Meet Nandhini Sivakumar, Postdoc in the Motor Neuron Center

Meet Our Postdocs: Nandhini Sivakumar, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Neurodegenerative Diseases at the Motor Neuron Center (Columbia University).


Nandhini Sivakumar, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Neurodegenerative Diseases

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

I am a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Motor Neuron Center.

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

I am from India and I have been at CUIMC for one year now.
Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.          

My early education (High school and Bachelors) happened in India. Midway through my high school when I learned the two words – recombinant DNA – I knew I wanted to explore bioscience and I chose to study biotechnology in my Bachelors, encompassing a broad array of subjects. That just opened the gateway to the arena of genetics, which I decided to invest in, move continents and pursue my Masters in the UK in 2008. Little did I know back then, that I was going to intertwine every step of my studies towards my future career. In my Masters, I worked on screening and validating gene targets that alleviated apoptosis in cell-culture models of the neurodegenerative disorder Huntington’s disease. My passion for basic research by then had become a major player in my decisions, and so I decided that having gained some expertise in neurodegeneration, it would be apt to get more hands-on experience in hardcore neuroscience research. I got my PhD position in 2011 at the Max-Planck-Institute for Experimental Medicine, in Göttingen, Germany, where I studied the role of SNARE modulatory proteins that synergistically regulate neurotransmission at excitatory synapses in the hippocampus of the mammalian brain. Soon after, I applied for postdoctoral positions without much of a dilemma believing that my career path was already carving itself out. In 2016, I started my first postdoctoral position at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, further investigating another organ of the central nervous system, the spinal cord. I ventured into studying the afferent pathways modulating somatosensations of pain and itch. At a certain point in my first postdoc, I came to the crossroads of wanting to stay in science research versus exploring a career in scientific communications and editorials. Given the experience I had garnered for nearly a decade, and my ambition to become an independent group leader, I decided to stay on and apply for postdoctoral positions in the USA (moving continents again…) that would not only bring me closer to my goal but also my family and friends. That is when Columbia and New York City happened.

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

My current research focus is on motor neuron degeneration in the spinal cord and its associated synaptic abnormalities observed during the onset and progression of spinal muscular atrophy.

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

With expertise in molecular and cellular biology alongside electrophysiology, I am here and now employing all the skills I have acquired over the decade of my research contributions in Europe.

What is the best part of your job?            

The best part about my job is being able to work in a renowned medical center that not only provides amazing care to patients but also has well-equipped facilities and experts working to propel basic and clinical research forward. We as a team in our lab, each have our own skillset and yet have been more than willingly helping each other with our projects, bringing forth ideas, troubleshooting technical glitches associated with equipment and importantly, morally encouraging each other in our day-to-day experiences.
Why do you love science?

Because recombinant DNA was my first love! <3

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

I would advise the upcoming scientists to go with the flow of their interests. Only when you know what interests you the most, will you find ways to passionately do it.

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

I love playing the piano, hiking, swimming and given my urge to jump across continents, I love to travel!

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

Arts and Culture. The best about NYC, which people would rarely find elsewhere, is the love and passion for arts (Metropolitan and history museums), theatre (Broadway shows), classical music (Juilliard, Carnegie Hall), dance (American-Russian BALLET) and much more! I couldn’t even fathom the depth of it all until I started experiencing it here!

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

CUPS has organized some amazing professional and social events that got us to meeting so many new people. I find it to be a great resource center that would be useful for all Columbia postdocs.

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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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Meet Marie Labouesse, Postdoc in Neuroscience

Marie Labouesse, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Neuroscience at the Department of Psychiatry

Meet Our Postdocs: Marie Labouesse, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of 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’m from France and moved to NYC in October 2016.

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

I did my undergrad and MSc. in Paris where I studied Biology and Nutritional Sciences at AgroParisTech. It was more of an applied school and I realized kind of late that actually I wanted to do research. I had recently attended a Neuroscience class and I got hooked immediately. I decided to go back to school one last year to get an accelerated MSc. in Neuroscience (at UPMC in Paris). The first month was tough: unlike my fellow classmates, neuroscience was completely new to me and the lectures were quite challenging. I thought I would not manage to get through all my exams. But with a lot of studying, I actually managed, and in the end I liked it so much that I decided to continue with a PhD in Neuroscience. I was too late for applying to all the PhD programs in France, but I managed to get into a really nice spot at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. All this to say it’s OK to switch topics throughout your studies, and you’ll end up landing on your feet!

During my PhD I studied how the early environment, e.g. stress or diets, can affect brain maturation during early postnatal development. I really liked the concepts of “critical periods of development”, it was fascinating. But it was challenging to ask questions in a very mechanistic way because the early environment affects brain development in so many parallel ways. So then, I decided to switch gears a bit and do a postdoc in a rather new field known as “circuit neuroscience”. In this field, researchers target specific neuronal populations with genetic tools and ask what their roles are in regulating behavior in an acute manner. Doing this, they map new “brain circuits” that are important for controlling behaviors such as movement, anxiety, social interactions, motivation, etc.

I stayed in my PhD lab for 9-10 months, to wrap up projects and to apply to postdoc labs and fellowships. I got pretty lucky and ended up having to choose between two fellowships, either at UC Berkeley in San Francisco or in NYC – a luxury problem (I always wanted to live in both of these cities). I chose NYC because my mentor sounded like a great person who really challenged you scientifically but also gave you intellectual freedom on your projects. Here I am at Columbia University since October 2016.

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

Right now, I am trying to understand how the brain controls how we move. The idea is to find out new types of neurons that regulate motor function, and this may help one day to better understand what goes wrong in brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. More specifically, I focus on a brain region called the striatum, which has a particular cell type known as D1 neurons. We already know that D1 neurons are very important for regulating motor function, but we still don’t know what are the specific mechanisms. D1 neurons send axonal projections outside the striatum to other brain regions and what I’m trying to understand is what are the effects of activating D1 neurons on the activity of downstream brain regions. I also try to understand what are the mechanisms at the synaptic level that can explain how D1 neurons control movement. I wrote a short Science story about this recently.

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

One of the main tools I use to monitor D1 neurons is called “in vivo calcium imaging”. This method allows to track neural activity of D1 neurons in vivo. I do this in mouse models while mice perform behavioral motor tasks. This allows me to understand what are the brain signatures of D1 neurons during movement. I also use “chemogenetics” and “optogenetics” which allow me to activate or inhibit D1 neurons cell-specifically during motor tasks and find out their causal role in behavior, or in regulating downstream activity in the brain.

These different tools are part of the “circuit neuroscience” palette, and have been developed quite recently (in the past 5-15 years) by a bunch of super innovative engineers, chemists, physicists and biologists. It has really been an incredible cross-disciplinary effort that has transformed the way people study the brain between the early 2000s and now.

Why do you love science?

I love the logic of it. In this new field I joined, I can really manipulate particular neuron populations in the brain and see what exactly their role is in controlling behavior. It’s very rewarding.

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

First, go for something you are fascinated about. It’s the fascination that will keep you motivated, especially if you do a PhD and need to stay excited about your research topic for 3-5 years. Second, if possible, get lab experience as early as possible, that’ll help you pick up technical skills faster in any future lab you will work in. But it’s also OK if you didn’t; I started pretty late, it was tough at the beginning but I learned on the go.  Also, learn how to code! That’ll help you in any research topic. Third, if you want to change topics for your postdoc, do it! It might feel hard at first, but you’ll come in into this new field with a new angle as compared to your colleagues and the synergies might be super useful!

Also, keep asking yourself on a regular basis whether you want to stay in academia, or if it’s your PI, your parents or “you-5-years-ago” who wants/wanted that. Life in academia is very fulfilling but can also be in certain cases stressful or just very time-consuming. There are so many other jobs out there that are equally cool and challenging and in which you can be very successful and happy. If you’re curious about these other careers, don’t only talk to your PI, talk to other people outside of lab, go to career panels, join your postdoc association (e.g. CUPS), etc.

Finally, when you interview in a lab for a position, try to meet the lab members, ask what their mentor is like, what the lab vibe is. I always focused on working in labs with a good vibe, where mentoring grad and undergrad students and sharing resources are valued, and it has always paid off. I hope to continue transmitting this approach when/if I open my lab one day!

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

My favorite thing to do outside of lab is to play basketball. I play at leagues like Zogsports or NY Urban where you can sign up as an individual even if you don’t have a team (I highly recommend it). I also like to go hiking in the mountains or do outdoor activities.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

The food for sure! Also the fact that I felt at home really quickly, people are very welcoming and make you feel like you belong to NYC.

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

I joined CUPS in June 2018. First, I was part of the Research & Professional Development Committee. One event I was very happy about was a Career Panel where we invited 4 former Columbia Postdocs who had transitioned to Scientist Positions in Industry (eg  Pfizer, Novartis). We had a really nice crowd and the panelists answered a lot of important questions for all those wondering about industry scientist positions.

I then got interested in graphic communications & outreach and therefore founded the Outreach & Communications Committee in Jan 2019 together with Sandra Franco Iborra. We were just 2 to start off with and now have a stable group of 6-8 people, all super motivated and creative. That’s really cool to see. I got this Science Postdoc Blog set up and going, and I am now passing it over to new members. I also helped on some really nice outreach events, such as a recent Science Trivia Night the group organized.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

Meeting so many cool people that I would not have had the chance to meet otherwise. It’s a really nice way to make friends when you arrive here and don’t know anyone. I also like to discover how people do science in different disciplines that I don’t know much about. I would not have met climate scientists or mathematicians or space scientists otherwise! The Meet our Postdocs blog section has also been a great resource in this respect.

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Meet Chloé Pasin, Postdoc in Quantitative Immunology

Chloé Pasin, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Pathology and Cell Biology Department.

Meet Our Postdocs: Chloé Pasin, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Pathology and Cell Biology Department at Columbia University.


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

I am a postdoctoral research scientist in the department of Pathology and Cell Biology.

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

I grew up in Toulouse, in the south west of France and I’ve been in NYC for 6 months.

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

I studied mostly in France and did some internships abroad. My background is in mathematics, but I realized during my bachelor’s degree that I wanted to apply my knowledge in mathematics to concrete questions. I did a master’s degree in mathematics applied to biology/biostatistics. I was lucky to find a very interesting internship in Bordeaux on modeling the dynamics of cells in response to HIV vaccines. After that, I went to work for a few months at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where I did some biostatistics to assess the efficacy of a dengue vaccine.

After Seattle, I started my PhD in a public health institute in Bordeaux. I was involved in two main projects: one was on modeling the immune response in response to Ebola vaccine. I worked in collaboration with a pharmaceutical lab on data generated during phase I clinical trials in UK and East Africa. My other project was to develop a mathematical tool to optimize immunotherapy schedules in HIV-infected patients. I graduated at the end of 2018 and started the postdoc here a couple of months later.

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

I am working on data from patients with blood cancers who underwent chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, which is supposed to reconstitute their immune system with healthy blood cells. I am trying to identify a subset of cells early after the transplant whose dynamics could help predict the clinical state of the patient (relapse, graft-versus-host-disease) and their long-term survival.

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

During my PhD I was mostly modeling the dynamics of cells with systems of differential equations, and using estimation methods to assess the value of the parameters of the system based on clinical data. It can help give a better understanding of how the immune system works and allow us to quantify some of these processes. Eventually, using these kinds of methods could help optimize vaccines and treatments. Now, I am learning new methods of variable selection that are part of the “machine learning” field. It helps select a few factors that are associated with a clinical event among a large number of variables.

What is the best part of your job?            

I like how diverse it is, and I enjoy working with people from different backgrounds (medical doctors, immunologists, mathematicians, biostatisticians, etc.). I think the best part is being able to discuss a concrete question with a clinician and trying to figure out which tools and methods should be used to answer it. And also, always learning new things.

Why do you love science?

Because you get to ask a lot of questions! And you might also get some answers about how things work.

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

I think what’s important is to be curious and follow what you are interested in. You will not be good in your research if you don’t enjoy it! Also, do not think that having a degree in a field prevents you from working in a different one. You can adapt and learn new things if you want to.

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

At the moment I am also trying to learn more about American history and politics by reading books, going to exhibitions, reading more newspaper articles… and I am also trying to speak better Spanish. I’m also going quite often to yoga.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

Can I choose more than one? I would say the diversity of people, which makes you feel that you can be yourself without anyone judging, the cultural events, and the food!

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

I joined the Outreach and Communications committee a couple of months ago. I don’t have a specific role there, but I am trying to be more involved in outreach events. I am particularly interested in speaking about science to kids and improving access for women in STEM fields.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I think it’s nice that it brings people from different backgrounds together to try and make the postdoc experience more than just about your own work.

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Meet Benjamin Rudshteyn, Postdoc in Chemistry

Ben Rudshteyn, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Chemistry Department

Meet Our Postdocs: Benjamin Rudshteyn, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Chemistry Department at Columbia University.


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

Chemistry; Postdoctoral Research Scientist.

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

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. So I have been in NYC all my life outside of graduate school.

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

I went to Brooklyn College/Macaulay Honors College at CUNY for undergraduate and Yale for my PhD in computational chemistry. I applied for my postdoc straight out of graduate school.

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

I am applying the Auxiliary Field Quantum Monte Carlo (AFQMC) stochastic method for solving the Schrodinger Equation very accurately to determine the properties of biologically relevant molecules.

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

I use computer simulations to predict the properties of molecules. These typically use black box typical software to generate the geometry of the molecule, which is run in PySCF Python package to generate the inputs for AFQMC. Then these inputs are fed into a GPU code. These steps are all down on high performance supercomputers. The analysis is then done on my local computer with scripts and coding.

What is the best part of your job?            

Getting the experimental prediction for a property right on!

Why do you love science?

The problems are interesting to solve and it’s the only way to solve the most-pressing problems facing humanity.

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

Explore their options and take courses in a variety of fields.

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

Outside of science, I enjoy learning about Russian/Jewish history and culture, reading, skiing, exploring NYC, and Go.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

The people! The seasons! Also the transit system is relatively functional when you compare to other cities.

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

I joined CUPS shortly after becoming a postdoc in June 2018. I am the VP for Morningside and Lamont as well as the Senator for all postdocs.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I like networking and learning new things about how the university operates.

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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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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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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.

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Meet Micaela Cunha, Postdoctoral Fellow in Space Research

Dr. Micaela Cunha, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Space Research at Columbia University

Meet Our Postdocs: Micaela Cunha, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Space Research at Columbia University


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

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Radiological Research in the Medical Center. I was awarded a fellowship by the NASA-funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH).

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

I am from Portugal, from a small town near Porto. I have been in NYC since December 2016.

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

I did my bachelors degree in Biomedical Engineering and my masters in Radiation and Medical Imaging, both at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. After two years working on projects related to image-guided radiation therapy and dosimetry for space radiation, I pursued my Ph.D degree in Medical Physics at the University Claude Bernard Lyon, France. I worked on developing and validating a new biophysical model to plan tumor treatment by ion beam radiotherapy.

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

How to protect astronauts from developing cancer later in life after exposure to the space radiation environment.

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

The major limiting factor of long-term space travel is the risk of developing cancer later in life due to continued exposure to space radiation.

A possible way to reduce such risk is to use radioprotectors that work at a biological level. Several chemical compounds such as vitamins, antioxidants, or aspirin, have been shown to provide protection against carcinogenesis. The challenge lies in determining whether this protection would also happen for carcinogenesis induced by space radiation.

I analyze data of carcinogenesis induced by space radiation in combination with radioprotectors. Using mathematical models, the goal is to extract information about the biological mechanisms involved in space-radiation-induced carcinogenesis.

What is the best part of your job?            

To know that my work might make a difference in preserving other people’s health, regardless of whether it’s astronauts or radiotherapy patients!

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

I love fried chicken and watching Game of Thrones! Not necessarily at the same time though (laughs). Recently, I started running Spartan Races and really enjoyed the great atmosphere of camaraderie at these events. Moreover, each time you feel compelled to get out of your comfort zone and achieve more! You might be surprised at the things you can achieve when you are motivated and feel confident and encouraged! I try to apply this positive mindset to my daily life too and the result is amazing!

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

I don’t know about other places in the U.S., but what I love about NYC is that you have the chance to be yourself and discover your true self without being afraid of judgement. Coming to NYC gave me the opportunity of breaking free of a lot of preconceived ideas and explore who I really wanted to be.

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

August 2018. I heard about it during the new postdoc orientation and started following it on social media. One day I finally decided to attend the General Meeting to check out what they had going on. The group was very welcoming and I felt my voice heard since the very beginning. I then attended all the committee meetings to get to know people in CUPS better. Currently, I am Co-President for the Medical Center, social media manager, and active member of the Outreach & Communications and the Networking & Community Building Committees.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I love that CUPS is a really nice group of people that will enrich your experience in NYC at both a professional and personal level! It’s not just about building your communication or leadership skills, it’s about making meaningful connections with fellow postdocs! I started friendships within CUPS that I’m convinced will last for life! Highly recommend everyone to join!

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Welcome to Meet our Postdocs

Welcome to Meet our Postdocs

In this section you will get to meet some of our postdocs at Columbia, hear about their journey and about their current scientific and non-scientific interests. First post coming up soon !