Afternoon of Science Series: Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics

The Afternoon of Science series at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons continued Feb. 5 with presentations from Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics faculty.

Anna-Lena Steckelberg presents at the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics Afternoon of Science event.

In her opening remarks, VP&S Dean Katrina Armstrong, MD, emphasized the importance of sharing research in order to inspire collaboration.

“These events give us an opportunity to do what we do best, which is to come together to think about the important scientific questions that we address in our work and how we can take those on collectively,” said Armstrong.

The event was hosted by the department's chair, Stavros Lomvardas, PhD, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, who spoke about the department’s accomplishments, its reach across many fields at the medical center and university, and his plans to grow the department. The department has 21 primary faculty members, 50 students, and 70 postdocs working in labs on three Columbia campuses and collaborates with the New York Genome Center, the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, and other groups. Researchers in the department have published around 3,000 papers and in just the past 10 years have received around $200 million in funding.

Stavros Lomvardas at the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics Afternoon of Science event.

The department is home to three faculty members who have been awarded the Nobel Prize: Richard Axel, MD, University Professor and co-director of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute; Eric Kandel, MD, University Professor Emeritus; and Joachim Frank, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics. Axel presented a history of the department, spanning from its origins in the 1920s, when it became a home for many Jewish scientists fleeing persecution in Europe, through its growth as newer fields such as molecular genetics, structural biology, and neuroscience emerged and evolved. 

Richard Axel presented a history of the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics at the Afternoon of Science event.

The event was the first of the series to be held in the Vagelos Education Center, and several speakers acknowledged the contributions made by the building’s namesake, P. Roy Vagelos, MD’54, who led the biochemistry and molecular biophysics department at Washington University before joining Merck and is a longtime supporter of research and innovation at VP&S.

In his remarks at the event, Lomvardas highlighted the critical role of building a talent pipeline to ensure the health and diversity of the department in the future. Inspired by Diana Vagelos, the department recently created a partnership with Barnard’s Department of Chemistry, which will allow undergraduate students in that department to perform research in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics during the summer.

Attendees at the Feb. 5 event included external advisers from Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine, and the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at Rockefeller University.

Faculty presentations were made by:

  • Anthony Fitzpatrick, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, Zuckerman Mind Brain and Behavior Institute
    Presentation: “Patient-based Structural Biology of Human Disease”
    Fitzpatrick’s research leverages the latest developments in cryo-electron microscopy with complementary biophysical techniques to explore the molecular and structural basis of neurodegeneration and other human disorders caused by protein aggregation. To this end, Fitzpatrick and his team determine the structure and behavior of amyloid fibrils, which are implicated in a range of neurodegenerative diseases, and explore their interactomes.
  • Anna-Lena Steckelberg, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics
    Presentation: “Exploring RNA Structure Through a Viral Lens”
    Many viruses have evolved elegant strategies to co-opt and manipulate cellular processes for their own benefit. Steckelberg studies the molecular interactions that regulate gene expression during infection with RNA viruses and is particularly interested to learn how viruses use RNA structure to manipulate cellular processes. Studying how viruses hijack cellular machinery provides insight into the life cycle of important human pathogens but also expands our understanding of the cellular machinery itself.
  • Hashim Al-Hashimi, PhD, Roy and Diana Vagelos Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics
    Presentation: “RNA Conformational Propensities Determine Cellular Activity”
    The experimental means to visualize biochemical reactions at atomic resolution do not exist today, and that limits our ability to build a truly predictive understanding of the elementary processes that govern living cells and ultimately give rise to disease. Al-Hashimi aims to develop new methods for “imaging” the dynamics of nucleic acids at atomic resolution and to use this knowledge to help bridge the scale from the test tube, to cells, to organisms. His lab is working to quantitatively understand the mechanisms that lead to genomic instability; understand how RNA folds into 3D structures at the atomic level; and develop RNA and DNA targeting small molecule therapeutics to address diseases ranging from AIDS to cancer.
  • Samuel H. Sternberg, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics
    Presentation: “Molecular Innovation at the CRISPR-transposon Interface”
    Sternberg’s research broadly strives to expand our understanding of the ways in which noncoding RNAs conspire with effector proteins to target DNA. Focusing on evolutionarily distinct but analogous systems in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and using a combination of biochemistry, structural biology, biophysics, and genetics, he and his team are uncovering new biological functions while simultaneously advancing novel tools with which to precisely manipulate the genome.
  • Laura Landweber, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and of Biological Sciences
    Presentation: “Large-scale, RNA-guided Genome Editing in the Model Organism Oxytricha”
    Landweber studies novel genetic systems in microbial eukaryotes, combining a mechanistic and comparative approach to understanding genome evolution and diversity. Her lab’s research has shown that the surprisingly sophisticated variations on DNA and RNA processing in microbial eukaryotes create an imaginative playground for genome architecture and genetic systems.
  • Charles Zuker, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and of Neuroscience, Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute
    Presentation: “The Body-Brain Axis”
    Zuker’s research explores the molecular biology of the senses, illuminating the neural pathways that connect the five types of taste receptors in the tongue to corresponding taste centers in the brain. His work has recently expanded into the brain-body axis and the mechanisms by which the brain senses the internal state of our organs, and in his talk he provided two striking examples of sensory circuits that detect pathogen infection or amino acid starvation and elicit long-lasting physiological responses.


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