At Stern, Study in the Sciences Flourish

Students Make an Impact in Fields Ranging From Immunology to Chemistry

Whether it’s a publication in a premier research journal or an internship in cancer studies at a world-class facility, students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women have access to incredible opportunities, courses and mentors in the sciences who enable them to build their careers and make real contributions to the world of medicine and research even as undergraduates. These opportunities, combined with the chance to build a deep, enriching connection to Torah Judaism, lead many aspiring doctors, researchers and clinicians to begin their journeys at Stern.

“Women are significantly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Dr. Karen Bacon, the Dr. Mordecai D. and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculties of Arts and Sciences. “At Stern College, we are changing that. Our reputation as a science powerhouse continually draws some of the most talented and motivated young women to our program, where our exceptional faculty and courses prepare them to soar in their chosen fields.”

Here are some of the recent strides our students have made in the fields of immunology, molecular and cellular biology and chemistry.

Rebuilding Microbiomes to Cure Infection

With support from the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women, Miriam Saffern, a Stern College senior and biochemistry major, conducted summer research in the lab of Dr. Eric Pamer, head of the division of general medicine and Enid A. Haupt Chair in Clinical Investigation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Miriam Saffern studied
Miriam Saffern studied the way a treatment for C. difficile works in the lab of Dr. Eric Pamer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

She focused on the interaction between the immune systems and gut bacteria of mice infected with Clostridium difficile, also known as C. difficile. Infection with C. difficile most commonly occurs in hospital patients who have recently had a course of antibiotics. As Saffern explained, the pathogen is normally harmless in humans, but when antibiotics knock out the “good bacteria” that keep it in check, it multiplies and attacks, causing symptoms that can range from mild diarrhea to a life-threatening inflammation of the bowel.

Her research in Pamer’s lab involved re-growing those “good bacteria” through what is called a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT). The infected mice are injected with fecal matter of mice colonized with a healthy consortium of gut bacteria; the FMT rebuilds the microbiomes of the mice and leads to a permanent cure for the infection, possibly because the “good bacteria” in the donor feces signal to the recipient’s immune system to wipe out the C. diffile bacteria. Saffern’s research focused on the impact a specific immune molecule had on the transplant’s efficacy.

“My work is just one tiny piece of the puzzle, but by figuring out which immune molecules are in play and which bacteria are involved in the success of FMT, we can develop simpler treatment approaches,” said Saffern. Her hope is to do more of what she calls “translational research,” identifying the factors that make FMT effective and transferring them to everyday settings in clinics and hospitals.

Exploring New Avenues of Research in Cell Division

While Saffern untangled the workings of FMT, Elana Molcho and Tanya Schiff explored the mysteries of how proteins regulate cell division in the lab of Dr. Margarita Vigodner, associate professor of biology. Their experimental results demonstrated new avenues for research in the regulation of cell division in both normal and cancer cells, and their findings, compiled in a paper titled “Inhibition of CDK1 activity by SUMOylation,” have been published in the peer-reviewed journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications.

Dr. Margarita Vigodner, third from left, with researchers in her lab. Recent Stern graduate Tanya Schiff is on the right.

Molcho and Schiff are listed as co-authors, a significant achievement for undergraduate students, and the study was supported by the National Institute of Health and Mitrani Foundation.

“As a biology major with a focus on the pre-health sciences, the concepts behind the laboratory techniques that we use help to reinforce the material that I learn in class,” said Molcho. “I have enjoyed my time in the laboratory so much that it has led me to consider pursuing an MD/PhD and to look for medical schools with research requirements and opportunities that would allow me to continue conducting scientific research, which is something that I never imagined doing before. I am so grateful for having been given the opportunity to really be involved in advanced research.”

Designing Engaging Educational Programs for Local Children

Stern College’s Chemistry Club, an affiliate of the American Chemical Society (ACS), received an ACS Community Interaction Grant for the 2016-2017 academic year for an outreach program called “Fun With Food.” Designed by members Michelle Shakib and Jordana Gross, pre-med molecular and cellular biology majors who hope to pursue careers in pediatrics, the initiative will create engaging programming at an elementary school on New York’s Lower East Side to help children appreciate the relevance of science to their everyday lives.

Stern students and Chemistry Club board members Jordana Gross, left, and Michelle Shakib
Stern students and Chemistry Club board members Jordana Gross, left, and Michelle Shakib

“We plan to accomplish this through creative and fun activities using food,” said Shakib. “For instance, one activity will allow the students to make their own ice cream. We will give each child the ingredients needed and will explain the science behind this delicious and fun activity.”

“We are very excited about this unique outreach program because it will allow us to give children from schools with less advanced science programs the opportunity to do an experiment that is relevant to their lives and that they will enjoy,” added Gross.

Ultimately, the two hope that their program will leave children with the feeling that science is not only fascinating, but also a lot of fun. “We’re really looking forward to sparking their interest in science,” said Shakib.