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.



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.

Science communication vaccine: a key weapon against coronavirus misinfodemics 

The CUPS blog provides a space for postdocs to share their perspectives and express their opinions. We welcome your submissions – please email [email protected].

Rinki Saha, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Developmental Neuroscience, shares a personal narrative and offers advice for scientists to combat misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘We realize that this is an unprecedented time, and there are a lot of unknowns. We’re still working to make sense of the COVID-19 outbreak and how, as a company, we can best support our customers and employees during this time…’ 

By now, almost all of us have scrolled through dozens of these kinds of emails. We all are probably so psychologically numb that these words are not able to make scratches on our minds. 

I still remember how in late January, during a lunch break, we were having fun reading a meme about how people have stopped drinking Corona beer after hearing stories about the virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. We were all surprised how China was building hospitals under a devastating health emergency, just in a few days. The whole world had no clue that this dreadful virus was already in action at least from December 2019. Later we have witnessed how this demon called coronavirus extended its paw starting from Europe to the USA with its differential spreading trajectory every day. The panic engulfed us in a way that we would binge the whole day by looking at the numbers of coronavirus infected cases and deaths growing on different websites worldwide. On March 11th, the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. Probably, this declaration of pandemic did not entirely reveal the deadliest extent of this virus.

This pandemic has shown us how a microscopic organism can take over the whole world in just a matter of days. From the health crisis to economic breakdown, the COVID-19 outbreak has become the darkest patch in our society. The most heartbreaking thing for me as a scientist is to see the flood of misinformation flowing around social media and creating perpetual confusion and chaos among the general public. The prevention of COVID-19 outbreak is straightforward, maintaining basic hand hygiene and social distancing can reduce the spread. Of course, continuing social distancing for a longer timespan takes a considerable toll on people’s  mental health. I guess at the first stage of this pandemic, psychologically everyone tends to believe that we need a more critical preventive measure to stop this devil. The moment people realized that a vaccine and medicine are not immediately available, they started to look for easy fixes. Suddenly there were several magic cures for COVID-19 available in WhatsApp or other social media platforms ranging from a lemon ginger cocktail to cow urine or even disinfectant. Suddenly, people with zero scientific expertise adding the disclaimer ‘although I am not a doctor’ started to claim that blah blah blah (read hydroxychloroquine) can cure coronavirus patients. Arguments in social media are still ongoing that COVID-19 is not much deadlier than flu. This is a relatively easier topic to explain to people because we have the statistics to show the transmission rate of COVID-19. Additionally, we can specify that the number of deaths from COVID-19 per week is actually several times more than the influenza virus.

The most shaking propaganda of the current situation is the conspiracy theory of how the coronavirus has been created in the laboratory as a biological weapon to destroy the whole world. I have spent countless times explaining to my family and loved ones that there is no single evidence present at this moment, which can prove this is the case. Apart from the health crisis and economic crunch, COVID-19 pandemic has generated “misinfodemics”. As  scientists, it is our duty to help non-scientists understand the whole situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the time, the language used in scientific journals to describe the newest discoveries is beyond the understanding of the general public. Although sometimes, few journals provide a separate section narrating the study’s significance to make it more digestible for non-scientists. Scientific jargon could make it very difficult to identify the subtle difference between information and pseudoscience. This is where science communicators could become that useful tool that can help to understand the difference between evidence-based science and misinformation. Right now, science communication is in dire need to restore the balance in the society. 

We as scientists have to explain our work without unnecessary jargon so that whenever there is this news that X lab has already developed the vaccine against COVID-19, people should start questioning rather than generating false hopes.

Science communicators can pitch in and explain several difficult stages of vaccine development and that success in the initial stage does not necessarily mean that it will lead to final vaccine production. As research at its very core is challenging, we can fail at any point in our experimental ventures. In this current scenario, science communicators have to elaborately explain the different models used in research namely, cell culture, mouse, macaque to human. Drugs actively reducing the harmful effects of COVID-19 in cell culture does not mean that it will successfully work similarly during human clinical trials. Science communicators could also explain using  evidence-based information what the right guidelines are and what is just misinformation. Probably more interactive sessions with science communicators could be most useful. More and more community-based science events need to be organized to make the general public aware of recent scientific trends and advancements. 

Science communication could act as a ‘vaccine’ itself to fight against this coronavirus “misinfodemics”. How can it happen? Science communicators can embed laypeople with the right information, exactly the same way we get our vaccine booster. Immunity against some of the virus even needs multiple booster doses. In a similar manner, science communicators can administer an exact dose of scientific information in public. Once vaccinated, whenever our body encounters a virus, our immune system starts to respond by producing antibodies. I speculate that a layperson vaccinated with proper ‘science communication’ will begin to ask the right question at the right moment. Appropriate science communication can help a layperson even recognize the pattern in the news which contains misinformation. Whenever there will be a news article showing that a cure for COVID-19 is available according to a ‘research study’, I want to see that day when a layperson will ask to see that specific ‘research study’ for verification. 

The job of science communicators will not be easy at all because just a few months ago, this virus was non-existent on this planet. We are still learning everyday new information about this virus. But with the willpower of science communicators the truth behind science will always prevail in the fight against misinformation. 

Disclaimer: The opinion of the author does not necessarily reflect the opinion of CUPS.

CUPS Science Illustration Competition Winners!

During the COVID-19 lockdown, we asked Columbia postdocs to channel their creative energy and submit original artwork demonstrating “the scientific process in practice.” We are pleased to announce the winners of the CUPS Science Illustration Competition – Martin Gajdosik and Alessandra Ali. Shown below are their original artwork accompanied by introductions from the artists and descriptions of their processes.

Martin Gajdosik

“My name is Martin Gajdosik and I am a postdoctoral researcher in Juchem’s Lab (http://juchem.bme.columbia.edu). I work on development and applications of in vivo magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). Our novel MRS methods are used in metabolic studies for aging, alcohol use disorder, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, and tinnitus.

The painting I created is called “Perseverance” and it is a personal reminder of the many nights I’ve spent at work, figuring out problems that did not allow me to sleep. I believe that this attribute of perseverance is in every one of us, and gets stronger when we do the things that we love.”


Alessandra Ali


“I am Alessandra Ali and I am a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Radiology, PET center. I am from Italy. I have lived in New York for one and a half years and I love the art world.

My artwork represents the scientific method of my real work in the lab, sometimes amazing and rewarding and sometimes hard and frustrating. Everyday, every scientist should recognize themselves as a child full of curiosity for the world problems and full of energy to find the right solution in a labyrinth of hypotheses. Day after day, a scientist repeats the experiments, collects data, exchanges ideas with colleagues trying to understand which is the right path to follow. A good scientific result resembles a pretty butterfly, so difficult to catch and so sensitive to handle, but at the same time so wonderful to obtain.”

Women in Science Panel and Networking Reception

Women in Science Panel and Networking Reception

August 28th, 2019 @ VEC, CUMC Campus (Organizers: Aditi Falnikar, Jami Jackson Mulgrave, Upasana Roy, JJ Teoh, Gagan Sidhu, Research & Professional Development Committee) 

The Women in Science Panel hosted by the CUPS Research & Professional Development Committee was a success, and we had great turnout. A huge thanks to our panelists Mari Millery, Anne-Catrin Uhlemann and Lata Phadtare, for sharing their experiences in academia and industry with us. We had some insightful conversations about the barriers faced by women in STEM, and ways to promote diversity and inclusivity. Thanks to all attendees for their support and participation.


  1. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, MD, PhD – Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Columbia University
  2. Mari Millery, PhD – President, M Research Studio
  3. Lata Phadtare, MS, PMP – IT Manager Medical Informatics, Biorepository Manager at Janssen Research & Development, L.L.C.

Take-home messages:

  1. Having diverse groups is not enough, we also need to ensure inclusivity.
  2. Seek out good mentorship and support systems.
  3. Don’t feel bad about asking for help when you need it! 

This event was sponsored by Thermo Fisher.







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