NIH awards researcher with history of Alzheimer’s in family determined to find a cure

Dr. Alejandra Alonso, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the College of Staten Island, was recently awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Alzheimer’s Association for the study of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. The grants total approximately $330,000. With 5.3 million people afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Dr. Alonso will lead a team of researchers to develop novel model systems and therapeutics to cure or delay the onset of this devastating disease.

Her laboratory on the CSI campus bustles with student activity. From PhD students and post-doctoral researchers studying slides of brain tissue through a microscope to Master’s students jotting down notes at their lab stations, there is a sense of purpose in Dr. Alonso’s lab that can only be accomplished when everyone involved believes they are doing something truly important.

“It is important to look at problems from a researcher’s perspective,” Dr. Alonso said when asked about her students’ roles in her research. “This is a chance to do important hands-on-research.”

A protein called TAU plays a significant role in the neurodegenerative process leading to Alzheimer’s disease. The study of this protein was neglected in the past, but Dr. Alonso has continued working on the role of TAU for more than a decade, along with her former mentors, Drs. Khalid Iqbal and Inge Grundke-Iqbal, at the New York Institute for Basic Research.

Dr. Alonso plans to examine the effects of Tau hyperphosphorylation on the microtubules in the brain. The TAU proteins stabilize microtubules which, in turn are the scaffolding of the cytoskeleton, or cellular skeleton. Through her research, Dr. Alonso hopes to determine what impact hyperphosphorylation (oversaturation of phosphate to a protein) has on a cell’s structure.

The NIH grant will focus on how TAU protein is modified in diseased brains to cause neurodegeneration. The goal of the Alzheimer’s Association grant, entitled “Tau-Induced Neurodegeneration,” is to generate new experimental models of neurofibrillary degeneration of the brain.

Dr. Alonso has experienced the impacts of Alzheimer’s disease in her own family, and hopes to develop the research tools and model systems to make strides for a cure. “If we know the mechanisms, we can work toward preventing or delaying the onset of this devastating disease.”

Dr. Alonso received her PhD at the University of Cordoba, Argentina. She began her work in the U.S. at the Institute for Basic Research, where she focused on biochemical characterization neuronal dysfunction in the brain. She began her work at CSI in 2007, and now has over 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Alejandra Alonso, Associate Professor at the Department of Biology at CSI

CSI Grad Receives Prestigious Horst Schulz Prize in Biochemistry

Kelly Levano, who obtained her Bachelor of Science in Biology in 2003 from the College of Staten Island and her PhD in Biochemistry in August 2009 from the CUNY Graduate Center (home campus CSI), has recently received the Horst Schulz Prize in Biochemistry. Her winning paper was entitled “A Genetic Strategy Involving a Glycosyltransferase Promoter and a Lipid Translocating Enzyme to Eliminate Cancer Cells.” Levano received the award at a ceremony at the CUNY Graduate Center. In attendence were CSI Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. William Fritz; her mentor at CSI, Professor of Chemistry Dr. Probal Banerjee; and Levano’s mother, among others.

This is the second year in a row that the prize was won by a CSI student, as Leah Cohen received the award last year for her paper “Expression and Biophysical Analysis of Two Double-Transmembrane Domain-Containing Fragments From a Yeast G Protein-Coupled Receptor.”

Levano, who is currently working as a Postdoc at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Department of Developmental Molecular Biology under Dr. Paraic Kenny with a research specialization of breast cancer, said, “I was very honored to have received this award. I was especially moved during the award ceremony by [Executive Officer of the Biochemistry program at the CUNY Graduate Center] Dr. Edward J. Kennelly’s introductory speech where he read a few lines from my admission’s essay. He reminded me of my goals and expectations at the time I entered the Doctoral program and reinforced my goal to help in the fight against cancer.”

“The Horst Schulz award was started in 2008 honoring Prof. Emeritus Horst Schulz, who chaired the Biochemistry Doctoral program for a number of years,” Dr. Banerjee explained. “Every year, it honors a Biochemistry doctoral student whose research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal in the form of a first-author article. It is highly competitive, because a number doctoral students from various CUNY campuses compete for this honor. We are proud to acknowledge that Leah Cohen from Dr. Fred Naider’s lab received this award for 2008 and now Kelly received it for 2009, thus bringing special honor to CSI.”

As for Levano and her achievement, Banerjee added, “Kelly joined my research team as a shy undergraduate student who was sure about her talents but not really set in her goal in life. Her strong background in Biochemistry helped her grasp the research project fairly quickly, but then she had to work really hard to secure a berth in the CUNY Doctoral program in Biochemistry. Little did she or anyone else know that she would eventually mature into a talented doctoral student. Furthermore, it was difficult to predict that in the melee of so many highly talented students she will be chosen to receive this prestigious award…I feel extremely proud of her achievement and hope that she will accomplish much more during her future years as a cancer biologist.”

Regarding Levano’s honors and the fact that CSI students have won the award two years in a row, Dr. Fritz commented that “this is another indication that our students and academic programs are “World Class, right here.”

Looking back on her studies at CSI, Levano noted, “the College of Staten Island has been my home for ten years. It was here that I developed my love for research and where I acquired the tools to achieve my goals as a researcher.”

CSI alumna Kelly Levano is the second CSI student in a row to win the prestigious Horst Schulz Prize

HS Student Studying Brain Tumors at CSI Moves to International Competition

Six years of diligent research work coupled with steadfast support and encouragement from faculty and students at the College of Staten Island (CSI) has landed a local Staten Island Tech High School student a spot at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) competition next month in San Jose, CA.

The project, entitled “Inhibiting Brain Tumor Progression Using Targeted Curcumin,” was performed by a student from Staten Island Tech High School performing research in the laboratory of Dr. Probal Banerjee, Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Neuroscience at CSI.

“Enthusiastic judges from various backgrounds have placed this project at the top of the “Biochemistry and Molecular Biology” category at the New York Science and Engineering Fair (NYSEF), which caused this project to move to competitions at a higher level,” reported Dr. Banerjee.

Staten Island Tech student, Sneha Banerjee, performed organic synthesis in CSI’s laboratories and then used targeted derivatives of the food component curcumin to perform elaborate studies on cancer cells. Both Drs. Qiao-Sheng Hu and Krishnaswami Raja of the College’s Chemistry Department, along with CSI doctoral students Phyllis Langone and Sukanta Dolai, contributed heavily to this project by assisting in further moving the research into the area of in vivo studies.

These studies in tumor-implanted mice showed decimation of brain tumors and rescue of sick mice by antibody-targeted curcumin, a spice component that preferentially kills cancer cells but protects normal cells. Since high school students cannot be involved directly in animal studies, Sneha Banerjee actively participated in imaging of the tumors, all organic syntheses, spectroscopic analyses, cell culture studies, microscopy, data interpretation and literature analysis.

Highlighting the role of the CSI doctoral students in this accomplishment, Dr. Raja added that “Sukanta was instrumental in supervising and executing the synthesis [with Sneha]” adding, “he is the backbone of my research group.”

“This is an impressive achievement for our institution and for Sneha Banerjee. CSI continues to seek new ways to promote and support more of these kinds of opportunities for high schools students,” said E.K. Park, Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at CSI.

Doctoral student Phyllis Langone (left) and Sneha Banerjee (right) are shown at a biological safety cabinet station.

Student Wins Award at Eastern Colleges Science Conference

Sherry Browne, a Biology major at the College of Staten Island who graduated with honors last May, has recently been awarded an Excellence Award at the Eastern Colleges Science Conference [ECSC] that took place at Wagner College.

Saying that she feels “extremely proud and accomplished,” Browne’s winning poster was entitled “Dynamic Studies of Alzheimer-Like Pseudophosphorylated Tau Proteins and Microtubles.” Explaining the research, Browne’s mentor Dr. Alejandra del C. Alonso,
Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and Program in Developmental Neuroscience, says “There is a protein that gets modified because of disease, which destroys the structure of the cell. In the cells, there are structures like train tracks that take things from one part of the cell to the other and when this modified protein appears in the brain, then those tracks get destroyed. [Sherry] wanted to see the process while it was happening, so she made the cell express this modified protein and she made the modified protein express light so she could videotape that and see the process as the tracks were getting destroyed in the cell.” According to Dr. Alonso, Browne’s was one of approximately 180 posters at the regional undergraduate research conference.

Browne notes that she feels that her experience at CSI contributed to her winning this award and, in particular, she credits Dr. Alonso. “CSI allowed me the opportunity to work with Dr. Alejandra del. C. Alonso. She has been so patient, informative, and inspirational. Without her, I would have not experienced such success.”

Looking toward the future, Browne comments that “I plan on traveling the world and participating in as much volunteer work as possible.”

According to the conference Website, “The first [ECSC] was organized in 1947 by undergraduate Pauline Newman at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The aim then, as now, was to stimulate interest in undergraduate research in the sciences and related fields and to provide a lively forum for the presentation of research papers…Over the years interest has increased in the conference and over 50 colleges and universities have attended this annual event. Over time the range of subject matter has also expanded and now covers computer science and behavioral and social sciences, as well as the original areas of biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and engineering.”

Sherry Browne poses in front of her award-winning poster at the Eastern Colleges Science Conference.

CSI Student Gains Acceptance to Prestigious Combined Degree Program

CSI student Jason Ford has recently received some great news. He has been accepted into the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Medical Science Training Program, a National Institutes of Health-funded MD/PhD program, where he will seek his PhD in Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

“I owe much of my success to the excellent education, support, and mentoring opportunities offered to students at the College of Staten Island,” says Jason, who just graduated from the College summa cum laude in 2008 with a BS in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Biochemistry, and is currently enrolled in the CUNY MS in Neuroscience program, studying under Dr. Probal Banerjee. “After reviewing the medical and graduate school curricula, which are done simultaneously, I can see that I have been extraordinarily well-prepared for these arduous yet immensely rewarding endeavors in academia and clinical medicine. I will always remember the great things that CSI has done for me, and will always advocate CUNY education as I progress through my career.”

Jason’s interest in biology budded at an early age, but his interests shifted a bit after he arrived at CSI. “I took organic chemistry and fell in love with it, which is surprising, considering that I was a Biology major. I loved organic so much that I ended up taking three courses in biochemistry with Dr. Fred Naider and Dr. Banerjee. After learning the subject well, I came to realize that biochemistry is really the cause of cell and molecular biology, anatomy, and physiology. Since then, I’ve been very interested in biochemical research, and that’s really where the focus of my research initiatives has been.”

After more time at CSI, Jason also found an interest in neuroscience. “I got into neuroscience in a rather roundabout way. I took physiology and histology with Dr. Charles Kramer and Dr. El Abdeslem Idrissi. I very much enjoyed these courses and I really benefited from their expertise and knowledge base. Out of all the topics in both courses, I absolutely loved the anatomy, physiology, and histology of the nervous system. Every time I read about a certain part of the brain or the spine, I became very interested and excited about it. It was almost as if I knew right after physiology that I wanted my medical career to involve something with the brain and/or spinal cord in one way or the other. I ended up taking neuroscience classes in the year while I was applying for MD/PhD programs.”

As a result of his well-rounded interests, Jason has had the opportunity to conduct research aimed at improving the environment, an investigation of how chromatin structure affects gene expression, synthesizing peptides with applications for agriculture and the development of an HIV-1 vaccine, and a molecular study of the antipsychotic drug clozapine, in an effect to gain insight into the treatment of schizophrenia. Of his research, he notes, “CSI students have a tremendous opportunity to pursue biomedically relevant and intellectually stimulating research. In my time at CSI, I had my own projects and I had the chance to work independently and confront the problems that I encountered in the laboratory.”

Now that he has been accepted into the MD/PhD program at Albert Einstein, what does the future hold for Jason Ford? “It’s quite hard for me to say what my plans will be after graduating with my MD and PhD degrees,” Jason says. “However,” he continues, “above everything else, I hope to get a stellar education as a physician-scientist, which will allow me to integrate both aspects of my training. I know that while I am at Einstein, I will utilize every opportunity available to me in terms of learning how to do great research while being a sound clinician. While I am precisely unsure of the medical specialty I will choose, I would like to pick research and medical specialties which are intertwined, allowing me to bring my findings from the laboratory bench into the clinics and hospitals to benefit patients. Some of the medical fields that I am considering include neurosurgery, plastic surgery, dermatology, and pediatric oncology, but I still have some time to decide.”

Dr. Probal Banerjee and Jason Ford, who was recently accepted into a prestigious MD/PhD program.

Students Participate in 12th Annual Urban University Conference

The New York City Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation in Science (NYC LSAMP) held its 12th Annual Urban University Conference at the College of Staten Island (CSI), a senior college of The City University of New York (CUNY). Participants from across the city joined CUNY Research Scholars on CSI’s campus on Friday and Saturday, May 1 and 2.

The event also featured a Graduate Education/Technology Expo with exhibitors from Academic, Industry, and Agency settings, as well as a Best Practices symposium.

This year’s theme was “Mentoring: From Students to Colleagues,” and the keynote speaker was Dr. Marcia Cantarella of Cantarella Consulting, and former Dean at Hunter College and Princeton University.

On May 1, CUNY students from throughout NYC were transported to CSI for a day of high-level scientific presentations. These same students also provided mentoring and feedback to middle school and high school students from throughout Staten Island who presented their research at CSI on May 2. An extension of CSI’s Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), this unique collaborative experience was designed to further engage the intellectual capital of CSI and CUNY with the Island community.

CSI Biochemistry student Jose Saltos, who is presenting a poster on eco-friendly plasticizers at the conference, says that he feels that it is important to attend the conference for three reasons “Number 1, we need to practice our public speaking and how to present our work. It’s one thing to know what you know but then be able to explain it to somebody from a different area, that’s another thing. Number 2 is networking. We get to meet other students from other colleges. Number 3 is the school fair. I’m looking to see which schools to go to to get my PhD, so it’s good to see the schools over here and talk to the representatives to answer the questions that I have.”

Saadya Averick a Biochemistry/Chemistry major at CSI, presenting a poster on antibody polymer hybrids, added that the conference is important “for students to network, but also to get a better idea of what you want to talk about in presenting your research. You actually learn a lot about what you’re doing by thinking about how to write it up and presenting what’s important about it. That’s an opportunity that is going to be very important throughout writing papers and applying for grants and throughout graduate school because these conferences keep coming up and the more conferences you do, the more you learn how to present your research and and look more professional about it.”

Dr. Probal Banerjee, Professor of Chemistry at CSI and a mentor to some of the students at the conference, commented that “the stongpoint of this conference is that this is a venue where the undergraduate and the graduate students can interact with one another over their projects. Normally, when you have an undergraduate conference, it’s only undergraduates [who are there], and if you have the science conferences, where the graduate students and the post-doctoral students go, they interact with one another, but it’s only in very rare situations where the undergraduates come in close contact with the graduate students and the post-docs.”

“There are many benefits to this exciting program,” said Dr. Gail Simmons, Dean of Science and Technology at CSI, “and it demonstrates our deep commitment to minority science education and research training, from the undergraduate to PhD level. Our program was particularly valuable to the middle and high school students who attended. Even in the best high school classrooms, there is not a sense of the process and people working in the sciences. The textbooks do not often feature scientists who are female or of color, making it difficult for the full spectrum of students to picture themselves in that role. The richness of research CUNY-wide is an excellent tool to engage young researchers in the scientific enterprise, and diversifying the field is vital to the future health of academic and scientific pursuits.”

The NYC LSAMP is a CUNY-wide National Science Foundation (NSF) effort designed to substantially increase the number of underrepresented minority students (African American, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Native Pacific Islanders) who pursue and graduate with Baccalaureate degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

Since the inception of NYC LSAMP in November 1992, more than 10,000 baccalaureate degrees have been awarded to underrepresented minority students in CUNY.

Jose Saltos is one of the students who participated in the 12th Annual Urban University Conference.