By Dirk Hoffman
Published April 20, 2023
The UB Biophysics Research Day event provided an opportunity for the university’s biophysical research community to gather to share their work and reconnect with one another.
Participants included more than 50 faculty members, trainees and students from eight departments across three UB schools — the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).
The gathering was conducted March 31 in the second-floor atrium of the Jacobs School building.
The event was jointly organized by Viviana Monje-Galvan, PhD, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering in SEAS; Mikhail V. Pletnikov, MD, PhD, professor and chair of physiology and biophysics in the Jacobs School; Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD, professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School; and Arnd Pralle, PhD, professor of physics in the CAS.
“It was exciting to see the scope of biophysics research at UB. As a recently appointed chair, I must admit that I had not appreciated how many UB laboratories are involved in biophysics-related research in our university,” Pletnikov said. “I was delighted to realize that biophysics, as one of the strongest UB research programs of biomedical sciences, continues to thrive.”
Pralle, who is located on North Campus but holds an appointment in physiology and biophysics at the Jacobs School, said it was particularly exciting to be able to gather because while cross-departmental collaborations are particularly fruitful, such collaborations are oftentimes difficult due to spatial and administrative separation.
“Since I joined UB in 2006, I have attempted to build bridges. For three years, I ran a joint monthly journal and research club between two departments,” he said.
In March 2019, Pralle and Andrea Markelz, PhD, organized the first UB Biophysics Research Day attended by about 25 faculty and students.
“That year, I also founded the Biophysical Society UB Student Chapter, but the pandemic stopped any further development.”
Pralle said this year’s UB Biophysics Research Day served to jump-start things again.
“We had a dozen poster presentations, many of them created specifically for the event, which often gave students the first opportunity to present their research and led to a lot of good discussions.”
“Everyone was very excited to have an in-person event to connect and reconnect. A lot of fundamental research was presented, but also some applied work that is performed in startup companies at UB,” Pralle added. “Faculty were discussing funding opportunities and encouraging each other to reach outside their usual sources. There were discussions about joint efforts to fund new instrumentations and training programs.”
Frederick Sachs, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of physiology and biophysics, gave opening remarks.
Pralle said Sachs “has been a leader in UB biophysics for decades and a rich resource for advice to junior faculty and students.”
“His words were inspiring and guiding, especially in what he considers makes biophysics research special.”
Pletnikov added: “He was an obvious choice. He is a founding father of the program. His groundbreaking research in Piezo receptors and mechanoreceptors is a world-renowned contribution to the field.”
Popescu, who is president-elect of the Biophysical Society, said there was a lot of enthusiasm for the UB-wide event, and she looks forward to promoting it and inspiring others to participate in ensuing years.
Popescu cited Monje-Galvan for her determination to initiate the event this year rather than postpone for next year, despite many logistic challenges; and Pralle as the faculty adviser of the student-organized Biophysical Society UB Student Chapter, whose participation brought to this UB-organized event international recognition as a “Biophysics Week” event.
Jamie A. Abbott, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in the Popescu laboratory, presented a poster of her research titled “Uncoupling NMDA Receptor Mechanism of Ketamine Block and Proton Inhibition,” which focuses on understanding how ketamine works on the central nervous system as an anesthetic, analgesic and rapid acting antidepressant.
“This research serves to distinguish the effects of ketamine from other factors, furthering our understanding how ketamine inhibits NMDA receptors for treatment of neurological disease.”
“Everyone in attendance seemed to genuinely appreciate having the opportunity to connect and share their research,” Abbott said.
Another poster presenter, Prachetas Jai Patel, a doctoral candidate in the neuroscience program, found the event to be enlightening.
“It was a pleasure interacting with students, staff and faculty alike who all belonged to different disciplines but used similar techniques,” he said. “This allowed me to gain a lot of insight from the research being presented and I had many moments where I went, ‘I never thought of that before.’ For example, one presenter discussed a different approach to data analysis that I had not considered before.”
“Networking was also a key benefit of the event. I made new connections with people in my field and gained a different perspective by talking to individuals from other disciplines.”
Patel, who is mentored by Zhen Yan, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of physiology and biophysics, presented research focused on Alzheimer’s disease.
“We’ve discovered that a specific protein pathway, which causes intellectual disability in neurodevelopmental disorders like Down syndrome, may also be involved in the cognitive decline that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.
“By targeting this protein pathway, we may be able to slow or even stop the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s,” Patel said. “We’re using various techniques, including bioinformatics, gene sequencing and electrophysiology to further investigate this issue.”
Toyin Campbell, a doctoral student in chemical and biological engineering, who is mentored by Monje-Galvin, said she “appreciated the relaxed atmosphere to meet and learn about biophysics research from peers at UB.”
She presented a poster on the specific signature of protein-lipid interactions at the membrane interface during viral infections using molecular dynamics simulations.
“I was surprised to see we were the only computational group this year, and I hope to connect with other students as part of the Biophysical Society student chapter.”
Pletnikov said he thinks the event was “very helpful to new faculty and students to meet our experts, learn more about current biophysical research at UB and discuss what our next steps should be.”
“We will continue to work together to promote all directions in biophysical research, with particular focus on expanding UB-wide training programs for students and postdocs.”