Alumni and Student Researchers Wow Crowd at 2019 SciFest

With a new alumni symposium in the morning and a poster session filling three floors of the Science Center atrium in the afternoon, this year’s SciFest IX set a new standard for Brandeis Science’s annual celebration of undergraduate research.


Photos: Heratch Ekmekjian

Since 2011, a poster session featuring the results from ongoing projects belonging to undergraduates doing science research has been the high point of summer in the Division of Science at Brandeis. This year, for the first time, we invited Brandeis alumni scientists to speak in a morning symposium entitled “A Celebration of Brandeis’ Undergraduate Science Education”, including:

Students and faculty in the audience were treated to a history of Brandeis and reflections on many of the Brandeis professors and courses that set them on their career path and whose influence persists to the present in how they approach their science, and on lessons they learned that continue to guide their work.

After lunch in the campus center, the crowd climbed up to the Shapiro Science Center for the poster session. 123 students presented 117 posters on topics from high-energy physics to biomaterials and from quantum chemistry to fruit fly behavior. As President Ron Liebowitz noted in an email to the Science community after the event:

The energy in Shapiro during the poster session was electric.  The students’ confidence and excitement over sharing their research can only give us great optimism about the future: they are “all in” when it comes to doing basic research, but also seeing how such research can be applied in the name of helping others.

Many of the posters can be found in the hallway in Gerstenzang – look for them when classes start again in a few weeks!

SciFest IX by the numbers

  • 117 posters
  • 123 student presenters (out of approx. 210 summer student researchers)
    • 105 Brandeis students
      • 99 presenting research done on campus
      • 6 presenting work done over the summer off-campus
    • 18 visiting students
  • 45 Brandeis faculty advisors from 7 departments
    • Biochemistry (7)
    • Biology (18)
    • Chemistry (8)
    • Computer Science (1)
    • Physics (6)
    • Psychology (5)
    • Sociology (1)

Eve Marder and Irving Epstein named University Professors

 

Eve Marder & Irving Epstein

Congratulations to Eve Marder, Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience and Irving Epstein, Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry, for being named University Professors. This is one of the most prestigious academic honors at Brandeis University. This honor is bestowed on faculty members whose renown crosses disciplinary boundaries; who have achieved exceptional scholarly or professional distinction within the academic community; and whose appointment will enhance the university’s reputation. Read more at BrandeisNow

A celebration Eve, Irving and the 25th anniversary of the Volen Center will be held on November 17, 2019.

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

Cepko to present Lisman Memorial Lecture April 9, 2019

Constance CepkoFor the 11th year, a top neuroscientist specializing in vision will present an awarded lecture to the Brandeis community. This year’s awardee is Dr. Connie Cepko of Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, an expert in retinal development and molecular tool design. Connie will present a lecture entitled “Development of the Vertebrate Retina and Nanobodies as Regulators of Intracellular Activities” at 12:30pm in Gerstenzang 121.

The Lisman Memorial Lecture honors the memory of John E. Lisman (’66), who was a faculty member in Biology from 1973 until his death in 2017. The award is endowed through the generous contribution of Brandeis alumni Jay Pepose ’75, MA’75, P’08, P’17, and his wife, Susan K. Feigenbaum ’74, P’08, P’17. (Alumni.brandeis.edu)

The Volen Center Turns 25 Years Old

Construction of Volen Center

Since its construction at the heart of the Brandeis campus, the Volen National Center for Complex Systems has been a key focal point of the Brandeis campus. The structure was dedicated on October 20, 1994 and has served as a gateway to the Brandeis Science Complex for the past 25 years. Planning for the construction of the building began in 1989 with funding from the federal government. Additional funding from the government and donations from benefactors followed. The total cost of construction was over $31 million.

The Center’s primary focus is the study of one of the most complex of complex systems – the human brain and mind. When the Volen Center was formed in 1989, its mission statement was “to advance our understanding of cognitive processes, perceptions, neuroscience, and the development and application of parallel computer systems.” As part of this mission, a retreat was first held in May 1989. This retreat has evolved into the annual Volen Retreat. True to the collaborative focus of the Center, the Volen Retreat includes talks from multiple disciplines of Brandeis faculty. Thanks to the M. R. Bauer Foundation, a lecture series and week-long Distinguished Lecturer Visitors series brings scientists from all over the world  to the Brandeis campus to talk about their research and interact with faculty, postdocs and graduate students.

The bricks and mortar of the Volen Center provided essential office and lab space. In addition to the building, new Brandeis faculty became a part of the Volen Center. Leslie Griffith joined the Center in September 1992. Susan Birren followed in July 1993 and Jordan Pollack in September 1994. Faculty and labs of Computer Science, Linguistics, Biochemistry and Neuroscience moved into the completed structure in May 1994.

What has been impact of the Volen Center? Barbara Wrightson, who was the Program Project Coordinator during the Volen construction and is now the Director of Budget and Planning in the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, said that “the Volen Center helped to nurture the fabulous growth of the neuroscience program at Brandeis.” Additionally, shortly after moving into Volen, the Computer Science department experienced a boom in enrollment. The department saw its enrollment double in the decade after the Center opened.

 

Encoding taste and place in the hippocampus

The ambience of a good meal can sometimes be as memorable as the taste of the food itself. A new study from Shantanu Jadhav and Donald Katz’s labs, published in the February 18 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, may help explain why. This research identified a subset of neurons in the hippocampus of rats that respond to both places and tastes.

The hippocampus is a brain region that has long been implicated in learning and memory, especially in the spatial domain. Neurons in this area called “place cells” respond to specific locations as animals explore their environments. The hippocampus is also connected to the taste system and active during taste learning. However, little is known about taste processing in the hippocampus. Can place cells help demarcate the locations of food?

To test this hypothesis, Neuroscience PhD student Linnea Herzog, together with staff member Leila May Pascual and Brandeis undergraduates Seneca Scott and Elon Mathieson, recorded from neurons in the hippocampus of rats as the rats explored a chamber. At the same time, different tastes were delivered directly onto the rats’ tongues.

Analyzing how place cells responded to tastes delivered inside or outside of their place field

The researchers found that about 20% of hippocampal neurons responded to tastes, and could discriminate between tastes based on palatability. Of these taste-responsive neurons, place cells only responded to tastes that were consumed within that cell’s preferred location. These results suggest that taste responses are overlaid onto existing mental maps. These place- and taste-responsive cells form a cognitive “taste map” that may help animals remember the locations of food.

Read more:  So close, rats can almost taste it

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