Last weekend, MCB hosted its annual Research Retreat, a weekend packed with science, fun activities, and opportunities to interact with others in the MCB community.
Scientific highlights of the beachside weekend included over a dozen talks by researchers from MCB labs, a community workshop on emotional intelligence, and a poster session featuring research from across the department.
The first day of the retreat also featured recreational activities such as the time-honored tradition of a volleyball match between the first-year MCO graduate students and the faculty (The G1s took the first set, faculty won the second, and G1s were victorious in the third set, marking the first time the graduate students have prevailed in 10 years.), dinner and a skit presented by third-year MCO graduate students followed by the poster session. The first night ended with a choice of relaxing by the beachside fire pit, playing board games, or dancing at a DJ party.
The two-day retreat concluded with a keynote address by scientific visualization expert Janet Iwasa of the University of Utah and an awards luncheon. This year, the Meselson Prize for Most Beautiful Experiment went to Bioengineering graduate student Giri Anand of the Ramanathan Lab, and MCO graduate student Anastasia Repouliou of the Extavour Lab won the Peralta Science Essay Award. To learn more about this year’s award winners, read on.
This year’s Retreat Committee included Ethan Garner, Amanda Whipple, Florian Engert, Polina Kehayova, Jessica Manning, Francisco Arellano, and Olakunle Jaiyesimi, who is the committee’s representative from the community task force on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
In her concluding remarks, MCB Chair Rachelle Gaudet thanked everyone for attending and encouraged community connections. “One of the great strengths of MCB is our community, and the more we come together, hang out, and share our science with each other (as well as have fun and party), not only does our community become stronger, but it also helps advance our science further through the exchanges of ideas and perspectives from different fields,” she said.
Due to COVID concerns, several scheduled speakers and participants had to cancel, and MCB would like to thank everyone who stepped up to speak at the last minute and to wish everyone who is sick or has been exposed a speedy and thorough recovery.
“A lot of work goes into planning the Retreat, but, in the end, it is all worth it,” says MCB event planner Francisco Arellano. “Thanks to the Retreat Committee and my colleagues and boss in MCB Administration who supported me in organizing this event. It has been fantastic to receive all this positive feedback. Hopefully, everyone who attended will respond to the survey because the more feedback we receive the more we can improve the next one.”
“I am delighted to return to Sea Crest next year,” Arellano says. “It’s a beautiful place.” Save the date for September 20-21, 2024.
Meselson Prize for Most Beautiful Experiment
Named for MCB faculty Matthew Meselson, the Meselson Prize for Most Beautiful Experiment recognizes researchers who develop innovative and elegant experiments to address pressing research questions. This year’s Meselson Prize recipient is bioengineering graduate student Giri Anand of the Ramanathan Lab.
“It’s a great honor,” Anand says. “I remember learning about Meselson and Stahl’s experiments during my freshman year of college, and since then I’ve aspired to that level of elegance in experimental design. The physical award itself showcases the double helix structure of DNA, and reading about its discovery in high school is what inspired me to get into biology research.”
Anand is establishing model organoid systems for studying the formation of the neural tube, a key step in embryonic development. “A fundamental challenge in the field is that such models using wild type’ embryonic stem cells are extremely variable,” one of Anand’s nominators wrote. “The embryonic stem cells often generate the cell types one wants, but most often, the tissue architecture is incorrect or does not exist. Thus making any sense of genetic perturbations in such a system to extract mechanistic insight is difficult.”
Anand’s research has addressed these challenges by developing a method for consistently creating neural tube organoids that undergo elongation in vitro. “Giri Anand noticed, surprisingly, that anterior-posterior symmetry breaking [an essential part of developing the neural tube] seemed to depend on how the cysts were arranged on the glass, probably because the cysts were secreting signals and thus communicating with each other,” the nominator wrote. “Therefore he asked if one could learn how to arrange the cysts such that every one of the cysts broke anterior-posterior symmetry exactly as one wanted. Using tools from machine learning to analyze the data from randomly arranged cysts, Anand, predicted that arranging the cysts in a specific hexagonal pattern would lead the cysts to all break anterior-posterior symmetry, producing hundreds of identical axially elongating neural tube-like structures. They found that, indeed, each structure grew to a millimeter long in a week, mirroring the neural tube in vivo.”
Using these organoids, Anand and his colleagues were able to identify clusters of a key cell type (called NMP-like cells) that produce growth signals that govern the elongation of the organoids. The research has yielded two publications in the prestigious journal Cell, and more are on the horizon. “Members of the lab have extended these ideas to build complex embryonic tissues that have not been possible before,” the nominator wrote. “I believe these works open the possibility to study human development with precision and at a scale that has been beyond reach previously.”
Anand is currently working on projects that model different areas of the central nervous system. “I hope these models will help expand our knowledge of nervous system development in humans,” he says. “Going forward, I am planning to do a postdoc to further explore the potential of organoids and what they can teach us.”
Peralta Science Essay Award
This prize honors graduate students who compose essays explaining their research to a general audience. Its namesake is MCB faculty Ernest Peralta (1959-1999), who passed away after a battle with cancer.
This year’s Peralta Award winner is graduate student Anastasia Repouliou of the Extavour Lab, who penned an essay presenting the protein she studies, Oskar, as a mysterious superhero named “Oskar the Assembler.” Oskar has long been known to play a key role in organizing the germ plasm, the molecular stew that molds early stage embryonic cells into future germ cells.
Repouliou writes, “The busy environment of the developing fly embryo might have been ruled by chaos, panic, lawlessness. A crowd of molecules, each operating in a space vastly larger than itself, must find themselves at the right place at the right time. Should they fail… Defects, infertility, even death could ensue. But they rarely fail. For in this madness, a hero emerges. One protein takes it upon itself to herd a set of molecules crucial for the determination of the egg and the sperm, the sex cells, and in effect for the continuation of the species. This hero gathers the sex cell-determining molecules where they need to be for the developing fly to survive and procreate. This hero is none other than ‘Oskar the Assembler’ and Oskar works in mysterious ways. But worry not, reader, for this investigator is working tirelessly to uncover the secret methods of Oskar.”
Science communication has been one of Repouliou’s passions for a long time. “I believe that science communication is not just a garnish and should not be an afterthought,” she says. “Presenting our work in a truly engaging fashion is an integral step in the process of understanding, analyzing, and even designing our projects. So we might as well have fun with it! Being playful with communication doesn’t have to detract from transmitting the rigor and scientific merit of our work.”
She adds that thinking about Oskar as a superhero was a natural extension of thinking about how Oskar pulls off the amazing feat of organizing the germ plasm.
Receiving the Peralta Award came as a pleasant surprise. “I am very thankful to receive this award, especially given how important science communication is to me,” Repouliou says. “I was worried that my essay was too far off the beaten path, but I was really happy to see that my crazy, dramatic way of getting people excited about Oskar has a place in MCB! I am also very thankful to the people who support me and help me become better at what I do, while still being myself.”
Congratulations to these two graduate students and thank you to everyone who contributed to the retreat!