Graduate School Life

A Look at the Entering and Continuing Ph.D. Students at P&S

By Richard B. Robinson, Ph.D.,
Associate Dean for Graduate Affairs
Last year I wrote about the evolution of the doctoral programs at P&S, culminating in the most recent changes, which began in 2007. These changes, implemented over the past two years, include structural reorganization of our programs and substantive revision of core curricula. This year I want to highlight a few members of the 2009 incoming class, the first to fully matriculate under the new environment.
    Our incoming class of 58 comes from almost 40 U.S. undergraduate institutions in more than a dozen states plus overseas institutions (10 incoming students are foreign nationals). What we have seen with increasing frequency in recent years is applicants taking time between undergraduate and graduate school. Often this time reinforces or ignites discovery of a commitment to a career in biomedical research. Just more than half of the incoming class are two or more years beyond the undergraduate degree. A few of the incoming students in this situation are described below.

Kelvin Pau: Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine
Kelvin’s experience demonstrates the importance of providing exposure to biomedical research early in education. His first exposure to a laboratory setting and the world of biomedical research was as a student at Bronx High School of Science, working here with Dr. Oliver Hobert in biochemistry & molecular biophysics as part of the Westinghouse Science Competition. By the time he completed his undergraduate major in biology at NYU he had become very interested in teaching and spent several years, initially with the America Reads program, working with children ranging from third grade through junior high. This experience confirmed his interest in mentoring but also convinced him he wanted to teach at a more advanced level, so he enrolled part time at Hunter College, taking courses and working in a neurodegeneration laboratory for several years. The courses and additional lab exposure motivated him to apply to doctoral programs, and the memory of his initial exposure at CUMC drew him back here. Interested in membrane biology, he wants to eventually run his own lab and serve as a mentor to the next generation of graduate students.

Anna Ritko: Biomedical Informatics
Anna’s story illustrates how personal experiences can shape career goals. She started at Arizona State University at age 16. She was always interested in science but became more interested in business and applied aspects while an undergraduate and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems. She spent several years working as a consultant in software development and in the computer industry, but things changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her frustration and difficulty with finding and synthesizing relevant genetic, health, and therapeutic information motivated her to start working with information systems in the health industry, specifically at the Mayo Clinic. While there, she realized that to achieve her goal of developing online support tools for women diagnosed with cancer-associated genetic mutations and for long-term cancer survivors, she needed to further her education. She was attracted to Columbia’s biomedical informatics program for its cross-disciplinary public health informatics specialization and curriculum. She is conducting her first rotation with Rita Kukafka, whose research includes tailoring health information and developing decision-support tools. Eventually Anna would like to develop a non-profit organization to enable female cancer patients by providing bioinformatics tools they need to support their care.

Austen Sitko: Neurobiology and Behavior
Austen is an example of the impact of outstanding teachers. As a young child she was turned on to science by a wonderful teacher, but by the time she started at the University of Texas in Austin a series of unexciting science teachers had shifted her focus away from science. She enrolled as a double major in humanities and theatre. Her former enthusiasm for science was reignited by an inspiring teacher in a biopsychology course. She graduated with the goal of graduate school in neurobiology but knew she wasn’t ready to immediately embark on a doctoral curriculum. Working in a molecular physiology lab in the United Kingdom confirmed her commitment to biomedical research. She was interested in Columbia because of the opportunities and resources for schizophrenia research and the potential for interactions between clinical and basic researchers. During her interview she learned about a collaborative project between the laboratories of Drs. Joseph Gogos and Josh Gordon and is working on the project during her first rotation.

Graduate Student Awards, Fellowships, Honors, 2008-2009
(student name in italics; mentors noted by parentheses)
Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research: Christos A. Kyratsous, “The Role of Chaperone and Co-Chaperone Proteins in Alphaherpesvirus Replication” (Saul Silverstein); Yevgeniy B. Sirotin, “Multi-Wave-length Imaging of Cortical Activity Patterns in V1 of Alert Monkeys” (Aniruddha Das)

Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics:
Patricia Gordon, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award, “The Role of Dot-1 and cyclin E in Caenorhabditis elegans Intestinal Cell Fate”; Brian Houck-Loomis, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement in Biochemistry (Stephen Goff)

Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Studies: Babacar Cisse, NIH-NIAID Fellowship, “The Role of E2-2 in the Development and Function of Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cells” (Boris Reizis); Martha Neagu, Dean’s Day Steiner Award for Research, “Potent Inhibition of HIV-1 by TRIM5-Cyclophilin Fusion Proteins Engineered of Human Components” (Jeremy Luban); Anne O’Donnell, NIH-NIMH Fellowship, “Epigenetic Profiling of Major Depression” (Timothy Bestor); Jeremiah Osteen, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Using Voltage Clamp Fluorometry to Probe Voltage Sensing in the IKS Potassium Channel” (Robert Kass); Kimberly Scobie, NIH-NIMH Fellowship, “Role of KLF9 in Hippocampal Circuit Maturation and Anxiety Behavior” (Rene Hen)

Genetics and Development: Yin Mei Lim, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement in Genetics and Development (Eric Schon)

Microbiology, Immunology and Infection: Lindsie Goss, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Functional Elucidation of Putative Monoglyceride Lipases in the Digestive Vacuole of Plasmodium falciparum”

Neurobiology and Behavior: Annagret Falkner, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “Neural Mechanisms of Distractor Filtering in the Parietal Cortex” (Michael Goldberg); Alexis Hill, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Regulation of Amyloid Precursor Protein Cleavage by Protein Trafficking”; Catherine Jensen, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “The Nature of Nurture: Environmental Influence on Hypothalamic and Mesolimbic Dopamine Connections” (Frances Champagne); Grace Lai, Gatsby Initiative Studentship, “Neural Systems for Language and Music in Autism Spectrum Disorder” (Joy Hirsch); Ellen Penney, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “MicroRNAs and their Targets are Novel Regulators of NMJ Morphology in Drosophila” (Brian McCabe); David Pfau, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award, “Image Reconstruction from Retinal Spike Trains During Fixational Eye Motion”; Zev Rosen, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Is Aggressive Behavior Rewarding? A Serotonin-Dopamine Hypothesis”; Karina Scalise, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “CA2, A Fourth Player in the Hippocampal Trisynaptic Circuit?”; David Schneider, Gatsby Initiative Studentship, “Neural Circuits Mediating the Discrimination of Communication Sounds in Auditory Scenes” (Sara Woolley); Brikha Shrestha, Gatsby Initiative Studentship, “Molecular Mechanisms of Dendrite Diversity of Drosophila Sensory Neuron” (Wes Grueber and Carol Mason); Yevgeniy Sirotin, Kavli Graduate Thesis Award (Aniruddha Das); Dara Sosulski, NIH-NIDCD Fellowship, “Encoding and Modulation of Innately Relevant Odor Information in the Mouse” (Richard Axel); Sara Steenrod, Gatsby Initiative Studentship, “Contributions of Proprioceptive and Corollary Discharge Signals to the Maintenance of Visual Stability in Parietal Cortex” (Michael Goldberg); Masoud Tavazoie, Brunie Prize in Neural Stem Cell Research (Fiona Doetsch) and Dean’s Day Steiner Award for Research, “A Vascular Niche for Adult Neural Stem Cells”; Michelle Umali, NIH-NIMH Fellowship, “Neurophysiological Correlates of Emotional Modulation of Visual Perception” (Joy Hirsch); Melissa Walker, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “Structural and Functional Studies of Invertebrate Classical Cadherins” (Larry Shapiro); Elaine Zhang, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Determining the Function of High-order Brain Regions” (Randy Bruno)

Nutritional and Metabolic Biology: Liz Chu-Chun Chang, Cadbury-Schweppes Predoctoral Fellowship, “Arterial Lipoprotein Lipase: Mechanisms and Control by Dietary Fatty Acids and Insulin Resistance,” and Procter & Gamble Graduate Student Research Award, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids Decrease LDL-Cholesterol Delivery and Lipoprotein Lipase in the Arterial Wall in Insulin Resistant Mice” (Richard Deckelbaum); Sonia Hernandez, Children’s Neuroblastoma Foundation Predoctoral Training Award, “Notch Signaling Pathway and VEGF Blockade in Neuroblastoma” (Darrell Yamashiro); Aliki Kostelli, Keystone Symposia travel scholarship to the meeting on Obesity: Novel Aspects of the Regulation of Body Weight in Banff, Alberta (Anthony Ferrante); Colleen See, Department of Defense Fellowship, “The Role of CtIP in BRCA1-mediated Tumor Suppression” (Richard Baer); Jill Williams, ASN/FASEB MARC Travel Award to attend and present at the 2009 Experimental Biology meeting (Richard Deckelbaum)

Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine: Li-Chun Cheng, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement in Anatomy and Cell Biology (Fiona Doetsch)

Pharmacology and Molecular Signaling: Mariam Konate, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Substrate Specificity of Lipid-Binding Protein Domains” (Diana Murray); Erin Harleton, PhRMA Foundation Pre Doctoral Fellowship in Pharmacology/Toxicology, “TASK-1 Inhibition in Inflammation and Arrhythmias” (Steven Feinmark and Richard Robinson)