Tenth Cohort Awarded Grants to Pursue Research Ranging From Network Science to Cancer Treatments
Yeshiva University’s focus on advanced undergraduate level research continues to intensify with the selection of five exceptional students for the Bertha Kressel Research Scholarship in 2018-2019. The scholarship—established in 2008 by Dr. Henry Kressel, Yeshiva University chairman emeritus, special limited partner of Warburg Pincus LLC and a Yeshiva College graduate—offers students the unique opportunity to craft a year-long intensive research project under the direct supervision of YU faculty.
The scholars will each receive a stipend of $4,000 for the year, along with appropriate research-support expenses. Following their research tenure, Kressel Scholars will be encouraged to share their work in professional and peer circles to stimulate a larger intellectual discussion on their chosen topics, which range from network science to cancer research and the study of antifreeze proteins.
This year’s recipients are Tehilla Berger of Far Rockaway, New York; David Friedenberg of New Rochelle, New York; Marjorie Liebling of Spring Valley, New York; Eric Shalmon of Highland Park, New Jersey; and Yonah Shmalo of Passaic, New Jersey.
Dual biochemistry and Judaic studies major Tehilla Berger will coordinate her work with Dr. Ran Drori, assistant professor of chemistry, as she investigates the mechanism by which antifreeze proteins protect Antarctic fish from freezing. “Antifreeze proteins are found in fish, as well as other organisms in frigid climates, and help them survive the cold by inhibiting ice growth in their bloodstreams,” she said. “There are two predominant types of proteins found in fish, and of each of those, there is an active and inactive form. Interestingly, however, the majority of the proteins found in fish are inactive, with each fish containing just a small percentage of the active form. In our lab, we are trying to determine how and why this is the case.”
Berger is excited by the area’s relatively recent discovery; scientists only began investigating antifreeze proteins around 60 years ago. However, they have already taken on important roles in fields that include organ preservation, food preservation, and various other bio-technologies.
“My time at Stern College for Women has been a great opportunity to explore my interests,” said Berger, who plans to study in the school’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies and apply to medical school after graduation. “Dr. Drori’s lab allows me to apply much of the sciences I study at Stern, as it draws from biology, chemistry, physics, and biochemistry.”
Marjorie Liebling, who is majoring in mathematics with a minor in computer science, will tackle topological approaches to understanding Bayesian networks (probabilistic graphical models that represents a set of variables and their conditional dependencies) under the guidance of her mentor, Dr. Marian Gidea, professor of mathematics.
“With the advance of technology, the study of genomics experiences rapid progression,” she said. “Recent trends in research indicate a strong emphasis on single cell population data, as it has the potential to reveal patterns of genetic behavior that would have otherwise been masked in the traditional method of bulk cell population data. This single cell approach to data analysis may enhance our understanding of how the transcriptome [the set of mRNA molecules expressed by an organism] is controlled from one single cell to another—but it can be difficult to interpret at the transcriptome level because of the newness of the field and the slow emergence of bioinformatic tools, which is especially the case for genetic networks.”
By applying computational topology tools to a specific single cell data set for which the Bayesian network has already been analyzed through standard statistical approaches, Liebling and Gidea hope to maximize the robustness of the learned network and scientists’ understanding of its biological implications.
The results of the study, which is being conducted in partnership with Dr. Jessica Mar, assistant professor in the Department of Systems and Computational Biology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals and used to improve analytical software.
“As part of the joint BA/MA program in Applied Mathematics at YU, I had the opportunity to take a graduate course in computational topology with Dr. Marian Gidea in Fall 2017, where I was introduced to a relatively modern area in the field of mathematics and gained a completely new and exciting perspective on data analysis,” said Liebling, who ultimately plans to pursue a graduate degree in an area of quantitative science such as computational biology or applied mathematics.
“In the classroom, Dr. Gidea presents the subject matter in an extremely clear and exciting way so that students come away from each and every class with a deeper understanding of how to perform computation, the theory behind it, and its application to real life issues,” she added. “The fast and clear nature of the class develops critical thinking and makes the learning process exciting, challenging, and enjoyable. Outside of the classroom, Dr. Gidea is always available to meet with students to discuss current courses, future courses, academic endeavors, and career planning.”
Under the mentorship of Professor of Physics Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, Yonah Shmalo’s research will focus on the spread of information in a dynamic network by applying a network theoretical approach to the “Gossip Problem,” a question in graph theory. “We’re studying how information might propagate through a time-dependent network,” said Shmalo. “The idea is that if you have a set of people, each with their own secret, how many conversations need to be had in order for each one to learn all of the secrets in the group?”
The study of information diffusion in a network has many applications to other real-world topics—for instance, the spread of a particular virus from city to city. “We hope that our results could be applied to many other phenomena that involve propagation through a medium,” said Shmalo, who is majoring mathematics with a minor in physics.
After graduation, Shmalo hopes to continue his academic journey at YU in its doctoral program in mathematics. “Professor Cwilich’s course in network science has been instrumental for me, and all of the classes I have taken with Professors Buldyrev, Gidea, Lowengrub, and Chen, as well as the assistance of my brother Yitzchak and my friend Daniel Goldsmith on this and other research projects, have been immensely impactful both on my knowledge and appreciation of math and physics,” he said.
Eric Shalmon will work with Dr. Marina Holz, the Doris and Dr. Ira Kukin Professor of Biology, to study a specific protein signaling pathway between two enzymes involved in regulating the energy levels of cells. “If we find that the two are intrinsically connected and if we can inhibit the activity of those enzymes through a synthesized drug, we may be able to induce apoptosis [programmed cell suicide] in cancer cells,” he said. “This research can therefore lead to new cancer therapies and the development of a successful anticancer drug that targets cellular energy levels.”
For Shalmon, who is considering medical school or advanced biology research after graduation, a cell biology course at Yeshiva College was especially transformative. “Through my studies, I gained a deeper appreciation for the beauty and intricacies of the way our bodies work,” he said. “At the core of that lies our individual cells and their processes.”
David Friedenberg will be advised by Dr. Fredy Zypman of the physics department as he studies the reconstruction of morphology and charge of nanometric structures from scanning probe microscopy forces.
“My research deals with the study of an instrument called an Atomic Force Microscope,” he said. “This device is used to measure chemical or biological samples at extremely small scales, down to the nanometer lever, by observing how the atomic and electric forces influence the device itself. However, there is no straightforward way to use the data from an Atomic Force Microscope to discover the exact behavior of the forces. My research focuses on using physical models to reconstruct the data about the forces in a sample using only the data given by the actual device.”
The work Friedenberg and Dr. Zypman are doing can have significant impact on many other fields, especially materials sciences and biology. “Understanding the type of force interactions in a nano-material could help to understand its atomic structure and therefore help us learn more properties of that material,” explained Friedenberg. “Also, being able to understand the electric forces in a biological sample could help us understand the complex interactions that allow the organism or virus to carry out its various tasks.”