Berko Symposium 2012

On Monday, May 14, the Physics Department will hold the Twenty-first Annual Student Research Symposium in Memory of Professor Stephan Berko in Abelson 131. The symposium will end with talks by the Berko Prize winners. This year the prize is being shared by two graduating seniors, Yuri Levin-Schwartz and Sam McCandlish, and two graduate students, Andy Ward and Michael Giver. The whole department then gathers for a lunch of cold cuts, cookies and conversation. “It’s a great way to close out the academic year,” said Professor of Astrophysics and Department Chair John Wardle. “We come together to celebrate our students’ research and hear what the different research groups are doing.”

The undergraduate speakers will describe their senior thesis honors research. This is the final step in gaining an honors degree in physics, and many of them will also be co-authors on a paper published in a mainline science journal. The graduate student speakers are in the middle of their PhD research, and will describe their progress and goals.

The prize winners are nominated and chosen by the faculty for making particularly noteworthy progress in their research. Michael Giver’s talk is titled “Stochastic Chemical Oscillations on a Spatially Structured Medium.” He works with Professor Bulbul Chakraborty.  Andy Ward’s talk is titled “Friction Between Biological Filaments.” He works with Professor Zvonimir Dogic. Yuri Levin-Schwartz’ talk is titled “Going Towards the Light; Single Cell Phototaxis and Collective Dynamics of Algae.” He works with Professor Azadeh Samadani. The final talk is by Sam McCandlish and is titled “Bending and Breaking Time Contours: a World Line Approach to Quantum Field Theory.” Sam works with Professor Albion Lawrence. The schedule for Monday morning can be found on the Physics Department website. Abstracts of all the talks will be posted there shortly.

This Student Research Symposium is now in its 21st year. The “First Annual…..” (two words which are always unwise to put next to each other) was initiated in 1992 by Wardle to honor Professor Stephan Berko, who had died suddenly the previous year. Family, friends and colleagues contributed to a fund to support and celebrate student research in his memory. This provides the prize money which the four students will share.

Stephan Berko was a brilliant and volatile experimental physicist who was one of the founding members of the physics department. He was born in Romania in 1924 and was a survivor of both the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. He came to the United States under a Hillel Foundation scholarship and obtained his PhD at the University of Virginia. He came to Brandeis in 1961 to establish a program in experimental physics and worked tirelessly to build up the department. Together with Professors Karl Canter (dec. 2006) and Alan Mills (now at UC Riverside) he established Brandeis as a world center for research into positrons (the anti-matter mirror image of ordinary electrons). In a series of brilliant experiments they achieved many “firsts,” culminating in election to the National Academy of Sciences for Steve, and, it has been rumored, in a Nobel Prize nomination for the three of them. Steve was as passionate about teaching as he was about research, and when he died, it seemed most appropriate to honor his memory by celebrating the research of our graduate and undergraduate students. During the coffee break on Monday, we will show a movie of Steve lecturing on “cold fusion,” a headline-grabbing but phony claim for producing cheap energy from 1989.

Losing Control: Love and Science

New in the movies: Losing Control, a ‘quirky romantic comedy about a female scientist’, is playing at Kendall Square next week. Research from Leslie Zebrowitz’s Face Perception Lab at Brandeis about babyface stereotypes makes a cameo in the movie. Losing Control was written and directed by Valerie Weiss and is loosely based on her experiences as a Ph. D. student at Harvard Med School.

Should be a good date movie for Brandeis scientists…

Brandeis Café Science Opens Tonight

Brandeis scientists have started a Science Cafe, to discuss contemporary research in the life sciences, physics, chemistry and related fields.  The Cafe provides a way for non-scientists at Brandeis, and for residents of Waltham and surrounding communities, to learn about science from Brandeis’ accomplished scientists.  It is also a way for life scientists to learn something about physics and vice versa!

The Cafe will be held 6-7 PM the first Monday of every month at the Elephant Walk in Waltham at 663 Main St  (with parking nearby at the Common St garage).  The first speaker is Greg Petsko (Biochemistry) who will speak about “Drugs for Neurologic Disorders”  on April 2 (tonight).  $10 admission gets you a drink and a talk.

See story at

Quantitative Biology Bootcamp 2012

What do dinosaur DNA, calculating the global amount of carbon dioxide consumed in photosynthesis, and cooperation and cheating between yeast cells have in common?  They were all topics discussed at the sixth annual Quantitative Biology Bootcamp, held on the Brandeis campus January 12 and 13.

At the bootcamp, more than 40 Ph.D. students and faculty participated in lectures, discussions, and computational projects using both computers and pencil-on-paper approaches.  The Brandeis Quantitative Biology Program is a unique “add-on” graduate program open to students in all six of the natural sciences Ph.D. programs at Brandeis.  The main goal of the program is to train students to work effectively as a part of research teams that span the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines.  To this end, Quantitative Biology students participate in both courses and out-of-classroom activities, like the Bootcamp, that highlight the diverse approaches to scientific problems taken by scientists from different disciplines.

A central feature of this year’s Bootcamp were the lectures and computer laboratory exercise presented by Jeffrey Boucher, a student in the Biochemistry Ph.D. program and the winner of Quantitative Biology Program’s 2012 HHMI Interfaces Scholar Award.  Boucher’s presentations described mathematical techniques and experimental methods that can be used to understand the processes of biological evolution by reconstructing genes and proteins present in the long-extinct progenitors of present animal, plant and microbial species. Prospective graduate students and others interested in learning more about Brandeis Quantitative Biology can consult the program’s web site at

2012 Rosenstiel Award Recipient, Dr. Nahum Sonenberg

2012 Rosenstiel Award Lecture
Thursday, March 29, 2012, 4:00 PM
Gerstanzang 123

The 2012 Rosenstiel award winner, Dr. Nahum Sonenberg of McGill University, is a well-deserving recipient of this honor. Dr. Sonenberg received his Ph.D. in 1976 at the Weizman Institute of Science.  He then worked with Aaron Shatkin, where he discovered the translation initiation factor responsible for binding the 5’ cap of mRNA, eukaryotic Initiation Factor 4E (eIF4E); He has studied translation ever since.  Although his lab focuses on understanding how the cell achieves precise control of translation initiation, this line of investigation has led to discoveries affecting a wide variety of systems.  His lab has made key discoveries in cancer, obesity, virology, memory consolidation and how translation control plays a role in regulating these disparate processes.

In 1988, the Sonenberg lab made the groundbreaking discovery (Nature 1988, that the uncapped viral mRNA from poliovirus recruits the ribosome to internal regions of the 5’ untranslated region (UTR).  These sites have since been renamed internal ribosomal entry sites (IRESs). This finding was exciting since eukaryotic translation initiation typically requires the 5’ cap on an mRNA for eIF4E binding which subsequently recruits translation initiation machinery.  Until this time, the only mechanism of translation initiation was through the binding of eIF4E to the 5’ cap of mRNAs.  Sonenberg’s discovery that some mRNA has a mechanism to bypass the need for eIF4E binding and thereby avoiding translation control mechanisms started a new line of investigation in the translation field.  Along with discovering IRESs, this paper established an in vitro and an in vivo assay to study cap-independent translation initiation.  These assays are still used widely to test for IRES activity of mRNA UTRs.

Since that initial discovery, it has been found that many viruses contain IRES sequences in the UTR of mRNA that direct translation of viral proteins.  Some viruses, including poliovirus, are able to hijack eukaryotic translation machinery by cleaving factors necessary for canonical cap-dependent translation initiation, but dispensable for IRES translation. In this way, viral mRNAs are able to outcompete eukaryotic mRNAs for ribosome binding and in many cases become the most abundant transcript being translated.

Since the discovery of viral IRESs, many labs, including the Sonenberg lab, have discovered that some cellular genes also use IRESs to bypass the typical translation initiation control mechanisms. These genes are capable of translating even when the cell is actively shutting down translation.  One such cellular IRES-containing mRNA is the insulin receptor message, the IRES I study in the Marr lab.  Using assays similar to those first used in the 1988 paper published by the Sonenberg lab, I am exploring the necessity for the various initiation factors and IRES sequences required for efficient translation of insulin receptor in Drosophila melanogaster and mammalian cells.

The discovery that Dr. Sonenberg made in 1988 is only one example of the elegant research his lab has produced and continues to pursue.

You want to work in a lab, do you?

The Biology and Neuroscience Research Workshop on Nov 29 was very successful. Organizers estimated that between 60 and 80 eager undergraduates attended, most looking for advice on finding a research lab.  For those who could not attend, the powerpoint presentation, now available on the web, entitled “You want to work in a lab, do you?” has a lot of very practical advice on the process of finding a lab that is equally applicable to students in other disciplines.

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