Meet Gwennaëlle Monnot, Postdoc in Skin Immunology

Meet Our Postdocs: Gwennaëlle Monnot, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Skin Immunology at the Department of Dermatology (Columbia University).

Gwennaëlle Monnot, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Skin Immunology

Which department are you in at Columbia and what is your position?

I am a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Dermatology.

Where are you from and how long have you been in NYC? 

I am from Switzerland and I have lived in New York for two and a half years.
Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.          

I started my studies in the Federal Polytechnical School of Lausanne (EPFL) where I obtained a bachelors in Life Sciences Engineering. During my last year, I had my first immunology class and I realized that was the subject I wanted to specialize in. At the time, I was also part of an on-campus association which was promoting volunteering for NGOs amongst EPFL students, and I became interested in global health and infectious diseases. I hence decided to apply to the Immunology MSc. program of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There, I obtained my MSc., and had the opportunity to spend 2 months in Burkina Faso analyzing blood samples from children infected with malaria and measuring their antibody levels. This research experience convinced me further I wanted to be a scientist and study immunology. I was still fascinated by the bio-engineering side of immunology, so I joined the laboratory of Pedro Romero, at the University of Lausanne. There, I studied the genetic modification of CD8+ T cells to increase their potency as tumor-destroying cells, in the context of adaptive cell transfer therapy. I was mostly working on melanoma cancer models, which gave me a new interest in the skin. What a complex and fascinating organ! I also decided that, in order to complete my training as an immunologist, I wanted to study the opposite phenomenon of cancer – autoimmunity. Which brought me here, at Columbia University, studying skin autoimmune diseases in the Dermatology Department.

What research question are you trying to figure out right now?

When I started I was split between two labs. Part of my research focused on the autoimmune disease Alopecia Areata (AA), in which patients lose part or the totality of their hair. My other subject of study was, and still is, lipid-specific T cells. It has recently been discovered that T cells can bind to a receptor called “CD1a” and mount an immune response against lipids. Since CD1a is widely expressed in skin dendritic cells, we are studying the role of these cells in the skin. Hence my three main research questions have been:

1. What are the T cell receptors driving hairloss in a mouse model for AA?

2. Can a tolerogenic DNA vaccine approach be used to prevent or reverse AA?

3. What is the role of CD1a-restricted T cells in human skin inflammation and homeostasis?

In a nutshell, what tools or approaches are you using to try and figure this out?

My time here has allowed me to keep practicing the skills I had acquired during my PhD (mouse model of diseases, primary human and mouse cell culture, multicolour flow cytometry, cloning and retroviral plasmid generation) and to acquire new knowledge (single cell RNA and TCR sequencing, lipid immunology, mouse and human skin processing and extraction of immune cells).

What is the best part of your job?            

The best part of the job is the freedom to figure out research questions.
Why do you love science?

Science allows us to understand the world around us better, to solve practical problems we encounter as humans. And of course, to live the longest healthiest lives possible.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in science?

The most important qualities, in my opinion, are curiosity and perseverance. One needs to be curious to find out the answer to a research question, otherwise the day-to-day frustration and experimental hurdles will not seem worth it.

Tell us a bit about yourself or your projects that are not related to science.           

Besides being a scientist, I am a rock climber and amateur musician. I just started learning to play bass. I also love reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and discussing science with a broad audience. Which is why I joined CUPS.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

The multitude of things to do or see. One can never run out of activities to do here. Also, for any interest, there will be a community of people out there, ready to welcome you and share their passion with you. I have experienced that with climbing, but I know it is true for almost anything!

When did you join CUPS and what is your current role, if any?        

I joined 6 months ago the Outreach and Communication committee. I don’t have a specific role but I have been helping out with organizing events, such as for example the most recent Trivia Night we recently organized with the group.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I like that CUPS is allowing a sense of community amongst Columbia Postdocs. Depending on the lab that one works in, being a postdoc can be a pretty isolating experience. By organizing various events, CUPS not only helps us hone our skills, and prepares us to various careers in science, but most importantly allows us to connect with one another and support each other through our day to day research.

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It’s Ice skating season!

Ice Skating:

Dec 1, 2019 @ Riverbank State Park (Organizers: Nicole Perry-Hauser; Networking & Community Building Committee) 

Some photos of our most recent Ice-skating outing ! Great turn out and a ton of fun !

Summer Social

Summer Social:

June-August, 2019 @ NYC (Organizers: Networking & Community Building Committee) 

The Summer was full of fun events for Columbia Postdocs led by our favorite Networking & Community Building Committee team: Olaya, Alessia, John, Dhru, Alex, Holly, Nicolas and Nicole.


We kicked off the Summer with a Soccer & Picnic Combo Event at Riverbank State Park on June 22. We played soccer, card games, shared food and enjoyed the super sunny weather.


On July 23, fans of the traditional Disney movie “The Lion King” got to discover the 2019 computer-animated remake of the movie in a legendary Movie Night outing. Nostalgia levels: off the charts!


We also got to enjoy another great Happy Hour at one of our favorite spots: the beer garden of Bierstrasse Harlem on August 2nd. Great attendance once again!


Oh and that’s not all! We also had PostdoQs and OPA hosting a Pride Month Happy Hour in June while a few lucky attendants got to watch the movie “Ralph Breaks the Internet“, Free Movie in the Park! (July, Pier 46 at Hudson River Park).

Stay tuned and check out our social media posts  for more social events coming up soon!



Financial Planning Seminar Series

Financial Planning Seminar Series:

August 8th, 2019 @ VEC, CUMC Campus (Organizers: Olaya Fernandez Gayol, Regina Martuscello, Advocacy Committee) 


The Advocacy Committee is introducing a brand new series of talks aimed at postdocs to learn about different aspects of everyday life in the United States, from personal finances to taxes, insurance and housing.

For the first talk in this brand new series, we received Leonard Berman from First Manhattan Co. In this seminar, Leonard covered the basics of savings, investments and personal finance management giving postdocs practical tools to help manage their finances in such an expensive city like NYC!

Take-home messages:

  1. Invest in your retirement early and often, the power of the compound will make your money grow.
  2. Always make the highest amount of matching funds into your retirement – its free money!
  3. The market fluctuates. Don’t panic. Don’t sell at the bottom.

Stay tuned for our next session that will cover “Insurance in the USA” in the Fall!





All the information given in this seminar is for educational purposes only, and not to be considered as financial advice. Neither we (CUPS) nor the speaker (Leonard Berman) have any responsability in the consequences of your actions derived from the information obtained in this seminar or elsewhere.








Meet Alex Karambelas, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Dr. Alex Karambelas, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Meet Our Postdocs: Alex Karambelas, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Which department are you in at Columbia and what is your position?

I’m a postdoctoral research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. I started at Columbia University as a recipient of The Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Where are you from and how long have you been in NYC?  Hoffman Estates, IL and I’ve been in NYC for 3 years!

Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.          

I went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for atmospheric sciences, but I knew my passion was outside the realm of mid-latitude cyclones or the Madden-Julian oscillation. As a senior undergraduate, I worked on projects modeling concentrations of air pollution in the lower atmosphere and comparing with observations, and I quickly found my “happy place” in science. I continued on with my advisor through a Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary environmental science program with a minor in Energy Analysis and Policy, which I applied directly to my work in assessing energy sector contributions to modeled air pollution.

What research question are you trying to figure out right now?

I’m currently investigating the differences in aerosol composition and optical properties between average conditions and peak pollution events in India. Unpacking these differences has implications for assessing the climate implications of aerosols as a whole and specific types that may warm or cool the local environment.

In a nutshell, what tools or approaches are you using to try and figure this out?

For this work, I use a chemical transport community model (it’s worked on by researchers all over the world!) called GEOS-Chem. There’s a specific module that calculates the optical properties of different aerosol components over a set of size bins. We run the model with this component a few different times to get information over a long period of time (3 years) and at a very high resolution for peak events lasting just 5 days to assess the differences in composition and direct radiative effects induced by the aerosol components.

What is the best part of your job?            

The best part of my job is working with and learning from some really amazing, world-class researchers. Whether at workshops or on calls, it’s been really wonderful to move forward in my research alongside some stellar role models.

Why do you love science?

I love science because it encourages curiosity. Long ago I got into an argument with a scientist friend who disagreed with me that science was an art. I still stand by my statement, and I think a lot of others might agree with me too.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in science?

If you can’t find “your people,” don’t give up and keep your eyes open for new directions. Every few years I start to feel a little jaded by my research, whether it’s a specific project I’ve been hammering at for too long or I feel out of place in the field. I use this as an opportunity to wrap things up and move on. It’s been a real blessing to finally be able to read (and listen to) myself.

Tell us a bit about yourself or your projects that are not related to science.           

Outside of CUPS, I am focused on work-life balance (it’s a work in progress). I found a workout class I love that I go to weekly (finally! ask me about it and come with!), I’ve found a way to include time for reading fiction (usually when I’m traveling), and recently I re-kindled my relationship with cooking as I’m discovering all of the neat vegetarian-friendly protein options available in the grocery stores.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

I have two favorite things: (1) that — for the most part — you don’t need a car to get around town, and (2) that in NYC you can feel comfortable to be yourself especially if it means standing out.

When did you join CUPS and what is your current role, if any?        

I joined CUPS in 2018, after finally feeling like I had my footing in my research and my life in NYC. I’ve been active in all of our committees during my time with CUPS, and currently I’m the outgoing President.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

First, CUPS has been an incredibly easy way to learn about the diverse array of research ongoing at Columbia. I would have never been exposed to neuroscientists and pathologists and biomedical engineers and more, nor would I have had the opportunity to meet and learn from them as individuals. Second, it has been an honor to serve as the President of CUPS (even for a short time), where I was able to learn more about the inner-workings of Columbia, hear from a variety of postdocs about their struggles and triumphs, and ensure ongoing leadership of an easy-access support network for us as postdocs.

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Wildfires and air pollution: beyond deadly fires

Science Stories: Wildfires and air pollution: beyond deadly fires

Author: Alex Karambelas, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Bio: Alex is an interdisciplinary air pollution scientist, working with air quality modelers, energy experts, epidemiologists, and environmental scientists to determine source contributions to health-damaging air pollution. In her work, she uses chemical transport computer models, designing various emissions scenarios to identify mitigation strategies to curb future air pollution and premature mortality. Her background is in atmospheric sciences, and she earned her Ph.D. in Environment and Resources at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Imagine a field filled with tall sunflowers, their yellow faces smiling in your direction. The sky is a bright, crisp blue, the minimal clouds are fluffy and pearly white. You take a look around you and breathe in one big deep breath, the air feeling cool and refreshing, even a bit rejuvenating.

Now imagine you’re stuck in traffic on a crowded highway. It’s a beautiful spring day, so your windows are down. Just as you’re about to take a big breath in, the semi-truck to the left of you belches thick black smoke from its exhaust pipe. The taste is sour and unpleasant, and you roll your windows back up to turn on your air conditioning.

The black smoke is an example of air pollution, or the gases and aerosols suspended in the air that are harmful for human health and the environment. Sometimes referred to as smog, air pollution includes surface level ozone (O3) [1]—formed from the reaction of pollutants directly emitted, for instance, from cars and power plants—and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) a fraction of the width of a single human hair—directly emitted (released) and formed from chemical reactions in the atmosphere. In New York City, we can sometimes see the summer haze when we look out over the city: a thin, discolored layer muting the skyline. Across the globe, millions of people die prematurely and millions more suffer disabilities each year due to breathing in O3 and PM2.5 air pollution for extended periods of time. In my own research, I seek to identify sources of air pollution that lead to the greatest health damages, designing future emissions scenarios to try to reduce the future health burden of air pollution.

Many different emissions sources lead to air pollution, and sources and pollutant concentrations vary from city to city and region to region. Most air pollution is man-made from the (incomplete) combustion of products like fossil fuels and woody biomass from which we meet our energy needs. Biomass burning can also be considered man-made, for instance agricultural biomass burning in India is considered man-made because farmers burn their crop waste. There are natural sources, too, like windblown dust, sea salt spray, and gases released from plants and trees during growing phases or when under stress such as from a drought (these are also called “biogenic sources”). Researchers like myself who study air pollution tend to consider seasonal sources like wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire in California to be a “natural” source, even if the fire was started from a careless person with a lit match or hot car.

Wildfires are a unique source of air pollution because they are isolated events but can release considerable amounts of gases and aerosols, including that same black smoke. We don’t often think about wildfires as contributing to health-damaging air pollution, instead considering the direct catastrophic destruction they produce. Wildfires occur seasonally under hot, dry conditions in wooded areas all across the world, including in the western United States. They can be very strong in magnitude, burning or smoldering for days or weeks, and can cover a large area of “fuel,” i.e. dry woody biomass. In the western U.S. the wildfire season traditionally is late spring through summer, when brush is often dry and easy to ignite by a lightning strike or spark from semi-truck undercarriages. Around this time we tend to see dozens of news articles from local and national sources that cover the devastation caused by wildfires, often for weeks on end.

Wildfires can lead to dramatic increases in local and regional air pollution, releasing aerosol and gas-phase air pollutants that can chemically react to yield enhanced O3 and PM2.5 concentrations. Near-term health impacts such as increased incidences of hospital admissions due to asthma attacks or other respiratory ailments may be the first sign of elevated pollution due to a wildfire event. Pollution enhancements such as those from wildfires can exacerbate pre-existing health conditions, lead to an increase in hospital admissions, and impact economic productivity. People are susceptible to adverse effects from exposure to air pollution at different rates. Children and the elderly are much more likely to experience lung irritations at moderate exposure rates. Outdoor workers may have to limit their time outdoors, reducing productivity, or be harmed in the process of their workday. Besides structural and health damages from wildfires, other negative economic implications also occur. For instance, in Seattle during the 2018 wildfire season, local business owners faced an economic burden when they were required to cancel various outdoor tourist outings due to the nearby wildfires affecting visibility and human health exposure. Similarly, during the worst seasonal biomass burning events in northwestern India, Delhi will often ground flights due to reduced visibility, whether because of biomass burning in upwind regions or because the event was exacerbated by stagnant winds.

During a wildfire event, concentrations of O3 and PM2.5 in the atmosphere downwind of burn sites may exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air quality standards (exposure limits deemed unhealthy for humans). We can measure this enhancement with surface observations, noting changes hour by hour and comparing across air pollution monitor locations. Data from EPA monitor sites are accumulated into an Air Quality Index (AQI) warning system, visible on, which you can use to track all sorts of pollution episodes, even the O3 air pollution event during the recent heatwave in New York City. Surface monitors form a sort of constellation of air pollution measurements, to help us understand the changes in concentrations over time and space, however there is a lot of empty space between surface monitors where we have to make inferences about air pollution.

We can fill in this empty space and assess the amount of air pollution coming from wildfires—or other sources—using complex chemical transport computer models, made up of hundreds of chemical equations in four dimensions. Computer models are also how we get our daily and weekly weather forecasts, data from which is often used in forecasting air pollution. In my own research, I use such computer models to understand various energy sector contributions—such as biomass burning in India—to regional air pollution, and ways to reduce pollution and improve air quality into the future. We can test “What If?” scenarios where certain sources or pollutants are reduced or removed entirely from the system to understand emissions and chemistry contributions to air pollution. Models help researchers understand the space and time between observations, filling in gaps to help understand the sources and chemistry of air pollution, including helping us identify what might be missing when compared to observed values.

We can use models at a variety of scales from urban to globally. The bottom layer of this NASA image from the Earth Observatory blog shows light pollution, indicative of human population, observed from space, and it is overlaid with model data of different types of aerosols including sea salt, dust, and black carbon and their respective sources. In this image, you’ll notice that there are “plumes” of air pollution blown across continents and off coastlines. Air pollution is often localized to urban centers and downwind areas, but pollution, including from wildfires, can become lofted in the air and transported downwind, sometimes for very long distances. Even here on the east coast at Columbia University we can experience wildfire pollution plumes coming from Canada and even occasionally from the Pacific Northwest. Aside from using models, we can track the transport of air pollution including from wildfires using satellites. Long-range transport is nearly as important to air quality scientists as locally emitted pollution in understanding what sources contribute to ambient air pollution.

Wildfire air pollution is a small component of the total air pollution story, where there are many diverse sources across the globe, but the short-term air pollution and health implications from wildfire air pollution may be considerable. In Southeast Asia, modeled seasonal biomass burning events coupled with meteorology are estimated to contribute to more than 100,000 premature deaths due to air pollution across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (Koplitz et al., 2017). Similarly, fall agricultural waste burning in northwestern India contributes between 7 and 78% of Delhi’s air pollution, even though the burning occurs hundreds of kilometers away (Cusworth et al., 2018), leading to a near doubling of PM2.5 during waste burning episodes (Liu et al., 2018), and potentially contributing to thousands of deaths. In the western U.S., over 100 deaths occurred during California wine country wildfires in October 2017.

Is there a way to reduce the air pollution deaths associated with wildfires? Check for forecasts and tweet “#AirAirAir [place name]” on Twitter for current air pollution levels. Wear facemasks and stay indoors during events if you live in the direct downwind areas, and avoid travel to wildfire-active regions during and shortly after wildfire events will greatly reduce your air pollution exposure. Call family and friends in the vicinity of wildfire pollution exposure to suggest these steps is a good idea too. Save hiking trips in dry-prone regions for (slightly) wetter seasons if possible, and always make sure a campfire is fully extinguished.

You can also reduce air pollution and mitigate the impending enhancement of wildfires by reducing your carbon footprint, thereby reducing GHG emissions into the atmosphere. For instance, we can expand affordable public transportation with electric fleet vehicles to reduce the number of traditional gasoline passenger cars or affix pollution “scrubbers” to power plant stacks, removing PM2.5 precursors through adsorption processes. Exacerbation of drought and high temperatures due to climate change will likely lead to increased wildfire extent and strength in the coming decades, putting millions of people worldwide at risk of losing their homes or their lives. Many sources contribute to air pollution, some more manageable than others, but when it comes to wildfires, we can all take steps to reduce our impact and protect ourselves and our loved ones.


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[1] Although the same chemical compound as stratospheric ozone, surface-level ozone does not serve a positive purpose and is harmful to humans, animals, plants, and buildings.

Koplitz, Shannon N, Loretta J Mickley, Miriam E Marlier, Jonathan J Buonocore, Patrick S Kim, Tianjia Liu, Melissa P Sulprizio, et al. “Public Health Impacts of the Severe Haze in Equatorial Asia in September–October 2015: Demonstration of a New Framework for Informing Fire Management Strategies to Reduce Downwind Smoke Exposure.” Environmental Research Letters 11, no. 9 (2016): 094023.
Cusworth, Daniel H, Loretta J Mickley, Melissa P Sulprizio, Tianjia Liu, Miriam E Marlier, Ruth S DeFries, Sarath K Guttikunda, and Pawan Gupta. “Quantifying the Influence of Agricultural Fires in Northwest India on Urban Air Pollution in Delhi, India.” Environmental Research Letters 13, no. 4 (April 1, 2018): 044018.
Liu, Tianjia, Miriam E. Marlier, Ruth S. DeFries, Daniel M. Westervelt, Karen R. Xia, Arlene M. Fiore, Loretta J. Mickley, Daniel H. Cusworth, and George Milly. “Seasonal Impact of Regional Outdoor Biomass Burning on Air Pollution in Three Indian Cities: Delhi, Bengaluru, and Pune.” Atmospheric Environment 172, no. September 2017 (2018): 83–92.



Meet Brandon Ashinoff, Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychiatry

Dr. Brandon Ashinoff, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Psychiatry at Columbia University

Meet Our Postdocs: Brandon Ashinoff, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Psychiatry at Columbia University

Which department are you in at Columbia and what is your position?

I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry.

Where are you from and how long have you been in NYC?           

I grew up on Long Island, but I have been living in NYC for almost 2 years now.

Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.          

I earned my undergraduate degree from SUNY Binghamton (B.A. in Psychology) with departmental honors. Although I had some research experience when I graduated, I didn’t have much and my grades, while not terrible, weren’t spectacular either. I spent a year working in a memory lab at Binghamton to get some more research experience. Next, to make up for my grades, I spent two years earning an M.A. in Experimental Psychology at LIU — C.W. Post where I did research focused on how people processed visual information about depth. Next, I joined a new lab as a research assistant where I spent a year working on a project investigating attentional mechanisms in patients with ADHD.

After that, I applied to graduate school and was accepted to the University of Birmingham in England. The plan was to study attention and cognitive control processes in patients with ADHD. However, my first year of experiments did not yield any useable data or findings. This is one of the hardest parts of research that people don’t usually talk about. Stuff doesn’t always work out. So, I changed topics and instead focused on attention and cognitive control in healthy aging populations. For the next three years, I conducted several experiments which ended up being successful and I got to learn many different research methods.

For example, we did some studies using a method called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), where we would apply a small electrical current to a predetermined part of the brain to see how it affected their performance on a task (Don’t worry, it’s very safe to do!). As a PhD student I also worked on several side projects related to cognitive training and video games, and even managed to turn my failed ADHD research into a review paper (which is currently under review for publication).

Once I completed my degree, I had a “two-body problem” – I needed to find a job in a location where my partner could also find work. We had spent several years in England while I got my degree so we agreed to move to NYC where she could kick start her career (She’s doing great here and is now a writer/producer for a major TV network!). I decided that I wanted to return to studying clinical populations and that I wanted to do so in a more clinically oriented environment.

I focused my job search on research positions in hospitals and psychiatry departments in the NYC area, rather than the psychology and neuroscience departments (although I looked at some of those too — can’t be too picky!). I ended up getting my current position by cold e-mailing my current supervisor and talking about my research interests. They aligned with his and we applied together for a psychiatry department fellowship, which I was lucky enough to receive, and I’ve been at Columbia now for a year!

What research question are you trying to figure out right now?

My research is focused on understanding how patients with schizophrenia process information differently and how that leads to the development and maintenance of delusions. Patients with SZ have problems integrating old and new information, and I am trying to understand how that problem manifests in the brain.

In a nutshell, what tools or approaches are you using to try and figure this out?

My lab uses several methods for research:

1.) Behavioral Experiments — Tasks that are deigned to assess or elicit specific behaviors or mental processes

2.) fMRI – This method allows us to take a picture of your brain and then measure how blood is flowing inside your brain in real time. The logic is that if blood is flowing to a specific part of you brain, then you are probably using that part of the brain. When combined with behavioral experiments, we can determine which parts of the brain are used to do different mental processes.

3.) Computational Modeling – This one is a little tricky to explain but basically, since we don’t know how the brain works entirely, sometimes we come up with a guess. A “model” is just a mathematical representation of that guess. You can make a prediction about behavior or brain activity based on that guess: “If my guess is right, then X, Y, and Z should happen.” Then you do an experiment and see if your guess matches what actually happened. The reason this is important is because the things in your guess (which usually represent real things that might happen in the brain) may not be directly observable in an experiment (like neurotransmitter levels or neuron firing rates), but by using modeling you can infer that they may be involved. In our lab, we develop models to help explain the results of behavioral tasks and to explain brain activity from fMRI studies.

What is the best part of your job?            

I really enjoy collaborating with colleagues and the variety of projects I get to work on.

Why do you love science?

I love science because there is always something new and interesting to learn about.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in science?

Be prepared to fail. Research is all about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and learning something we didn’t know before. If you know how an experiment is going to turn out before you do it then it’s not really research (unless it’s a replication). No matter what you do, things won’t always turn out the way you expect it to and for young scientists that can be difficult and make them feel as if they have done something wrong. Just remember that “failure” and the unexpected are an inherent part of a career in science. The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …” — Isaac Asimov

Tell us a bit about yourself or your projects that are not related to science.           

I was president of my college acapella group, The Binghamton Treblemakers (we had the name before Pitch Perfect came out!).

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

Bagels and Pizza!

When did you join CUPS and what is your current role, if any?        

I joined CUPS in December 2018. I am currently a member of the Outreach and Communications Committee.

One of the projects I have been working on is to organize a Science Movie Night at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers. On Thursday, August 7th at 7:00 PM I’ll be giving a 10 minute talk about Schizophrenia and the research I do at Columbia, followed by a screening of “The Fisher King.” In this film, Robin Williams portrays a character who has the symptoms of Schizophrenia, particularly delusions. It’s coming up soon and open to all postdocs & the general public, check the CUPS Evenbrite or buy tickets directly here !

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I like the people in CUPS the most, because its such a welcoming and supportive group.

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Shining light on the neurons that make you move

Science Stories: Shining light on the neurons that make you move

Author: Marie Labouesse, Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry. Marie studies the neuronal circuits that regulate movement deep inside the brain

Parkinson’s disease is a devastating neurological disorder characterized by severe impairments in motor control. One of the key pathological features of Parkinson’s disease is the gradual cell death of dopamine neurons deep inside the brain. However, dopamine neurons are not the only actors in the picture. In this short story, you will learn about how dopamine neurons communicate through far reaching axon “bridges” with other neurons at the front of the brain to control movement in a coordinated matter.

“Hey Julie, I’ve always wondered why exactly do the hands of our neighbor shake like that? You study this in lab, right?” asked Tom to Julie on their way to work, as they were crossing Roberto in the street. Tom and Julie were both postdocs, but Tom studied plant biology while Julie was a neuroscientist studying animal models of Parkinson’s disease.

“Well- I don’t exactly study Parkinson’s disease (PD), Tom. But I can tell you what I know. Patients with PD have different symptoms, one of which is called tremor, like Roberto having shaky hands. Another major symptom is called bradykinesia, which refers to the inability to start basic movements, for example walking or tying up shoe laces.

All this is due to a problem happening deep inside the brain. The brain contains about 200 billion cells, 100 billion of which are neurons. Each of these neurons has their own hardrive – the nucleus – that dictates their role in the brain. First, they will each get activated by specific signals: some of them light up if you are hungry or stressed, others get activated by rewarding events or by decisions coming down from the cortex. In turn, neurons will trigger specific responses, like promote movement, help you remember things or help you find food.”

Example of neuronal types

“So which ones are damaged in Roberto’s brain? The ones that make you move?” asked Tom.

“In fact no, the so-called movement neurons are still there in Roberto’s brain. Another type of neuron, known as dopamine neurons, are the ones that die in PD. Dopamine neurons get activated when something new and unexpected is happening, or something rewarding or important. They basically help you pay attention or learn what is worth your time and energy, and in turn they facilitate movements. For example, if your bus is arriving unexpectedly early, your dopamine neurons will light up immediately and help facilitate you running towards the bus. Basically think of dopamine neurons as the steam of your engine, while movement neurons are the wheels of your car, both are crucial.

“So are you trying to find a cure for this?” said Tom.

“No, I’m more in the basic science side of things, I try to understand how the system works when everything is going right. Hopefully it will help other scientists understand what happens when the system is broken and how you might be able to fix things.”

“OK. That makes sense, but then what do you study?” asked Tom.

“You want the full story? So, you see, in PD, dopamine neurons slowly undergo cell death. We don’t fully know why- other scientists are working on this.

From dopamine neurons to movement neurons: the neural circuit of movement

Dopamine neurons are found more or less half-way between your eyes and the back of your head. We call this the midbrain, said Julie. They are also very long. Of course their central part, the nucleus and cytosol, remain in the midbrain. However, to send information to other neurons at distant locations, they use axons which are kind of like highway bridges between two islands. Just like the Brooklyn Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn.”

“Which other neurons do the dopamine-neurons talk to in front of the brain, then? Is it the movement neurons?”, said Tom.

“Yes, the movement neurons, exactly. Dopamine neurons in the midbrain communicate with movement neurons that live all the way in the front of the brain – in an area called the striatum. As we said, dopamine neurons get lit up by new or important events, say you’re playing basketball, and someone passes the ball over to you. In response to this event, dopamine neurons are activated and start firing. This basically means there is suddenly a flow of electric charges throughout the neuron’s membranes, all the way throughout the axon. We call this particular flow of electric charges an action potential.

It’s similar to an electric circuit where you’d activate the switch and electrons start circulating. In a neuron, the electric charges can reach all the way throughout the axon and into the axon’s endfeet, also known as synapses. At the synapse, several cellular processes will then be activated by the arrival of these electric charges or action potential. These processes are “electrically-dependent”, just like you’ll need electricity to turn on a lamp that lies in your electric circuit. One of these key synaptic processes is called synaptic transmission, which basically means chemicals will be released from the synapse in the presence of electric charges, and in turn these chemicals can now transmit information to other neurons lying nearby! These chemicals are rightly so called “neurotransmitters”.

Synaptic transmission at dopaminergic synapses

The type of neurotransmitter will depend on the neuron’s identity. For example in dopamine neurons, synapses release primarily dopamine. And this is the key: movement neurons in the striatum express receptors for dopamine! So when dopamine neurons release dopamine, this will activate movement neurons. In turn, movement neurons will hand over the message to a set of other neurons through a very specialized circuit. Eventually this circuit transmits the signal directly to the muscles in your arms and instruct them to move.”

“Ok this makes sense. So Roberto’s movement neurons and all the circuit downstream is still functional, right? So why is he not able to control his movements then?

“This is where it gets a bit complicated: Roberto does have the movement neurons as well as the circuits downstream of that. As you said, this works more or less OK (although this is also debatable, but that story is for another day). The main problem to keep in mind is that the message from dopamine neurons is not being properly transmitted to movement neurons. Actually, let me step back for a bit. There are actually not just one, but actually two types of movement neurons: the first type are called #go neurons, and the second type are called #stop neurons. So when dopamine neurons send their message out to #go and #stop neurons, they are going to have an opposite effect on them. It’s kind of like when I use my forward and my brake pedals in the car. I am doing the same movement with my feet, a.k.a. I press a pedal. But when I press the forward pedal, my car will move forward, whereas when I press the brake pedal, I stop!

Same here: when dopamine neurons transfer their message to #go neurons, this will promote movement (as I told you above), whereas when dopamine neurons transfer their message to #stop neurons, this inhibits movement.”

“Ok, so we basically turn on #go neurons when we want to start moving and #stop neurons when we want to pause?”

Coordinated activity between stop and go neurons?

“Well, that’s what we all thought happened until about 10 years ago, so you are pretty close to the truth! But now scientists think it’s actually more complicated than that. These #go and #stop neurons can actually receive messages from many other neurons, in particular the cortex, i.e. the master-controller of your brain. Recent work has shown that when you start moving, both #go and #stop neurons are actually lit up at the same time. This idea was quite revolutionary when it first arrived. One of the current hypothesis is that #go neurons might help you to accomplish the movements you want to do, for example moving your feet in the direction of the bus. On the other hand, #stop neurons will block the movements that are unnecessary, like starting to tie your shoe lace at the same time. This might actually be at the level of more refined movements, like moving your right leg forward, but pausing your left one for a few milliseconds, in order to perform the basic movement of walking.

“What if I am tying my shoes, and then the bus arrives. How do #go neurons and #stop neurons synchronize themselves to switch from one task to the next? Like, how do I not trip myself over?!”, asked Tom, perplex.

“Well that’s exactly what I am studying: it seems like #go and #stop neurons are able to communicate to make sure they are on the same page and that all movements are made in harmony! However, we don’t know yet the full mechanisms by which they communicate or what other partners are involved, that’s what I am looking into.”

“Ok- nice, and how exactly do you study this?”, asked Tom.

“I use two main approaches. The first one is called optogenetics, it was invented only about 15 years ago. It’s a ground-breaking technique that allows to activate or shut off specific neural populations with light. In my case, I want to activate movement neurons. To do that, I use light-sensitive molecules that allow electric charges to enter neurons when exposed to light. Remember, changes in electric charges can promote synaptic transmission and allow neurons to perform their function. Importantly, I can insert these light-sensitive molecules specifically into #go or #stop movement neurons using genetic tools and specific mouse models. And then it’s amazing, I can have mice running around in motor behavioral tasks and once I shine light deep into the brain, I will be able to activate movement neurons at specific moments in the task, allowing me to determine the effects of #go or #stop neuron activation on movement.

Methods to activate or record activity from specific neuronal populations

The other approach is known as calcium imaging. It allows me to record the activity of neurons online while mice are performing motor tasks. The reason for this is that when neurons are active, levels of calcium within the cells change at high speed. Tracking calcium levels is therefore a good method to follow the activity of neurons. Technically-speaking, it is similar than optogenetics, except the molecules used will be sensitive to calcium, rather than light. Thanks to calcium imaging, I am able to see how #go and #stop neurons coordinate their activities live during movement.”

“Sounds very exciting. So how will this eventually help Roberto?”, asked Tom.

“Great question. Well the idea is that if we understand the circuits well, we can then go ahead and design better treatments which are more specific. For example, one treatment currently used to help people dealing with Parkinson’s disease is called Deep Brain Stimulation, where patients receive electrical stimulation of a brain area close to the midbrain. If we understand how #go and #stop neurons talk to each other and where exactly in the brain, then we could find new targets for Deep Brain Stimulation to make it work better.”


To follow Marie:  

Images were created on Biorender

Meet Jami Jackson Mulgrave, Postdoctoral Fellow in Biomedical Informatics

Dr. Jami Jackson Mulgrave, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University

Meet Our Postdocs: Jami Jackson Mulgrave, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University

Which department are you in at Columbia and what is your position?

I am a National Library of Medicine Postdoctoral Fellow in the Biomedical Informatics Department.

Where are you from and how long have you been in NYC?           

I am from Durham, NC. I graduated from Columbia University with a BA in psychology in 2007 and lived in NYC until 2012. I went to graduate school in NC from 2012 and moved back to NY in 2017.

Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.          

I went to North Carolina State University for my MA and PhD in Statistics on a NSF graduate research fellowship. My graduate research involved using Bayesian methods to learn semiparametric graphical models.  I went to Columbia University for my BA in Psychology. I originally wanted to become a medical doctor, so I worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in clinical research for 5 years after graduating with my bachelor’s degree. I ultimately decided medical school wasn’t for me and I was more interested in statistics, machine learning, and data science.

What research question are you trying to figure out right now?

My work involves using data assimilation to estimate parameters related to Type 2 diabetes.

In a nutshell, what tools or approaches are you using to try and figure this out?

My main question is whether we can estimate parameters of a model of glucose and insulin dynamics to study differences in parameter patterns between patients with type 2 diabetes and patients without type 2 diabetes using the lab results of oral glucose tolerance tests found in an electronic health record.

We are using data assimilation tools to do the estimation.

What is the best part of your job?            

Working on a problem that has the potential to make an impact on patients in the future.

Why do you love science?

I love science because I love discovery and creativity. We don’t know what answer we are going to get and we can be creative about how we get to the answer.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in science?

Follow what interests you and your passions. Don’t go into a science you think others would want you to be in, follow the science you love.

Tell us a bit about yourself or your projects that are not related to science.           

I am also a singer and songwriter.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

The food!

When did you join CUPS and what is your current role, if any?        

I joined CUPS in 2018 and I am currently a liaison with the URPostdocs group.

URPostdocs is the Underrepresented Postdocs group at Columbia seeking to unite underrepresented postdocs (Women, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans, persons with disabilities, etc) into one group. The group is committed to advocate and find means to improve recruitment, retention, and mentoring of URPostdocs to aid in the development of successful careers both in academia and non-academic settings.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I like that it is led by passionate postdocs who want to make the postdoctoral experience better for all of us.

To follow Jami:





Careers Beyond the Postdoc

Careers Beyond the Postdoc:

May 31st, 2019 @ Alumni Auditorium, CUMC Campus (Organizers: Upasana Roy, Aditi Falnikar & Alex Karambelas, Research & Professional Development Committee) 

One of our CUPS flagship events, Careers Beyond the Postdoc, happened last Friday in the beautiful Alumni Auditorium. A full house with over 60 attendants and 25 speakers.


Careers Beyond the Postdoc‘ mission is to help connect current postdocs with future non-academic careers, including (among others): data science, regulatory affairs, medical writing, editing, scientific consulting, science outreach, biotech, tech transfer, and many more!


We invited 25 professionals to talk about their role and responsibilities and how they navigated their career path post-PhD. Held every two years, the event is always a huge success, bringing in a wide variety of professionals and interested postdocs across all Columbia campuses.



Warm thank you to all our speakers for sharing their experience with our postdocs!

Judith Absalon, Pfizer – Senior Medical Director

Yana Zorina, Acorda Therapeutics – Scientist-I

Corentin Moevus, C16 Biosciences – Scientist

Anil Vaidya, Pfizer – Director of Regulatory Affairs

Hui Wang, Regeneron – Manager, Regulatory Affairs

Chiara Bertipaglia, Zuckerman Institute – Scientific Program Manager

Joan Martinez, Columbia Technology Ventures – Technology Licensing Officer

Ananda Ghosh, NYU – Business Development Professional

Shachi Bhatt, Rockefeller Press – Scientific Editor

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero, Health Science Reports – Scientific Editor

Michelle Benson, Columbia University – Assistant Director for Research Integrity and Compliance

Shenell D. Evans, The Floating Hospital – Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology

Banke Fagbemi, New York Genome Center – Director of Business Development

Deb Aronson, Grey Health Group – VP, Medical Director

Ross Fadely, Insight Data Science – Data Scientist

Ken McCallum, Uncommon Goods – Data Scientist

Odaelys Walwyn, RockEdu – Scientist/Educator

Alfred Adomako, Lockwood Medical Communications Group – Associate Scientific Director

Christopher Aston, Columbia University EH&S – Associate Director

Peter Caracappa, Columbia University RSP – Chief Radiation Safety Officer

Daniel Lewis, Cello Health BioConsulting – Consultant

Malcolm Nason, BonBouton – VP R&D

For questions about this event or similar future events, please contact us: [email protected]

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