BIBS Awards 2016-2017 Graduate Research Awards

The Brown Institute for Brain Science has awarded four graduate research awards for the 2016-2017 Academic Year. These awards recognize early career scientists who have made outstanding achievements as graduate students and have demonstrated strong potential for successful lifelong scientific careers. We are grateful for support from Robin Chemers Neustein ‘75, the Howard Reisman ’76 Family, and the Dana Foundation, which make these awards possible.

David Brandman is working in the laboratory of Leigh Hochberg in the School of Engineering. Brandman received his undergraduate degree in biophysics from the University of British Columbia and his medical degree from the University of Calgary. He is currently on leave from a neurosurgery residency program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to pursue a PhD at Brown. Brandman is part of the BrainGate research team, led by Hochberg and headquartered at Brown. They are aiming to improve independence for paralyzed people by using a brain computer interface (BCI) to bypass the broken biological connection. The BCI system translates brain recordings into commands used to control devices. Dr. Brandman’s research is focused on improving the BrainGate system by eliminating the need for active supervision by a trained technician. Specifically, he is using machine learning tools to develop automated and efficient calibration protocols. These tools are already being employed to allow more robust and reliable control of devices using the BrainGate system. After completing his graduate studies and his surgical training, Dr. Brandman aims to become an academic neurosurgeon specializing in developing brain computer interface (BCI) technology for individuals with paralysis. We are pleased to award David Brandman the Robin Chemers Neustein Graduate Award in Brain Science, supported by the Robin Chemers Neustein Gradaute Fellowship Fund and the Howard Reisman '76 Family Graduate Fellowship Fund.

Alexander Conicella is a PhD candidate in the Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry Graduate Program. He completed a Bachelors of Arts in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from Rutgers University in 2012. His graduate studies in the laboratory of Dr. Nicolas Fawzi aim to study and characterize the protein TDP-43 and its role in neurodegenerative disorders including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Mr. Conicella has already published a peer-reviewed report identifying the functional role and structural changes in an aberrant form of TDP-43 seen in ALS. He has also presented his research at multiple national scientific meetings. His current and future work will further describe the structure and function of native TDP-43 and, in collaboration with researchers at University College London, expand this work to include in vivo functional studies using mouse models with disease variants of TDP-43. Following the completion of his graduate studies, Mr. Conicella plans to pursue a postdoctoral position that will allow him to expand his structural and biochemical techniques to in vivo approaches. Ultimately, Mr. Conicella intends to become a faculty member at a University combining academic teaching and his own independent research laboratory. We are pleased to award Alexander Conicella a Brain Science Graduate Award supported by the Howard Reisman '76 Family Graduate Fellowship Fund.

Elisabeth Evans, who has an undergraduate degree in architecture from MIT, is working in the laboratory of Diane Hoffman-Kim in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology, & Biotechnology. Her thesis work is aimed at using biomaterials to improve the delivery of cells to promote repair of injury in the nervous system. Her work should inform the design of therapeutic biomaterial implants to treat many brain pathologies, including traumatic brain injuries, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases. Ms. Evans intends to continue this work ultimately in her own faculty position at a research university. She creatively interweaves her undergraduate training in architecture to engage in STEM outreach programs in the community, particularly in merging STEM and the arts (STEAM). At Brown, Elisabeth is active in several STEM and STEAM programs, geared toward inclusion of student populations that perceive science to be inaccessible. In collaboration with Professor Hoffman-Kim, Ms. Evans is working to develop a new course, Mixed Media: Learning from Engineers and Artists. The idea for the course is that students will develop modules for the high school students to learn about a facet of material properties through the process of making, with each module inspired by the work of a faculty member. We are pleased to award Elisabeth Evans the Robin Chemers Neustein Graduate Award in Brain Science, supported by the Robin Chemers Neustein Gradaute Fellowship Fund and the Howard Reisman '76 Family Graduate Fellowship Fund.

Aaron Held has an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a Masters in Biotechnology from Boston University. At Brown, he is pursuing his graduate studies in the laboratory of Dr. Kristi Wharton, in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry. Mr. Held’s research uses the fruit fly Drosophila to model Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and study how different genetic mutations affect sensory and motor circuits. His efforts have unexpectedly demonstrated that, for a new genetic model, the motor circuit remains healthy, and instead the sensory feedback circuit is defective. He has also shown that manipulation of the Bone Morphogenic Protein (BMP) pathway can improve motor function and delay death. To reach these findings, Mr. Held had to bridge non-overlapping expertise between two laboratories: Drosophila developmental biology and BMP signaling in the Wharton lab, and electrophysiological approaches to study neuronal circuitry in the laboratory of Dr. Diane Lipscombe. Mr. Held plans to further clarify the mechanism by which BMP signaling can recover motor function, and explore whether sensory dysfunction and BMP suppression apply to other genetic models of ALS. Mr. Held intends to become an independent scientist at an academic research institution and has a detailed plan that includes postdoctoral training and grant applications to accomplish that goal. We are pleased to award Aaron Held a Brain Science Graduate Award supported by the Charles A. Dana Graduate Fellowship Fund.