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.”

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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.

Department Mourns the Passing of Dr. Bing Liu

It is with deep sadness and shock that we learned of the untimely passing of Dr. Bing Liu, Research Assistant Professor in our department on Saturday, May 2nd, 2020.

Dr. Bing Liu was an outstanding researcher, who has earned the respect and appreciation of many colleagues in the field, and made unique contributions to science. His area of expertise was computational modeling and analysis of biological systems dynamics. He had developed high-performance computing techniques and advanced machine-learning approaches for modeling the time evolution of complex cellular interactions, Bayesian network models and methods, and statistical model checking and sensitivity analyses.

Bing was a prolific researcher. During his career he co-authored in 30+ publications, including four in 2020, in addition to a book.  He played a critical role in the Bahar Lab and was the leader in systems biology research for Ivet and her lab. He single-handedly helped all of us as well as many collaborators including clinicians here and in other institutions, understand and quantitatively model many complex processes, including immune signaling events,  apoptotic and ferroptotic cell death,  autophagy, redox lipid programming, response to radiation and radiation therapy, systems (poly)pharmacological treatments. In recent years, he had three publications in Nature Chem Biol, three in Radiation Research, two in Scientific Reports, one in Science Signaling,  one in International Journal of Molecular Sciences, and one in Frontiers in Pharmacology.

Liu was an excellent mentor. He had been generously sharing his time and knowledge with younger members of the Bahar lab, as well as students enrolled in our various programs, including our summer programs (TECBio REU and the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Summer Academy. He was patient, intelligent, and extremely mature. We will miss him very much.

Dr. Liu received his BS and PhD in Computer Science, at the National University of Singapore, under the supervisions of Drs. P.S. Thiagarajan and David Hsu, and did his postdoctoral studies in the lab of Professor Dr. Edmund Clarke at  Carnegie Mellon University, after which he joined the Bahar lab, as a Research Associate, and was recently promoted to a Research Assistant Professor position within our department.

Bing was on the verge of making very significant findings toward understanding the cellular mechanisms that underlie SARS-CoV-2 infection and the cellular basis of the following complications. We will make an effort to complete what he started in an effort to pay homage to his scientific excellence.

His loss will be felt throughout the entire scientific community. Please keep his family, friends, and colleagues in your thoughts. Thank you.