News & Announcements

Sela Moderates Briefing on Nutrition in the Human Microbiome for Congressional Staffers

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On Wednesday, July 28, a briefing was held for congressional staffers on the central role of nutrition to the human microbiome, which is the collection of beneficial microbes that are contained within the human body. This briefing was jointly organized by The American Society for Microbiology and The American Society for Nutrition and moderated by University of Massachusetts Amherst food science faculty member, David A. Sela. This briefing is part of a larger initiative led by the American Society for Microbiology to advocate for additional resources to study the human microbiome.  

The briefing drew over 450 attendees with representatives from at least six congressional offices. The remainder of the participants were from the executive branch including HHS (NIH/FDA) and USDA, academic and industry scientists and practitioners who were obtaining continuing professional education credits. 

A recording of the briefing could be accessed at Read more

UMass ADVANCE Announces 2021-22 ADVANCE Faculty Fellows

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UMass ADVANCE is pleased to announce the 2021-22 cohort of ADVANCE Faculty Fellows. The 46 selected faculty members, each representing different units, will partner with UMass ADVANCE to promote gender and racial equity for faculty at UMass. Through a combination of research, programming, and practices, UMass ADVANCE seeks to understand systemic and intersectional inequalities at UMass and to lay the groundwork for a fairer, more equitable, diverse and inclusive campus. 

Faculty Fellows provide recommendations and feedback to the team about ADVANCE programming and liaise with their departments to promote the ADVANCE program. They also inform ADVANCE about successful equity and inclusion initiatives in their units.

Each year ADVANCE announces a theme related to our focus on collaboration and equity. UMass ADVANCE’s theme for the upcoming program year is “Shared Decision-Making and Equity in Faculty Governance.”

Congratulations to the MCB faculty:  Ashish Kulkarni (chemical engineering), ChangHui Pak (biochemistry and molecular biology), Patrick Flaherty (mathematics and statistics), and to all of the ADVANCE Faculty Fellows! Read more

Emeritus Professor Edward Westhead Dies at Age 90

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Distinguished biochemist Edward W. Westhead, emeritus professor of the biochemistry and molecular biology department at UMass Amherst, succumbed to cancer on June 1, 2021 at the age of 90. Edward Westhead formed the UMass Amherst biochemistry department and also was the first director of the molecular and cellular biology Ph.D. program. 

Westhead had a passion for learning and broad interests. After receiving his B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry from Haverford College, and his Ph.D. in polymer science from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, he continued on to do postdoctoral research in protein biochemistry and enzyme catalysis at the University of Uppsala and University of Minnesota, respectively. He then established his own laboratory at Dartmouth Medical School in 1960.

UMass Amherst recruited Westhead in 1966 to form a new department of biochemistry. He later became the first director of the UMass Amherst molecular and cellular biology PhD program in 1988. Over the decades, he also held visiting professorship positions at various institutions, including California Institute of Technology, Oxford University, University of Innsbruck and the University of Milan. Read more

Kyle Mahan MS Thesis Defense

Monday, August 16, 2021
12:00 PM
LGRT A301/Zoom hybrid
Zoom link:  Please contact sends e-mail) to be included on the email list for this announcement
Dissertation Title:  Development of a site-specific labeling assay to study the Pseudomonas aeruginosa Type III secretion translocon in native membranes
Advisor:  Alejandro Heuck

Alam García-Heredia PhD Dissertation Defense

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Thursday, August 19, 2021
10:00 AM
Morrill 2, Room 222/Zoom hybrid
Zoom link:  Please contact to be included on the email list for this announcement
Dissertation Title:  Synthesis and targeting of the bacterial cell wall
Advisor:  Sloan Siegrist

Ana Torres-Ocampo PhD Dissertation Defense

photo of Ana P. Torres-Ocampo

Thursday, August 19, 2021
2:00 PM
ILC N101/Zoom hybrid
Zoom link:  Please contact to be included on the email list for this announcement
Dissertation Title:  Understanding how CaMKII holoenzyme dynamics facilitates activation-triggered subunit exchange
Advisor:  Meg Stratton

Decrease in Neurotransmitter Release Found in Neurons Derived from People with Schizophrenia and a Rare Genetic Mutation

A scientific team has shown that the release of neurotransmitters in the brain is impaired in patients with schizophrenia who have a rare, single-gene mutation known to predispose people to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Significantly, the results from the research with human-derived neurons validated previous and new experiments that found the same major decrease in neurotransmitter release and synaptic signaling in genetically engineered human neurons with the same genetic variant – the deletion of neurexin 1 (NRXN1). NRXN1 is a protein-coding gene at the synapse, a cellular junction that connects two nerve cells to communicate efficiently.

Both the research with human-derived and engineered human neurons also found an increase in the levels of CASK, an NRXN1-binding protein, which were associated with changes in gene expression.

“Losing one copy of this neurexin 1 gene somehow contributes to the etiology or the disease mechanism in these schizophrenia patients,” says molecular neuroscientist ChangHui Pak, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and lead author of the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “It causes a deficit in neural communication.” Read more

Researchers Downes, Pak Win 2021 Armstrong Fund for Science Award at UMass Amherst

The Armstrong Fund for Science at UMass Amherst has announced that its 2021 award will go to Gerald Downes, biology, and ChangHui Pak, biochemistry and molecular biology, for their collaborative project that seeks to better understand how mutation of a gene known as TBCK disrupts brain development. Mutations in the TBCK gene cause a rare, severe, poorly understood neurological disease called TBCK Syndrome. Downes and Pak will receive a two-year, $40,000 grant to support preliminary investigations in preparation for a full-blown research effort.

Benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science in 2006 to identify and support promising research directions that do not yet have enough data available for the principals to apply to standard funding channels.

Downes and Pak plan a two-pronged approach: Downes, who has worked for years with zebrafish, has already engineered a variety of the fish with TBCK Syndrome. His lab will study how TBCK effects brain development and interacts with the mTOR pathway. Pak is an expert in the use of human-induced pluripotent stem cells. “We can grow these stem cells, reprogram and rewind them back to the embryonic stage of brain development,” she says. “Then we can engineer specific mutations, like TCBK, grow the stem cells into neurons, and run a variety of studies to compare and contrast the healthy cells with the abnormal ones.”

“We’ll be working in parallel,” says Downes, “learning from the insights provided by each model.”

Once they have preliminary results in hand, Downes and Pak will be well-positioned to seek major, multi-year support for a more comprehensive study. “The Armstrong Fund is letting us jump-start our project,” says Pak. “Without this support, it would be difficult to get our work off the ground.” Read more

The Future of Medicine is Nearer Thanks to Researchers’ Invention

DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. Credit: ttsz/Getty Images

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently unveiled their discovery of a new process for making RNA. The resulting RNA is purer, more copious and likely to be more cost-effective than any previous process could manage. This new technique removes the largest stumbling block on the path to next-generation RNA therapeutic drugs.

If DNA is the blueprint that tells the cells in our bodies what proteins to make and for what purposes, RNA is the messenger that carries DNA’s instruction to the actual protein-making machinery within each cell. Most of the time this process works flawlessly, but when it doesn’t, when the body can’t make a protein it needs, as in the case of a disease like cystic fibrosis, serious illness can result.

One method for treating such protein deficiencies is with therapeutics that replace the missing proteins. But researchers have long known that it’s more effective when the body can make the protein it needs itself. This is the goal of an emerging field of medicine—RNA therapeutics. The problem is, the current methods of producing lab-made RNA can’t deliver RNA that is pure enough, in enough quantities in a way that’s cost-effective. “We need lots of RNA,” says Elvan Cavaç, lead author of the paper that was recently published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, MBA student at UMass Amherst, and a recent Ph.D. graduate in chemistry, also from UMass. “We’ve developed a novel process for producing pure RNA, and since the process can reuse its ingredients, yielding anywhere between three and ten times more RNA than the conventional methods, it also saves time and cost.”

The problem with impure RNA is that it can trigger reactions, like swelling, that can be harmful, and even life-threatening. For example, impure RNA can cause inflammation in the lungs of a patient with cystic fibrosis. Conventionally manufactured RNA has to undergo a lengthy and expensive process of purification. “Rather than having to purify RNA,” says Craig Martin, the paper’s senior author and professor of chemistry at UMass, “we’ve figured out how to make clean RNA right from the start.” Read more

BTP Fellowships Awarded to MCB Students

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Congratulations to the MCB students who were recently awarded prestigious BTP traineeships:  Hyerim Ban (Andrews/Schiffman labs), Thomas Harrington (Bartlett lab), Patrick Ryan (Lee lab), Akaansha Rampal (Peyton/Vachet labs), Nidhi Thaker (Stratton/Fissore labs), Madelaine Tompach (Timme-Laragy lab), and Jacob Ullom (Pobezinsky lab)! In addition, Emily Lopes (Fissore lab) and Jessica McGory (Maresca lab) will continue on BTP traineeships for another year! BTP students are trained in an interdisciplinary fashion that expands career opportunities and sharpens professional skills. The UMass BTP emphasizes industrial partnerships, such as internships that provide hands-on access to cutting-edge biotechnology research, industrial seminars, and other industrial activities. Traineeships are typically awarded to students to support their 2nd and 3rd years of study, and trainee selection criteria include past performance (undergraduate institution and GPA, GRE scores), progress in the PhD program (grades and research productivity), and commitment to the BTP Program. Congratulations to all on your awards! Read more