) is excited to announce this year’s SPROUT awards competition!  SPROUT was created to help you bring your scientific research and entrepreneurial ambitions to life by providing seed funding and training to make your innovation a reality.

“It’s not just about the funding. It’s about all the opportunities that arise from participating in SPROUT” – Michael Rosbash, 2018 SPROUT PI

OTL, with support from the Office of the Provost & the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center, will award up to a total of $100,000 divided among the most promising proposals seeking funding for lab-based innovations that require bench research, lab space and/or lab equipment.   All members of the Brandeis science community, including faculty, staff and students, are invited to submit an abstract for the 2019 round of funding. The preliminary application for abstract submission is now online.  These pre-applications must be received prior to 11pm on March 8th, 2019

In the past, successful SPROUT applications have come from all departments in the sciences including Biology, Biochemistry, Physics, and Chemistry.  Past candidates have proposed projects ranging from early-stage research and development to patent-ready projects.  Many undergraduates, graduates, staff and faculty have all pitched various projects from Vaccines Targeting HIV Sugars (Krauss Lab) to an Assay Kit for RNA-binding Protein Target (Rosbash Lab).

Have questions?  OTL is offering 20 minute appointment slots the week of February 28 at our office in Bernstein-Marcus, room 140.  Sign up here.

Computer Science, Biology & Chemistry have opened faculty searches

Brandeis has open searches for tenure-track faculty in three departments within the Division of Science for this fall.  We are looking forward to a busy season of intriguing seminars from candidates this winter.

  1. Assistant Professor of Computational Linguistics. Computer Science invites applications for a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor, beginning Fall 2019, in the area of Computational Linguistics including, but not limited to Statistical and Neural Machine Translation, Question Answering, Information Extraction, Text Summarization, Syntactic and Semantic Parsing, Dialogue Systems, etc.
  2. Assistant Professor(s) of Biology Biology invites applications for up to two full-time tenure-track positions at the level of Assistant Professor, beginning Fall 2019. Ideal candidates will be conducting innovative research in the broad area of cell biology using any organismal, cellular or in vitro system. Areas of emphasis include, but are not limited to, cell architecture, cell motility, cell division and morphogenesis, organelle function, intracellular trafficking, and compartmentalization.
  3. Assistant Professor of ChemistryChemistry is seeking a creative individual at the assistant professor level for a tenure-track faculty position in organic chemistry or chemical biology.  Exceptional senior candidates in all areas of chemistry will also be considered at the appropriate rank.

Brandeis University is an equal opportunity employer, committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community, and strongly encourages applications from women and minorities.  Diversity in its student body, staff and faculty is important to Brandeis’ primary mission of providing a quality education.  The search committees are therefore particularly interested in candidates who, through their creative endeavors, teaching and/or service experiences, will increase Brandeis’ reputation for academic excellence and better prepare its students for a pluralistic society.

SciFest VIII will be on Thursday, Aug 2

Scifest VIII, our annual Poster Session featuring undergraduate researchers, will be held on Thursday, August 2. The poster session will be 1:00 to 3:00 pm in the Shapiro Science Center atrium.

SciFest features undergrads who have spent their summers working in both on-campus and off-campus labs doing scientific research, usually alongside grad students, postdocs and faculty members. It an opportunity for these dedicated students from across the Division of Science, including summer visitors and Brandeis students, to present their research for peers and the community.

As of today, 107 students have registered to present.

The public is invited to attend and to discuss research with the students. As always, refreshments will be served.

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