TECBio REU Pioneers Successful Virtual Program

Amidst the uncertainty and turmoil that beleaguered the early months of 2020, the TECBio Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Pittsburgh had to make the difficult decision of whether or not to proceed with their annual summer research program. Preparations had to be made and longstanding playbooks had to be completely re-written, but it was decided that the program would continue so we could serve our students (honor our commitments to them, or something like that). Naturally, one of the biggest changes would be the move to an online/virtual platform.

During the planning process, Dr. Joseph Ayoob began efforts to coordinate with REU programs nationwide to build a network of support and cooperation amongst the handful of them that were also considering holding virtual programs. Bi-weekly meetings were held throughout the summer where inter-program communications avenues were paved and information was shared for the mutual benefit of all involved. In the end, this group enabled and supported ~30 programs to provide research opportunities for students.

The plans for TECBio had finally coalesced into a more cohesive vision for the summer and, on May 25, 2020, the first Virtual TECBio REU program began with the opening orientation. Though there were many challenges, the students and their faculty mentors and labmates, managed to discover new ways of communicating and working together on their research projects. As one TECBio student noted, “It was an enriching experience, despite the fact that we had to adapt to a new modality, everything went smoothly.” The student committee groups (which are comprised of TECBio student volunteers and are organized into Social, T-Shirt, Ambassador, and Mentoring Committees respectively), helped to oversee further adaptations to the new virtual format through new and creative ways of fostering interaction and engagement. Overall, both students and faculty expressed their happiness with how the research and program progressed. For the first time, virtual reality was utilized (in the form of Oculus Quest headsets) for a seminar talk as well as the final poster session, which took place entirely in a large VR gallery room. The use of this technology was universally applauded by everyone in the program and helped foster a feeling of connectedness despite the distances.

Despite the obstacles presented for this year’s program, it concluded as a success with many students reporting significant gains in their confidence and ability as researchers, and all of them expressing gratitude that they were able to participate in a meaningful experience during these uncertain times. One TECBio student, Caleb Armstrong, summarized his experience thusly, “This REU gave me a thorough insight into what being a graduate student is like from many aspects, including research, learning, and social activities. Before this opportunity, I had barely any research experience, or even any idea what graduate school was really like; now, I feel properly prepared (and confident enough) to pursue research as a career and a passion.”

Pitt prepares to resume research

The University of Pittsburgh is making preparations to resume research activities on campus amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher issued a statement outlining the goals of re-opening the university by saying, “we are seeking to adapt to a new reality: performing our vital mission and protecting our community in the midst of a pandemic.” In his message, he commented on the time-critical elements of Pitt’s mission and that “students can’t put their education and lives on hold, and our researchers and scholars can’t sit on the sidelines until the threat dissipates.” However, he also emphasized the importance of moving forward responsibly through infection prevention and control measures such as modifying building use, acquiring the technology needed to conduct remote and on-campus work, developing approaches for recognizing risks (e.g., testing, symptom tracking, temperature monitoring, etc.), and performing contact tracing. Gallagher concluded his message saying that the road ahead will be a complicated one, but one that he believes we can traverse safely while still performing Pitt’s mission–“It’s a strange new world. But I remain extremely proud to be your colleague and incredibly optimistic as we set out to tackle this next transition together.”

Biomedical Science Tower 3, where some of the Department of Computational & Systems Biology’s facilities are located, will be among one of the first research buildings to be adapted to the new rules and guidelines for resuming research.

DCSB Welcomes New Executive Administrator: Donald Bonidie

Please join us in welcoming our new Executive AdministratorDonald Bonidie, who joins us from the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh where he was the Director of Business and Finance. He has been with the university for over 26 years.

We put together a brief interview with him below so that we all may get to know him a little better.

Are you from the Pittsburgh area?
I was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area. Lived in the inner city of Pittsburgh, East Liberty, with my 3 brothers and graduated from Peabody HS. I now reside outside of the city in Springdale with my wife of just about 25 years (on June 3rd!) Deanna, and my two daughters Victoria, a recent college graduate and in the fall a Pitt student pursuing her PhD in physics and astronomy and Haley, a soon to be senior in HS.

Where did you do your undergrad/masters and what did you study?
I did both my undergraduate (BS) and graduate (MS) degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, UG focus was in math and computer science while my masters was in Information Science.

What made you choose the University of Pittsburgh for your career?
I was always a big Pitt fan and always wanted to attend. However, funds were low so I got a job in the ID center at Pitt so I could take advantage of the tuition benefits. From there I took every opportunity to not only get my education but expand my resume by taking every staff training made available to me and every new task I could find. That has grown into a 28-year (this August) career.

Who is your mentor and who inspires you?
I have worked for the University for almost 28 years now and have been fortunate enough to have many mentors. However, Michele Montag of the Dietrich School stands out the most. She is incredibly bright, compassionate, and effective. As the Director of Administration, she demonstrated many of the qualities necessary to be an effective and inspirational leader.

What’s your most-used productivity hack?
Tackle must do and difficult tasks first. That’s when you will have the most energy to deal with them. Save the easier stuff for when you are the least energetic.

What’s something that you’re proud of?
That’s easy, I have two daughters and their accomplishments are what makes me most proud. I also love the fact that I was able to make them both feel and believe they are my favorite.

What motivates you at work?
Every job I have ever had I want to leave being the best that job has ever had. I want to set the bar and that’s a big task and a big motivator.

What are you hoping to achieve as the new Department Administrator?
My goal is to find operational efficiencies. I like taking a tedious task that takes a lot of time and effort and automating it to make it more efficient, accurate, and certainly less time.

Do you have any talents or hobbies?
My “hobby” if you will and my passion is teaching. I have been teaching as an adjunct faculty member here at Pitt for over 20 years.

Do you have any pets?
I have two wonderful pet piranhas.

Dr. Ivet Bahar has been elected a member of The National Academy of Sciences

Dr. Ivet Bahar is among the exceptional scientists elected this year to the The National Academy of Sciences (NAS). NAS membership is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive.

Dr. Bahar has been elected “in honor of outstanding contributions to computational biology.” She is a pioneer in structural and computational biology, having developed widely-used elastic network models for protein dynamics.  These models reveal cooperative motions that are intrinsically favored by 3D protein architectures to allow substrate-binding, allosteric regulation, and supramolecular machinery, thus computationally bridging structure and function.

Dr. Bahar adapted fundamental theories and methods of polymer statistical mechanics to biomolecular structure and dynamics. She pioneered a modified version of the classical Rouse model, to examine the collective dynamics of proteins modeled as elastic network models (ENMs). ENMs have three strengths: simplicity, ability to yield a unique solution for each structure, and efficient applicability to supramolecular complexes/assemblies. Her theory and methods have withstood numerous tests since their inception, and established fundamental concepts in molecular biology: the role of entropy-driven fluctuations defined by 3D contact topology in optimizing biomolecular interactions; the evolutionary pressure for robustly maintaining structural dynamics to support flexible mechanisms of actions – not only structure to ensure stability; the ability of proteins to exploit their structure-encoded dynamics to adapt to promiscuous interactions and mutations as demonstrated in numerous applications, including neurotransmitter transporters in recent years. Recent application to chromosomal dynamics provided insights into the physical basis of gene co-expression and regulation events.

Dr. Bahar is a Distinguished Professor and the founding John K Vries Chair of the Department of Computational and Systems Biology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and co-founder of an internationally-acclaimed PhD program in Computational Biology, CPCB, jointly offered by the University of Pittsburgh and  Carnegie Mellon University.

NAS is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars established in 1863, which aims to provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Approximately 500 current and deceased members of the NAS have won Nobel Prizes. This year’s election of 120 members and 26 international members brings the total number of active NAS members to 2403, and the total number of international members to 501. Members of NAS are elected at the annual meeting in April in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.  You can read their official press release in  National Academy of Sciences Elects New Members.

 

Congratulations Dr. Bahar!