No more lazybones

Contrary to what many people think, bone is a highly dynamic tissue that is constantly being broken down and reformed in order to maintain a healthy and strong skeleton. This process of bone remodeling is enabled by specialized bone cells called osteoclasts and osteoblasts. Osteoclasts produce enzymes to degrade old and damaged bone, which is replaced with new bone by osteoblasts. However, these cells do more than simply breaking down and rebuilding your bones. Recent advances in bone biology have shown that bone cells also have an important endocrine function, meaning that they release hormones into the circulation to affect other tissues and organs in the body. As such, the bone-derived hormone osteocalcin was shown to promote muscle function in a mouse model. Dr. Subrata Chowdhury from the Karsenty lab of the Department of Genetics and Development at CUMC followed up on this remarkable finding, and investigated the regulation of osteocalcin in animal models as well as humans, as recently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Dr. Chowdhury and colleagues found that circulating osteocalcin levels are increased after a 12-week exercise program in humans, and that this effect requires the signaling molecule, or “cytokine”, interleukin-6 (IL-6). The latter was shown by inhibiting IL-6, which completely blocked the induction of osteocalcin by exercise. They continued by using a mouse model to show that IL-6 is actually derived from the muscle itself, and that its production is necessary for maximal exercise capacity. In other words, mice that could not produce IL-6 in their muscles were not able to run as far on a treadmill as compared to mice that were able to produce IL-6.

They further investigated the interplay between IL-6 and osteocalcin in mice, and found that IL-6 stimulates osteoblasts in the bone tissue to produce RANKL, a protein that is necessary for osteoclast differentiation. As a result, more active osteoclasts are formed within the tissue. These osteoclasts produce high amounts of osteocalcin, which signal back to the muscle to promote the uptake and breakdown of glucose and fatty acids by muscle cells. In addition, osteocalcin stimulates the muscle to produce more IL-6, thereby generating a positive feedback loop between muscle and bone (see Figure below). The end result of this loop is a muscle tissue which can utilize more nutrients from the circulation, and is therefore more functional during exercise.

Exercise capacity, also referred to as fitness, is a strong predictor of chronic disease and mortality. The research by Dr. Chowdhury and colleagues has shown that exercise capacity can be improved by stimulating the IL-6-osteocalcin axis. Although their findings are very convincing, according to Dr. Chowdhury the scientific community initially reacted with disbelief. IL-6 is classically known as an inflammatory cytokine, and is one of the components of the detrimental “cytokine storm” that occurs during, for example, a COVID-19 infection. However, while the high levels of IL-6 under pro-inflammatory conditions are damaging for the body, low sustained levels of IL-6 may actually be beneficial. Follow-up studies are now being performed with low doses of long-acting IL-6 analogues, to study their potential to safely and effectively promote exercise capacity and improve health.

Dr. Chowdhury showed us the importance of not being led by scientific biases, but by our observations. And who would guess that our skeleton does not weigh us down, but actually makes us run faster?

Figure adapted from Chowdhury, JCI 2020, and created with BioRender.com.

Cracking early construction steps of the blood brain barrier

Figure 1. Early demonstration of blood-brain barrier phenomenon in developing brain.

In physiology, we often associate the terms “central” and “periphery” to refer to the brain vs the rest of the organism. This is not an anodyne dichotomy, as early 19th century injections of a dye in mice bloodstream highlighted its spreading everywhere within the organism, except in the brain (Fig. 1). In fact, a structure conveniently named the blood-brain-barrier surrounds the brain, and has two functions: protect from peripheral pathogens or toxins present in the blood, and allow nutrients to cross over to provide energy to neurons and glial cells (Fig.2).

 

Neurodegenerative diseases, ischemic strokes or other diseases such as multiple sclerosis often occur with a disruption of the blood-brain-barrier. Understanding its formation is important to investigate a cure for these disorders. In their current paper, Cottarelli and colleagues focused on the genetic determinants involved in the maturation and function of the blood-brain-barrier.

Figure 2. Blood brain barrier anatomy. From Anatomy and Physiology of the Blood–Brain Barriers, J. Abbott

The formation of a complex multicellular structure from stem cells requires the regulation of cells proliferation, migration and differentiation. These processes rely on a few key molecular signaling pathways (Fgf, hedgehog, wnt, TGFbeta, Notch). Wnt/β-catenin is one of the highly evolutionarily conserved molecular pathways that allows a cell to send information from its nucleus to cell surface receptors. Mutations in this pathway lead to abnormal development or cancer. While we know that this signaling pathway is involved in the establishment of the blood-brain-barrier, the detailed molecular mechanisms were still to elucidate. Dr Cottarelli’s work identifies a new partner of Wnt/β-catenin pathway necessary for the blood-brain-barrier development: the protein Fgfbp1 secreted by the endothelial cells of the brain and released in the basement membrane during the first weeks of age in mice. Collagen is a well known- component of conjunctive tissues. Using fluorescent microscopy techniques, Dr Cottarelli nicely highlighted a complex molecular pathway where the blood-brain-barrier maturation is enabled through collagen deposition in the vascular basement membrane. She shows that removal of Fgfbp1 gene in the blood vessels leads to a decreased signaling in the Wnt/β-catenin pathway, abnormal vascularization, delays in the establishment of the blood-brain-barrier, and abnormal cell interactions at the level of the neurovascular units. The paper also identifies a molecular mechanism linking Fgfbp1 and collagen IV in the basement membrane through the regulation of the gene Plvap (Fig 3).

 

Figure 3. Proposed model for the role of Fgfbp1 in BBB maturation.

Future studies will investigate how Fgfbp1 is involved in complex neurovascular diseases.

Azzurra Cottarelli is a postdoc in Dr Agalliu’s lab in the department of neurology. Her new paper in Development highlights her expertise in the formation of the blood-brain-barrier.

 

Mating induces transgenerational silencing in worms

Just imagine if apart from the looks one could also inherit their parents’ skills, memories, knowledge, and ideas. Sounds amazing right? However, passing down such characteristics would require transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.  The literal meaning of epigenetics is “above” or “on top of genetics”, i.e., the external modifications of the cell without any change in its DNA sequence that could turn a gene on or off and the transmission of the epigenetic marks from parents to the child is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.  One’s lifestyle factors, for example, diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption or even night shift work could be major contributors to the epigenetic modifications. Although the occurrence of epigenetic inheritance in humans is still a controversial debate, but it has been observed in plants, worms, mice and flies. The recent preprint by Dr. Sindhuja Devanapally and colleagues focuses on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance (TEI) and silencing in worms by reporting features that provide barrier against TEI.

Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) is a transparent, small (1 mm) worm that lives in temperate soil environments with a rapid life cycle (3 days) and can be easily grown in a petri-dish while munching on bacteria as their food source. Most of these worms are hermaphrodite (with both male and female sex organs) while a few are males. These worms may look alike to the naked eyes but they differ from each other in developmental timing, lifespan and, also behavior which could be epigenetically inherited as opposed to being hard-wired in their genomes. For instance, some Pseudomonas bacteria strains are toxic food for the worms. Yet, mom-worm unlucky enough to eat the poisonous bacteria can “teach” their new born kids not to make the same mistake, thus epigenetically transferring the pathogen avoidance experience to the progeny.

RNA interference (RNAi) by double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) is a technique where RNA molecules inhibit gene expression or translation by neutralizing targeted mRNA molecules and has been shown to contribute to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. The Jose lab has previously shown that dsRNA expressed within neurons of worms could enter the germline and cause transgenerational silencing. However, some worm descendants maintain the epigenetic gene silencing inherited from their ancestors for the long-term, while others lose silencing quickly. Therefore, the mechanism that can perpetuate silencing versus that can reverse it are both not clear.

RNAi

Figure 1: Transgenerational silencing of a gene is observed in descendants (no green GFP expression) for up to several generations when parents (green GFP expression) but not the kids were fed with RNAi (RNA interference, where RNA molecules inhibit gene expression or translation, by neutralizing targeted mRNA molecules). Illustration created with BioRender.comIn this preprint, the authors fed the parent worms with double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) targeting a green fluorescent protein (GFP)-encoding gene expressed in the worm germline and monitored the maintenance of gene silencing in their unfed descendants  (Fig. 1). While this GFP expression was turned off in initial generations, it almost always came back in the later generations except in one peculiar case. The authors  discovered that RNAi against GFP when expressed as part of a rare recombinant two gene operon, named T (containing GFP and mCherry fluorescent proteins), showed permanent RNA-based silencing. They reported that such silencing can also be triggered without using dsRNA and simply by mating dad-worms expressing T with mom-worms (hermaphrodites) lacking T expression. Because this kind of inducible permanent silencing was never reported previously, the authors introduced this phenomenon as mating-induced silencing. Mating induced silencing of T could be maintained for more than 300 generations without selection beyond second generation, thus making it the first ever study to report persistent silencing without external triggers. As the authors report, this contrasts dramatically with the genes expressed in the germline that can be silenced for a few generations by RNAi or trans effects of mating-induced silencing. Follow up experiments confirmed that maternal T can provide a protective signal that prevents paternal T silencing, suggesting that the germline has evolved to prevent permanent silencing potentially to prevent negative responses to temporary change in the environment.

According to the germline immortality concept, unlike somatic cells, the germline cells are well protected from the environment and can be passed on indefinitely across generations. However, Devanapally and colleagues in the current study reported that the expression of genes (not all but rare examples like T) within the germline can potentially be changed for hundreds of generations without any external triggers. This highlights how worms have adopted fascinating epigenetic mechanisms to accelerate evolution yet keeping the DNA sequence unchanged. Yet, the sheer infrequency at which permanent changes occur shows how impenetrable the germline is to permanent changes and the germline’s capacity to revert back to ancestral gene expression states. Thus, this study points to an organism’s ability to preserve persistence of gene expression, resulting in the preservation of the species.

Whether such rare examples of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance also occur in mammals, especially humans, is still up for debate. Epigenetic modifications have to occur in sperm or egg cells in order to pass to the next generation. Yet, most of these modifications in sperm and eggs get erased upon fertilization, resetting it to default and thus the next generation starts from scratch and makes its own epigenetic modifications. However, it is believed that some of these epigenetic modifications can escape this erasure and are passed on to the progeny. A study published in Nature Journal in 2013 reported that the mice-parents exposed to smell-fear conditioning (smell followed by electric shock) could pass their trauma to the next generation. Although rare, this opens up the possibility that indeed parents could pass on their experience, skills or even fear to the next generation. It will be fascinating to identify the mechanisms by which environmental information is transgenerationally inherited in humans.

Dr. Sindhuja Devanapally is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, and co-chair of the Networking and Community Building committee of CUPS.

 

 

Art scene in SoHo – isolation, climate change, healing

Talking about “art” and “SoHo” in one sentence to New Yorkers is always tricky.

Most New Yorker artists who lived in the city since 70s or 80s would purse their lips. If you are lucky to not get Miranda-Priestlied by them, you will hear stories about how artists who lived in those industrial lofts in flat iron buildings got priced out to lawyers, Wall Street analysts and management consultants.

And then COVID-19 happened. Lower Manhattan experienced three distinct phases of SoHo within six months. Right before the lockdown, the streets of SoHo were flooded by high-end boutiques, designer home improvement stores, with European tourists and Middle Eastern shoppers crowding in them. During the #BLM days, all these stores were broken into and looted. Hence, all the artistically curated windows, smashed or untouched, were boarded up by dull wooden planks. The local artists found the perfect canvas to peacefully express their voice about human suffering. They drew and painted on these wooden planks. These artworks were moved to selected galleries around the city when it re-opened.

After these three phases I walked into some of the art galleries in SoHo on a sunny Saturday morning without knowing what to expect!

Installation view, Jordan Kasey, “The Storm,” February 25 – March 27, 2021. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, New York.

Hidden behind an ongoing construction site, Nicelle Beauchene Gallery at 7 Franklin Place has a sense of quintessential, lower Manhattan adventure to it. The current exhibit is named “The storm” by artist Jordan Kasey. The large scale paintings had colossal figures with snapshot of surreal moments.

Jordan Kasey, “Losing Sleep,” 2021, Oil on canvas, 65 1/2 x 79 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, New York.

According to the press release, “Isolation—a feeling often explored by the artist—brims throughout The Storm perhaps more so than ever before.” This overarching emotion of isolation is so strongly expressed through vibrant layers of colors and textures that other entities, such as, a ghostly shadow, a pair of helping hands, two figures embracing, and, even a car’s bright headlights, fade in the background.

Within couple of meters of Franklin Place, Jane Lombard Gallery at 58 White Street had a NYPD car parked in front of it. I walked around it and suspiciously entered the current exhibit, “Impressions” by new media artist Kristin Mciver. If Jordan Kasey’s work was about embracing our emotions and observing our reaction to the COVID-19 isolation, Kristin Mciver’s video installations created a perfect transition for me into energy, vibrations and water.

Kristin Mciver, “44.641391; -67.375624,” 2020. Photographed by Arturo Sanchez. Courtesy of Jane Lombard Gallery.

This is one of those immersive installations. No matter how carefully curated words I chose to describe it, you won’t be able to experience it without visiting in person. The underlying message of this video installation connected to the rising sea levels in Eastern Seaboard as one of the scariest effect of climate change will crawl into your experience once you see the installations as a whole. The poems and word arts will help to situate the mind.

A short walk along Broadway, couple of blocks up North, got me to my next destination – PPOW gallery. Located on 392 Broadway, the gallery is currently showing “Seven ancestral stomachs” by Guadalupe Maravilla, who managed to combine sculptures, paintings and performative acts in this installation.

Installation view of Guadalupe Maravilla’s “Seven Ancestral Stomachs,” February 26 – March 27, 2021, courtesy of the artist and P·P·O·W, New York.

The artist’s motivation comes from dealing with the experience of trauma manifested in human body. Sometime the trauma is connected to the experience of undocumented immigrants. Sometime it is rather personal – experience of dealing with colon cancer with the self and within family members. Built with materials collected from Central America, the large, vertical, free-standing sculptures, named “healing machines” by the artist, manifest the healing and renewal of human body.

Guadalupe Maravilla, Disease Thrower #8 (detail), 2019, mixed media sculpture, 144 x 56 x 63 inches, courtesy of the artist and P·P·O·W, New York.

The moral of the story is – no matter which state of mind I’m in, Empire or otherwise, some of these galleries in lower Manhattan never fail to astonish me.

 

Featured galleries in this article:

Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, 7 Franklin Place, New York, NY 10013; Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 AM – 6 PM

Jane Lombard Gallery, 58 White Street, New York, NY 10013; Gallery hours: Tuesday – Friday, 10 AM – 6 PM, and, Saturday, 11 AM – 6 PM

PPOW Gallery, 392 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 AM – 6 PM

Plasticity inception in a nutshell

Have you ever realized that you remember experiences associated with strong emotions more vividly? For example, you probably remember what you ate at your (or a close friend’s) wedding, but not last Tuesday. However, these persistent memories are not always pleasant. People exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which involves recurring memories or dreams of the traumatic event, bodily reactions to reminders and active avoidance of those reminders. Treatment for PTSD combines psychotherapy and medication, and it aims at enabling the person to understand their trauma and detach the triggers from the responses.

The area in your brain responsible for the formation of such emotional memories is called the amygdala (from the Greek word for almond, due to its shape, Fig. 1). It can modify the way it will respond to similar stimuli in the future, and it can also affect how other brain areas, like the medial prefrontal cortex or the hippocampus, do as well. This ability to change and adapt is called plasticity, and it can start with something as “simple” as a synaptic connection becoming stronger or weaker. There are higher levels of plasticity, though. If changes alter the potential response of a region to a future challenge, this plasticity of plasticity is called metaplasticity.

Human and rodent brain with highlighted amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.
Fig. 1. Depiction of a human and a rodent brain. Highlighted areas are responsible for establishing emotional memories, fear conditioning and extinction. Modified from Sokolowski and Corbin 2012.

In the recent review “Intra-Amygdala Metaplasticity Modulation of Fear Extinction Learning”, CUIMC postdoc Dr. Rinki Saha and colleagues provide a comprehensive account of recent literature on metaplasticity in the amygdala in the context of fear conditioning, and how it may lead to plasticity in other connected brain regions.

Fear conditioning is a classic rodent model in neuroscience research that allows scientists to study the mechanisms that lead to associations between neutral stimuli and unpleasant stimuli. The general experimental layout is as follows: first, a neutral stimulus (a light or a tone, for example) is consistently paired to precede an aversive stimulus (like an electric foot shock). After this exposure, animals learn that the neutral stimulus (called conditioned stimulus) predicts the aversive one (called unconditioned stimulus) and they develop a fear response which they perform right after the neutral stimulus (life freezing in place). The experiment can continue to study how they learn to dissociate them once the stimuli stop being paired. For this second part, called fear extinction learning, the neutral stimulus is presented by itself (without pairing it to the aversive one), and researchers measure the time it takes the animal to stop performing the fear response.

In order to study the amygdala’s role in fear extinction, scientists can inject different drugs into it with very fine syringes (in a procedure called stereotaxic surgery, Fig. 2). By either activating or inhibiting different signaling pathways, they can elucidate what roles those molecules play in the fear extinction process. In addition, experiences like stress and trauma can interfere with this extinction learning, as evidenced in people who suffer from PTSD and in rodent models exposed to different stressful situations, both acute and chronic.

Depiction of a stereotaxic surgery in a rodent. Detail of injection in the amygdala.
Fig. 2. Depiction of a stereotaxic surgery in a rodent. The anesthetized animal is fixed on the frame of the stereotaxic instrument, which has very accurate rulers for the three dimensions. A very fine syringe is introduced through the skull into the brain to administer the drug or virus in a very precise way.
Made with BioRender.

This paradigm has been used by many to study metaplasticity, where the change that occurs is not a modification of the baseline response but rather of the response to a subsequent plasticity-inducing stimulation. For example, Dr. Saha herself showed that it is possible to alter fear extinction learning by injecting a virus into a subregion of the amygdala that disrupts inhibitory synapses. Importantly, this happened without modifying the initial fear conditioning or the anxiety level of the animals. In addition, they also showed that those alterations in inhibitory synapses in the amygdala led to independent changes in the medial prefrontal cortex, hindering its intrinsic plasticity. The same intervention caused increased resilience to acute trauma and improved the performance of a task dependent on another brain region, the hippocampus. Hence, a very targeted intervention in the amygdala can cause an array of effects across multiple brain areas.

This body of research has tremendous implications in our understanding of the brain and how to treat its diseases. On a very pragmatic sense, it should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers to take into account and consider the potential for “undesired” plasticity in more than one place as a response to certain interventions. But more importantly, it opens up potential therapeutic strategies for trauma-related disorders like PTSD, stress or fear. Changes in one small region can lead to widespread effects through its connections to other brain areas. Hopefully, we are a little bit closer to tricking the brain into equating those traumatic memories with what you ate last Tuesday.

 

Dr. Rinki Saha is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry researching  stress, and one of CUPS’ social media managers.

Outreach Highlight: Rinki Saha

Happy Thanksgiving! As we take stock of everything that we’re grateful for today, CUPS would like to show gratitude to our hardworking postdocs. For our final Outreach Highlight this week, we feature Rinki Saha, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry. Rinki shares how working as a literature reviewer and patient data translator for the COVID-19 Student Service Corps gave her the opportunity to use her scientific expertise and directly help patients. 

Rinki Saha

“I am Rinki Saha, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of psychiatry. In my research, I study the neural circuitry of aggressive behavior. I use in vivo optogenetic tool to understand the role of the monoaminergic system in aggression.

When the coronavirus outbreak started, despite all the uncertainties and anxieties I strongly felt the urge to help the community with my scientific expertise. I joined the COVID-19 Student Service Corps (CSSC). CSSC has a solid structure for social service. Their call for volunteers was encouraging. I decided to work with them because of their long-term mission.

I am actively serving in two teams as an academic literature reviewer and in patient data translation. The idea behind the academic literature effort was to create a digestible literature database of COVID-19 related articles. The translation team is focused on providing translated copies of patient data and health-related documents in different languages.

Both volunteering experiences are very enriching. In my role as a literature reviewer, I scanned through thousands of articles that were being published on the topic of the coronavirus. Moreover, my main duty was to edit the literature summaries written by student volunteers. The translation work, on the other hand, is very close to my heart as we could help patients directly through our translation. Patients who don’t speak English completely rely on the translated materials.

The most important things I learned was time management and coordinating with people from a different field. My volunteering experience during the pandemic was amazing. It helped me to keep myself sane during the tough hours. ”

 

Would you like to be featured in the next Outreach Highlight? Share your experience with CUPS by filling out the outreach and volunteering survey.

Outreach Highlight: Ben Rudshteyn

As we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and take stock of everything that we’re grateful for during these uncertain times, CUPS would like to show gratitude to our hardworking postdocs. Every day this week, we will highlight a different postdoc and how they’ve lifted up their communities.

We continue our Outreach Highlight series with Benjamin Rudshteyn, a NIH postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia’s Chemistry Department. Ben shares how working with Columbia Splash and the Wave Learning Festival has provided an avenue to share his scientific interests with students while inspiring them to use scientific thinking in their everyday lives.

Benjamin Rudshteyn

“I’m Benjamin Rudshteyn. I am an NIH postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia’s Chemistry Department where I am studying computational chemistry. I work with Prof. Friesner on building up the accurate Auxiliary Field Quantum Monte Carlo technique towards the accurate prediction of the properties of metalloproteins.

I would like to inspire students to use scientific thinking in everyday life and to potentially study science in college. I volunteer with Columbia Splash and the Wave Learning Festival to teach students. They allow the freedom to teach how and what you want. I taught courses on chemophobia, solar fuels, and careers in science. The students offered feedback on how to improve my teaching and I got new ideas for courses e.g. how the scientific method should work and how sometimes our application of science fails it.

It was challenging to adapt to online teaching and not getting instant feedback from the room. It was rewarding to see the questions students posed to me and how they were engaging with the material.”

 

Would you like to be featured in the next Outreach Highlight? Share your experience with CUPS by filling out the outreach and volunteering survey.

 

Outreach Highlight: Azzurra Cottarelli

During quarantine, CUPS members found many different ways to reach out and connect with their communities. We’ve heard powerful stories of postdocs volunteering and reaching out to their communities during a time of need.

As we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and take stock of everything that we’re grateful for during these uncertain times, CUPS would like to show gratitude to our hardworking postdocs. Every day this week, we will highlight a different postdoc and how they’ve lifted up their communities.

We continue our Outreach Highlight series with Azzurra Cottarelli, a postdoc in the Neurology Department. Azzurra shares her experience working survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through Domestic & Other Violence Emergencies at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and tells a moving story of how being a DOVE advocate has inspired her as a dance choreographer and a new mother.

 

dev_logo

Azzurra Cottarelli

“I work on the Blood-Brain Barrier, the brain’s ultra specialized vascular system, trying to figure out how it is disrupted after an ischemic stroke and what can we do to fix it. In my free time I’m a dancer/choreographer and, recently, a mom.

I felt that something was missing. I was always busy with work or some other activity, but it felt like none of that could make the picture of who I was as a person complete. Then, the DOVE flier appeared.

DOVE (Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies) advocates are called when a survivor of sexual assault and/or domestic violence arrives in the ER. Our role is to provide emotional support to the survivor and mediate their interaction with the medical team, and the police, etc. We hope that in doing so, we can alleviate the burden of the traumatic experience that the survivor is living, and we can address them to specific support resources (shelters, counseling, legal assistance, etc.).

As advocates, our role is to be there for the survivor and to believe them. Our mantra is that “only the survivor is expert on her/his own life”. When we enter the room, we leave outside all our opinions and beliefs and we focus only on what is best for the survivor, even if that means doing something differently from what we would do. For example, sometimes it is safer for a survivor to go back home from their abuser. We may think it’s the wrong choice, but the survivor may know that will save his/her life. It takes a lot of practice to learn not to judge someone else’s decision only based on the information we have, but once you gain that skill you will find yourself practicing that in your everyday life. Also, it takes a lot of practice to learn to let go of the stories you hear once you go back home, but that’s also an invaluable life skill.

Last winter I choreographed a dance for the showcase of Dance Haven, CUMC dance club, inspired by my experience as an advocate. I had the chance to merge my two non-science-related passions, and my dancers became so involved in this cause that I decided to make a donation to Safe Horizon. I’m also involved in the training of the new classes of advocates. Although the advocacy program had to stop during the peak of the pandemic for safety reasons, we will be resuming remotely. I strongly believe that you do not prevent sexual assault and domestic violence by telling women to be more careful, but by raising better men. I now feel that I have one more reason to keep being an advocate: my 3 month old baby, Christopher. I hope my efforts will help him grow up to be a great man.”

 

Would you like to be featured in the next Outreach Highlight? Share your experience with CUPS by filling out the outreach and volunteering survey.

Outreach Highlight: Sandra Franco

During quarantine, CUPS members found many different ways to reach out and connect with their communities. We’ve heard powerful stories of postdocs volunteering with Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19, mentoring students online, writing op-eds to call for action and policy changes, and marching in demonstrations to demand racial justice and equality.

As we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and take stock of everything that we’re grateful for during these uncertain times, CUPS would like to show gratitude to our hardworking postdocs. Every day this week, we will highlight a different postdoc and how they’ve lifted up their communities.

We begin our Outreach Highlight series with Sandra Franco, who is a postdoctoral research scientist in the Pathology and Cell Biology Department at CUIMC. Sandra will be starting a new position next month as Education and Outreach Coordinator at the New York Genome Center. Below, she shares her experience working with students as a volunteer for BioBus.

Sandra Franco

“My name is Sandra Franco. I love to talk about science with all audiences, but especially kids, since they can be so enthusiastic and ask very interesting and creative questions. That’s why I co-founded the Outreach & Communications Committee at CUPS, which I co-led until this past June. If you want to find me outside the lab, I’ll probably be having a beer in Gowanus or eating (on the patio) in the Lower East Side.

I’m really passionate about providing opportunities to underserved students to experience the thrill of discovery. During COVID-19 lockdown, it was clear to me that not all the students would have equal access to science resources and I wanted to do something to provide them with opportunities to engage with science, especially in those times where it is apparent the importance of having science education.

I volunteer with an organization called BioBus. BioBus is a lot of things at the same time: it is a bus, a lab and the door to a world full of science. BioBus has been bringing the joy of discovery to students in Harlem, Washington Heights and the South Bronx for almost 10 years. Moreover, they have an amazing team of scientists that quickly reacted to the pandemic and lockdown and developed a whole set of online programs.

I volunteered with BioBus for two different activities. The first time, I participated in their popular “BioBus Student Town Halls.” In these interactive sessions, students can ask their questions regarding specific topics to scientists. Moreover, some council members also attended the Town Halls to explain how science is part of their daily work. I participated in a session on neuroscience and I was asked pretty difficult questions, such as “What is a thought?” or “Can our brain be rewired?”. I also volunteered in another activity called “Meet a Scientist”. The idea was to open an online space for middle school students to get to know a scientist, his/her research and ask him/her what they always wanted to know. And indeed I ended up with some interesting ideas about my project thanks to these amazing and curious kids that came up with several possibilities for the muscular dystrophy disease I am studying.

I guess the most challenging part of my volunteer experience was to develop scientific content that is accurate and precise but also interesting for a young audience. I believe this kind of activity makes us delve into our own research question, to try to answer things such as “Why do you study this?” or “Why is this important?”. I have to admit that at the beginning the task seemed difficult, but at the same type, it is an exercise that I recommend for everyone. Kids are so authentic that you get feedback immediately of what works and what doesn’t! Moreover, they are curious by nature, so even though I feared being the only one talking, we engaged in one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had about mitochondria and muscles.”

Would you like to be featured in the next Outreach Highlight? Share your experience with CUPS by filling out the outreach and volunteering survey.

Heroes

Heroes are all around us. At the frontline and behind the scenes.

My nurse friend’s healthcare worker mother from the Bronx who continued to take care of the patients during the pandemic, my COVID-19 survivor colleague, a virologist himself, who now dedicates his time in the lab to find a vaccine – are among hundreds of thousands of heroes here, in New York City.

Then there are other heroes from around the country: an aging and retired farmer from North East Kansas sent one of his five N95 masks left over from his farming days to save a nurse or a doctor when New York became the epicenter of COVID-19 infection and we didn’t have enough N95 masks to protect the healthcare workers taking care of the infected patients.

Breath, 2020, Digital C-Print on Kodak Endura Matte Paper, Edition of 3 + 1 AP, 14” x 11”, courtesy of Ronald Vill / Thomas Nickles Project

As I continued my solitary exploration of the reopened art galleries in lower Manhattan, I found another hero from behind the scenes – an artist named Ronald Vill.

Thomas Nickles Project at 47 Orchard St is exhibiting 28 limited edition prints carefully curated from 71 digital drawings created by Ronald Vill, who shares his intimate visual diary of enforced confinement from Havana, Cuba. The gallery is offering high-resolution downloads of all the images from this show for free or a pay-what-you-wish amount, with all proceeds going to the Global Giving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund!

Voice, 2020, Digital C-Print on Kodak Endura Matte Paper, Edition of 3 + 1 AP, 11” x 14”, courtesy of Ronald Vill / Thomas Nickles Project

Drawing inspirations from Sakura blossoms in Japanese culture, that represent renewal and optimism during the onset of Spring, the series of illustrations intertwining scenes of human lives with the flower, in both macroscopic and microscopic views, tell the story to combat the confinement and the fear of death. Ronald, in his illustrated diary, casts himself as El Zorro (the fox) and ironically represents the virus with Sakura flower that invades his life in unexpected ways.

Shout of Sakura, 2020, Digital C-Print on Kodak Endura Matte Paper Edition of 3 AP, 12” x 12”, courtesy of Ronald Vill / Thomas Nickles Project

The online exhibit on the gallery website includes a documentary film on the motivation and the artistic process of Ronald. Towards the last scene of the film, the audience face the question – how can an artist help to fight this pandemic? Thomas Nickles Project and Ronald’s answer to that question is to spread art like the virus but in a healing way, with all the proceeds going to the Global Giving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, and, to run this exhibition online until a vaccine is found!

Without Cure, 2020, Digital C-Print on Kodak Endura Matte Paper Edition of 3 + 1 AP, 11” x 14”, courtesy of Ronald Vill / Thomas Nickles Project

A capitalist reader perhaps would immediately question about what dollar amount from this noble project worth how many human lives. But, given the current social and political situation in this country, even those readers cannot shut their eyes from how only caring about money without any empathy possesses the threat to destroy the world’s largest economy! Thanks to Thomas Nickles Project and Ronald Vill to join hands with millions of empathic heroes in a city that has been recently designated as an anarchist jurisdiction!

Featured gallery is this post:

El Zorro Y La Flor installation; Photograph courtesy Thomas Nickles Project and Ronald Vill

Thomas Nickles Project, 47 Orchard St, NY NY 10002, Gallery Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 11 AM – 6 PM.