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Annual MCB Retreat Awards Celebrate Contributions to the Department

Annual MCB Retreat Awards Celebrate Contributions to the Department

This year’s annual MCB departmental retreat took place in person in Falmouth, Massachusetts . Students, faculty, postdocs, and staff from the department gathered for two days of networking and team-building activities.

The retreat also included the annual departmental awards ceremony, which honors the contributions of MCB community members at all levels. This year’s honorees include the MCB preceptors, MCO graduate students, MCB faculty, and postdocs.

Rachel Lily Terry (G5, Paulsson Lab)

The Peralta Graduate Student Essay Award

Graduate student Rachel Lily Terry of the Paulsson Lab was awarded the Peralta Graduate Student Essay Award on the strength of an essay titled, “Dividing up DNA: Minimal plasmid partitioning systems.”

Named for MCB faculty Ernest Peralta (1959-1999), the Peralta Award recognizes graduate students who write essays describing their research to lay audiences. In honor of Peralta’s dedication to teaching and scientific outreach, the Peralta Award encourages MCB trainees to express their science through creative nonfiction.

Terry’s essay describes her research on how plasmids partition themselves in a dividing cell. In the essay, she details her findings on how a bacterial plasmid called R1 ensures that the plasmid persists through generations of daughter cells. The R1 partitioning system is one of the simplest partitioning systems known to science.

“It seems that one of most minimal, natural DNA partitioning systems need not always be highly numerically accurate in the canonical sense of 50-50 partitioning,” Terry writes in her essay. “Rather, numerical accuracy for this system is more aptly framed as preventing plasmid loss. At first, I found this sensible characterization rather unexpected. Part of why scientists have been so entranced by partitioning of DNAs in particular is because of eukaryotic mitosis’s exceptional care and specificity in partitioning DNAs with respect to number and identity. Yet, this minimal partitioning system (even nicknamed “bacterial mitosis”9,10 for its use of filaments) is not designed to prioritize either of these criteria; plasmid partitioning systems have remarkably minimized complexity but have sacrificed specificity as a tradeoff.”

Jessica Osterhout shown with Matt Meselson

Jessica Osterhout (Dulac Lab)

Meselson Award for “Most Beautiful Experiment” 

The Meselson Award celebrates exceptionally “beautiful” experiments conducted by trainees in MCB labs. The prize’s namesake is MCB faculty Matthew Meselson, who famously demonstrated that DNA replicates semi-conservatively with an elegant set of experiments in 1958.

This year, the accolade went to postdoc Jessica Osterhout of the Dulac Lab for her investigations into the neuroscience of “feeling sick.”

“Sickness behaviors”—such as fever, lethargy, seeking warmth, and avoiding social interactions—are widespread among animals, but the neural underpinnings of sickness response have long remained obscure.

Osterhout’s research has changed that. Through transcriptomic research and careful attention to physiology, she identified a population of neurons that appear to initiate fever and other behaviors characteristic of being ill. A separate set of behavioral and physiological experiments revealed a second distinct population of neurons that cause sickly mice to huddle with other unwell mice while avoiding healthy mice.

“Through this research, Jessica has displayed a great level of intellectual acumen by elevating the question of how fever is triggered to the more comprehensive issue of mechanisms underlying multiple sickness symptoms,” a nominator wrote in a letter recommending Osterhout for the Meselson Award. “She also designed simple but ingenious approaches to zoom in specific populations of neurons orchestrating sickness symptoms and demonstrate their roles in changing the animal behavior and physiology.”

Rachelle Gaudet, Matthew Volpe, José Velilla, and Emily Balskus; (l to r)

Björkman-Strominger-Wiley Prize for Collaboration

The Björkman-Strominger-Wiley Prize for Collaboration celebrates innovative collaborations between Harvard labs. In the 1980s, then-graduate student Pamela Björkman collaborated with MCB faculty Jack Strominger and Don C. Wiley (1944-2001) through a series of experiments that shed light on histocompatibility. The Björkman-Strominger-Wiley Prize celebrates that tradition of interdisciplinary cooperation between labs.

The 2021 Björkman-Strominger-Wiley Prize went to a team including MCB faculty Rachelle Gaudet, MCB and CCB faculty Emily Balskus, SCRB graduate student José Velilla, and CCB graduate student Matthew Volpe for their investigation into a microbially-secreted molecule called colibactin.

“Understanding how gut microbial metabolites influence human health is a major problem of contemporary interest, yet few methods exist for selectively modulating metabolite production in complex microbiomes,” a nominator wrote in a letter recommending the collaboration for the award. “The successful development of non-toxic small molecules that inhibit individual microbial metabolic activities is therefore an extremely promising strategy to elucidate the biological roles of these organisms. Given colibactin’s strong connection to colorectal cancer and prominence as a disease-linked gut bacterial metabolite, we anticipate these compounds will be widely used in the microbiome research community.”

So far, the collaboration has produced two research papers on colibactin and the molecules that activate colibactin’s cell-killing effects. Both of these papers are currently under review at a major journal. The collaboration has also led to the labs embarking on further projects investigating other genotoxic molecules produced by microbes.

“The combination of chemical biology and structural biology exemplified by the Balskus-Gaudet collaboration is a powerful approach to investigate the fascinating chemistry of symbiotic, opportunistic, and disease-causing host-microbe interactions,” a nominator concluded in the recommendation letter.

(top l to bottom r) Michel Becuwe, Monique Brewster, Kathleen Quast, and Sien Verschave

Life Sciences Preceptors

Doty-Losick Prize for Exceptional Service

Scientific research is far from the only arena where MCB community members make massive contributions. The Doty-Losick Prize for Exceptional Service, which is named after MCB faculty Paul Doty (1920-2011) and Richard Losick recognizes the accomplishments of educators, staff, and community members who make extraordinary efforts to support MCB’s researchers and students.

This year, the awards committee awarded the prize to the MCB course preceptors, who are trained scientists who co-teach MCB core courses and provide support to students, faculty, and teaching fellows. Preceptors’ efforts are critical to undergraduate teaching in any year, but the awards committee sought to recognize the 2020-2021 preceptors’ extraordinary work adapting MCB courses to virtual formats.

The recipients of the 2021 Doty-Losick Prize are: Michel Becuwe, Monique BrewsterKathleen Quast, and Sien Verschave. Preceptors Nava Gharaei, Jessica Liu, and Annie Park were also offered the prize but declined to accept.

“Their work is often difficult to see–they are the people who make everything run smoothly and take care of problems often before we even know they existed,” one nominator wrote in the  letter suggesting the preceptors for the Doty-Losick Prize. “I don’t think we would have managed to get through 2021/2022 without them.”

The nomination letter, which was co-signed by nine faculty and staff, praised each preceptor individually for providing exceptional education under extraordinary (and constantly shifting) circumstances.

“Michel Becuwe’s preceptor appointment started on July 1 2020, but he started working on MCB 60 from May 12,”a nominator wrote. “He did this voluntarily knowing he had to learn everything he needed to know about managing MCB 60 during a particular turbulent time when every single course instructor at Harvard was figuring out how to teach over Zoom.”

The preceptors who led large team-taught courses faced the same challenges at even larger scales. “Monique [Brewster] and Sien [Verschave], the two LS1a preceptors, took on an unprecedented level of responsibilities beyond the typical LS1a workload that allowed the team to successfully overhaul the course and pivot to remote learning,” a nominator wrote. The nominators further noted that Brewster took on more responsibilities by becoming Associate Concentration Advisor of MCB and CPB, while Verschave developed interactive virtual class formats and coordinated numerous teaching fellows.

Meanwhile, in LS1b, Annie Park and Nava Gharaei were tasked with leading the largest MCB course. “In Spring ’20, the campus evacuation semester, Nava and her fellow preceptor Annie Park performed miracles over Spring Break, recording videos of themselves doing every step of every post-Spring Break lab, and developing concurrently a coherent online version of the labs,” the nominators wrote. “Then, just as Spring ’21 launched, Annie went on maternity leave. Unfortunately, true to form and apparently unaware of the irony, Harvard pleaded poverty in response to our requests for a replacement for Annie.The result: Nava had to run LS1b single handedly.”

“LS1b, despite venturing into the uncharted waters of its new online incarnation, ran amazingly smoothly,” the nominators continued. “That it did so was entirely down to Nava. She did everything; she was everywhere.”

Neurobiology preceptor Kathleen Quast also earned praise for her impact on introductory neurobiology course MCB 115. “Katie’s performance as the Neuroscience preceptor has been stellar and far exceeded her job responsibilities and our expectations for the role,” a nominator wrote. “Three years ago, she joined as co-instructor in a lecture course I previously taught alone (MCB 115). She was a major driving force in the creation of a new lab neurophysiology component to the class.”

Liu’s efforts in teaching MCB 64 following the passing of MCB faculty and LabXchange founder Rob Lue in 2020 were also noted in the nomination materials. “Jessica Liu [who teaches MCB 64] saved our biology curriculum in the second semester by stepping in on short notice and at a time of her own personal grieving for her mentor Rob, and did an impressive job as the main and only instructor of the class,” one nominator wrote. “She beautifully continued the legacy of Rob Lue while also adding her own ideas and innovations in the class.” Liu ultimately declined to accept the prize, and the MCB community is grateful for her exceptional service.

Altogether, the preceptors’ efforts were essential to MCB’s educational mission. The MCB faculty and community would like to thank the preceptors for their unwavering commitment and superlative efforts.

Congratulations to all of the MCB Retreat Award winners!