By Gerard Lavoie

Spotlight on Students: Conor Smith

January 27th, 2011 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Connor SmithDo you know what it is like to present a poster at a conference with over 30,000 attendees? Conor Smith, a graduate student in GMS, presented a poster at the Society for Neuroscience meeting where attendees came from all over the world.  He was able to attend the meeting with the help from a travel grant from the GMS office and he sat down to share this exciting experience with all of us.


Q: You recently attended the annual Society for Neuroscience 2010 meeting in San Diego. Can you tell us a little about what you were doing there?

There were really two main activities I was concerned with at the meeting. The first was to present my own poster entitled “Mechanisms of Pregnenolone Sulfate-Induced Increases in Plasma Membrane NMDA Receptor Expression in Rat Cortical Neurons”. During my presentation I fielded questions and received input from other scientists at the conference.

The second part of the meeting basically involved seeing as much as possible. This conference covers the cutting edge in research. It is a sample of the most advanced research conducted worldwide. There was such an abundance of poster presenters at the meeting that it took approximately 20 minutes just to walk straight across the room holding them all. That doesn’t even include walking through the aisles and seeing all the posters. It was also a great opportunity for networking, it gave you personal contact as you met with people face to face.

Q: What stands out to you the most from this experience?

I really enjoyed learning about the cutting edge research. You can tell which research is popular and new by the crowd surrounding it and I noticed that a BU poster being presented on optic genetics always had a mass of people surrounding it throughout the conference. Some of the best new research is right here on our own campus. All the vendors at the conference was another exciting opportunity to learn about new products that could potentially help my research. The new technology presented by vendors can provide new methods for investigation, and many of the new inventions have reduced in size. For example, this one machine, which takes up about the same floor space as a washer and dryer, has now been reduced to approximately the size of a small microwave. This is something I can bring back to the lab at BU and inform the people here of better methods for conducting research.

Q: How has this shaped your current research?

Presenting my poster and observing the other posters has really formed the direction of my research, especially what not to do. It has helped me understand why the novel studies have the most impact. It is guiding the direction of my research as it has given me new ideas. I found it extremely helpful to hear others comments on the posters, to hear their own experiences and useful tips they offered.

Q: What program are you in and why did you choose this program?

I originally started as a lab tech in the department of biophysics. As I became familiar with this lab and visited labs at other institutions, I realized that the Pharmacology department at BU was the best department for my interests in neuroscience and pharmacology. I just liked what this lab had going on and the structure of the program. There was the right balance of academics and research.

Q: Can you tell us more about your research here at BUSM?


 Pregnenolone sulfate (PS) is a neuroactive steroid that enhances NMDAR mediated synaptic transmission, augments LTP in hippocampal slices, and acts as a cognitive enhancer in impaired animals. This is important because of its possible role in synaptic plasticity, memory formation, and neuropsychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia. To test that PS induces an upregulation of NMDARs at the surface of cortical neurons we exposed cultured rat neurons to 100uM PS for 10 minutes. We observed that PS is sufficient to induce increases in intracellular calcium in the absence of extracellular calcium.


Q: So when you aren’t in the lab, what other activities are you involved in?


I like to hang out with friends when I can. I read a lot or just spend time at home with my wife. We’ve been married for 2 years now and we still like to go out to eat together and find new places to dine in Boston. We’ve been to a wide variety of restaurants in Boston. It’s a great city for excellent varied dining as well as for receiving a higher education.

Q: Any advice for other prospective students?

Go to the Society for Neuroscience meeting. It is a great way to see a wide variety of research as well as a great way to get more information on how to do research. Also, go as early in your Ph.D. career as possible and see what interests you. You don’t have to be a presenter to go.

Take the advice from Conor and try to attend national and international meetings.  It is a great way to meet scientists from all over the world and get lots of exposure. You can learn more about travel grants by visiting the website

Spotlight on Students: Daniel Dworkis

December 10th, 2010 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Dan DworkisHave you seen the amazing photography—all created by our own GMS students—displayed in the GMS office? If not, please stop by and enjoy these beautiful art works. One of the photographers is Daniel Dworkis, an MD/PhD student, who is not only passionate about science but balances his life with many activities such as photography, volunteering, etc. He sat down to share with us his perspectives on science, medicine, and the game rock, paper, scissors.

Q: So you’ve been doing some traveling recently? Can you tell us about where you’ve been and what you were doing there?

Yes, that’s right. I recently became involved with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and spent a month in Haiti working with that organization at the displaced persons camp Kam Lespwa / Klinik Lespwa (meaning camp or clinic of hope, respectively). It was an amazing experience that provided me with a unique opportunity to help people. Applying some of my lab experience in the field, I conducted some public health research, looking at different types of malnutrition present in the camp.

Q: What is one of your strongest memories from this experience?

Working with the children in the camp was amazing, and since I speak Haitian Kreyol, I was able to really interact directly with them. I would walk by a group of kids and they would be so surprised when they realized I actually understood them—my favorite part was trying to teach them the game ‘rock, paper, scissors,’ a game I’ve been playing since I was a kid. They really didn’t buy into the idea of paper beating rock, but that did not stop them from surrounding me and demanding to play every time I went by!

Q: How has this experience changed your perspective?

Being able to bring my research skills to Haiti and apply them in the field really reminded me of why I’m in this program: I worked alongside wonderful doctors and nurses who were trying to address the medical issues they saw, and by bringing my research skills to look at the public-health data we collected in a new way, I was able to expose some previously unrecognized trends and concerns. So I could really see how the PhD and MD parts of my training were working together. It also really solidified my desire to work for at least part of my career internationally, probably in post-disaster or refugee settings.

Q: What program are you enrolled in and why did you choose this particular program?

I am an MD-PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Molecular Medicine, researching factors affecting the severity of sickle cell anemia. After studying biophysics at Brown I began working at BU in the bioengineering department, and entered the MD-PhD program here intending to work on developing new bio-optic devices for research. However, during my first year of medical school, I went to a series of great talks focused on medicine and research in the setting of poverty both at home and abroad; the speakers posed some very challenging questions, and I realized I really wanted to devote a large part of my career to addressing both the bio-molecular and socio-economic etiologies of disease. Just before starting at BU, I had volunteered as a summer-camp counselor for kids with sickle cell anemia, and had seen first-hand the complex physiological and socio-economic havoc this genetic disorder wreaks. I was fortunate enough to be able to join the Center of Excellence in Sickle Cell Disease under the guidance of Dr. Martin Steinberg in the Program in Molecular Medicine. Currently, I’m researching how genetic variation modifies endothelial processing of inflammation in an effort to identify molecular pathways that might alter the severity of sickle cell disease.

Q: Why BUSM?

The mission of this school is extremely meaningful and congruent with my personal perspective. I am thrilled to work at an institution where the guiding principle is service for the underserved, and I see such a real passion here from the people I meet and work with. I also consider myself to be very fortunate to be in a place like BU that does so much to guide students toward reaching their goals, even when those goals include atypical things like temporarily leaving the laboratory to work in a displaced persons camp!

Q: So when you aren’t in the lab, what other activities are you involved in?

I am a co-leader of the emerging advocacy program here at BUSM. It is a 4-year comprehensive curriculum, from teaching advocacy for patients to changing national policy. As part of this curriculum, I am currently teaching a class with a couple of other students on how legal status effects healthcare. I love the challenge of teaching the class and the opportunity to work with so many talented and motivated individuals. I am also part of the advisory council of Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (, and have learned a tremendous amount from that organization about addressing larger-scale public-health issues. I also teach a kickboxing class, which I learned as a kid from my father (who actually trained with Chuck Norris). In my non-existent free time, I also enjoy include running, yoga, and, of course, photography.

It is clear that whatever Dan may face next, it is certain that he will excel. Beyond that, Dan is also challenging us to set an exceptional standard to care for others and strive for continued improvements and excellence.

By GMS student,
Maggie Wentworth

Spotlight on Faculty: Dr. Stephen Brady

November 19th, 2010 in Faculty Spotlight

Steve brady for siteDr. Stephen Brady, Director of the Mental Health Counseling and Behavioral Medicine Program in the Division of GMS, and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry is not only passionate about his work and career but intensely interested in engaging students in conversation whether in or outside of class. Dr. Brady would often give lectures without a single PowerPoint slide, yet all students become captivated by his knowledge and enthusiasm. Dr. Brady cherishes new challenges and experiences that his professional life bring and hopes to continue to infuse new ways to get students interested and motivated about learning.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your personal and educational background?

I received my B. A. Degree in Sociology at the University of Florida and then attended the University of California Santa Barbara for my M.A. and PhD degrees in Counseling Psychology. I also completed a Predoctoral Internship and PostDoctoral Fellowship at the University of California- San Diego.

Q: What are your current research interests?

There are two areas of scholarly interest I have maintained over the past 20+ years. I am interested in gay and lesbian identity development as well as HIV prevention in people with mental illness. Most recently, in 2010 I was awarded a five-year, National Institute of Mental Health Grant to study the effectiveness of an HIV prevention intervention our research group has developed and piloted with people with severe mentally illness. Over the course of the study we will recruit patients with current mental illness who are also engaging in high risk behavior for HIV. We intend to randomly assign 300+ participants to either our experimental intervention or to care as usual. We will then examine changes in risk behavior at 3, 6 and 12 months post-intervention. In order to complete this study I am working closely with a number of faculty associated with the Mental Health Counseling and Behavioral Medicine Program including core faculty Drs. Berger-Greenstein and Levy-Bell.

Q: What led you to pursue research on mentally ill at risk for contracting HIV?

My early clinical work with the LGBT community in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic was really the catalyst for my interest in both gay identity and later HIV prevention for people with mental illness. Most of my early gay male patients and many of my friends and colleagues died from HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s. My dissertation examined gay identity development and its relationship to psychological well being and one of my hypotheses was that untreated mental disorders may lead people to engage in sexual and drug risk behavior. At the same time I also completed a number of clinical rotations with people with mental illnesses and along with some key collaborators began to describe and examine how people with serious mental disorders regardless of sexual orientation might be at high risk for HIV.  Indeed since our early work in this area a good deal of research has examined the increased risk among this cohort. I am chiefly interested in clinical interventions that can reduce risk taking in vulnerable groups including people with mental illnesses.

Q: You have many roles throughout the BU and the Medical Campus. Can you tell us about some of these?

Well, my number one role is as the director of the Mental Health Counseling and Behavioral Medicine program in the Division of GMS. I was actually one of the faculty in charge of creating the program almost a decade ago.   My second priority here is my role as the PI of the HIV study as discussed. I also am involved in the University as a whole as an Officer of the Faculty Council at BU and serve on several committees at both campuses.

Q: If you had to choose only one of these roles, which one would you choose?

I really love them all. In addition to the roles I outlined I also have a small psychotherapy practice, which I wouldn’t give up even though I am so involved here at BUSM. I like all of it and I enjoy the opportunity to do so many different things.  However, being engaged in so many different areas makes it difficult to be a leader in any one field.

Q:  Do you have any words of wisdom for graduate students here at BUSM?

Being good at anything demands lifelong learning. It doesn’t end with an academic education.

It is extremely hard work being successful. Success mainly comes from working hard and requires a sustained effort.

Q: What about tips for students trying to build a successful career in academic research?

It is important for those interested in research to have good training as well as effective mentoring.  I didn’t have a mentor early in my career and this meant that developing a research portfolio was a great challenge. However, I never gave up and eventually was able to develop the necessary skill set.

Q: Any other words of guidance or inspiration?

I work harder and I am happier in my career the older I get.

It is a great gift to have a career that has meaning as part of one’s legacy.

Dr. Brady is an example of how hard work and persistence helps countless individuals with mental illness to reduce the spread of HIV. Certainly, Dr. Brady’s career is the gold standard for GMS students to aspire to be.

GMS Student,

Maggie Wentworth

Inter-American Foundation’s (IAF) Grassroots Development Ph.D. Fellowship

October 28th, 2010 in General News

Infosession on   November 4 as  Matthew R.S. Boumphrey of the Institute of International Education will be on campus to provide information about the fellowship program. He will hold an open meeting 12:00-2:00 in CAS 200

The Inter-American Foundation’s (IAF) Grassroots Development Ph.D. Fellowship is a funding opportunity for Ph.D. students that want to do research on issues involving grassroots development in Latin America and the Caribbean.  It is an inter-disciplinary fellowship program, so we welcome applications from Ph.D. candidates of all disciplines, and are currently looking to expand our applicant pool to include more Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) students.  For more information, please visit the fellowship website.

Spotlight on Faculty: Dr. Jamie Mcknight

October 14th, 2010 in Faculty Spotlight

Dr. Mcknight 1-Dr. Jamie Mcknight-

For some people, a job is just a job, a place to sit and pass the day while they wait to go home. This is not the case for Dr. Jamie McKnight, Associate Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, who has been at Boston University since 1995. In fact, you could say BU has long been a part of Dr. McKnight’s family. His association with Boston University goes back twenty years, to when his wife first joined BU at the Charles River campus and is still there, currently as Chair of Humanities. Dr. McKnight’s daughter spent the first three years of her life in a BU dormitory as a toddler and now currently attends BU. It is obvious how Dr. McKnight feels at home and comfortable at BUSM.

Dr. McKnight warmly welcomed me into his office for an interview without much notice, even offering refreshments and happily answering the following questions:

Q: Can you tell us a little about your personal and educational background?

A:  Well I’ve been at BU for 15 years, although my wife has been on the Charles River campus for twenty. Before that I worked on my Postdoctoral Fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research,  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I received my PHD at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in Biochemistry. I earned my Bachelors in chemistry at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland.

Q: What lead you to pursue a career in academic biomedical research?

A:  I’ve always been interested in science. I began studying organic chemistry, but became interested in physiology and cell biology courses. I did consider an industry career, but academic research just provided more benefits.  One, I’ve always liked students. Two, I figured it would be easier to switch from an academic to research track than the other way around.  Probably most significant was the prospect of studying whatever I want. Academic research allows me to choose what I want to study.

Q: What are your current research interests?

A: Currently, I am focusing on the structure and function of proteins. The main focus is the structure, assembly and secretion of very low density lipoprotein, the precursor of low density lipoprotein (“bad cholesterol”) and its interactions with microsomal triglyceride transfer protein (MTP) a required cofactor for lipoprotein secretion.

Q: You have been actively involved in graduate education here in GMS. Please, tell us about these activities:

A: I have been an Associate Professor of Physiology and Biophysics for the last five year, was the Assistant Professor of Physiology and Biophysics before that. I direct the Boston University School of Medicine Core Facility for Structural NMR, I am part of the integrated curriculum committee for PHD students and part of the Responsible Conduct of Research committee. I’ve been on the Physiology & Biophysics Student Affairs and Admission Committee for over a decade and was its chair for five years.

Q: What were your reasons for establishing your career at a strong research oriented medical school?

A:  Well, there is access to a lot more resources at a research oriented medical school. Really though, I love doing stuff that is new, I love designing new experiments. I love pushing the limits of scientific knowledge. One of the great advantages of this particular medical school is the research environment is outstanding here, due in no small part to my colleagues. There is a significant amount of collaboration here. You can just go to another colleague for advice outside of your specialty, you don’t need to make appointments months in advances.

Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for graduate students here at BUSM?

A: If you don’t know then just ask

  • Learn as much as you can.
  • Immerse yourself in what you are doing.
  • Attend some seminars in which you know nothing about topic but are vaguely interested in.

Q: What tips do you have for students on how to build a successful career in academic research and graduate education?

A: Pay attention to people’s names and network. Network! Network!  Network! Go to meetings and meet people there. Just introduce yourself. Try not to say “No” if you can. Don’t be afraid to let your path drift. It is great to have an idea of what you want and are interested in, but stay open to exploring new subjects. Find a postdoctoral advisor that is well connected.

Q: Any other words of guidance or inspiration?

A: Always be a good citizen. And be extremely honest.

Hopefully these words will not go unheard by the students of GMS. Dr. McKnight certainly has an abundance of insightful and worthwhile wisdom still to impart to the developing minds of BUSM. Motivated, dedicated, respectful, warm and friendly, Dr. McKnight is an example of why BUSM is an excellent place to study for developing scientists.

By GMS student,

Margaret Bailey Wentworth.

National Research Service Award (NRSA) Recipient

October 13th, 2010 in Student Spotlight

Becky Benham3NRSA Recipient – Rebecca Benham –

An essential aspect of conducting research and research training is funding. Young or budding scientists may vie for grants and awards to complete their predoctoral fellowship. One avenue for these scientists is the National Research Service Award (NRSA), an award dedicated to Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein who was an accomplished scientist in polio vaccine development and a recognized champion of research training. Rebecca (Becky) Benham, of Boston University School of Medicine, is the recent recipient of the NRSA award. Becky good-naturedly sat down to answer a number of questions about her research and herself.

Q: What PhD program are you enrolled in and why did you decide on this particular program?

A: I am in two programs, Pharmacology and Neuroscience. As an undergraduate student at Hamilton College I studied neuroscience. After graduation in 2005, I became interested in drug research and neurological diseases, which led me to look for a place where I could study both.  I think both programs have provided me with excellent educational and research training.

Q: What was the main reason you chose to attend BUSM?

A: I really believed it was important for me to be in an area surrounded by research.  There are several Universities and Pharmaceutical companies doing exciting research in the Boston area.  Boston University has an incredibly collaborative environment, which is important since it can provide additional opportunities for research and learning.

Q: What is your topic of dissertation and when do you hope to complete your degree and earn your doctorate?

A: The easy questions first. My topic is epilepsy, specifically, looking at changes in GABAA receptor alpha 1 subunit expression that occur in temporal lobe epilepsy.  Our lab has identified that BDNF activates a unique signaling pathway that contributes to these observed changes that affect the function of inhibition in the brain. When will I complete my dissertation…well the NRSA grant is for two years, so that is the goal. It may take longer though.

Q: What factors helped you to decide to pursue a career in biomedical research?

A: I really enjoy seeing a project through to the end, to find the answer. I enjoy having a question, designing an experiment, finding an answer, with the hope that the answer may eventually contribute to treating people with epilepsy. Research provides you with an opportunity to better understand an issue, and I enjoy that process, even when it usually leads to more questions.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background such as your hometown, schools attended, etc.?

A: Sure. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. in Virginia. I was positive I wanted to be a musician. I played the piano for ten years and I also sang. I didn’t become interested in Neuroscience until my senior year of high school. I had to complete a project on the ‘Mozart effect’. This limited exposure to brain development sparked my interest, and I decided to further pursue neuroscience in college.  Once I began doing research I was hooked.  My parents didn’t believe I was completely serious until I actually graduated from college. Following graduation I worked in a lab at the University of Maryland for a year studying the effects of the estrous cycle on sleep in rats.

Q: What do you do in your free time?

A: Free time?

Q: Do you have free time? What would you like to do if you did?

A: I spent some time this summer with my family. I enjoy cooking meals at the end of the day and reading when I can.  I’m also an avid Washington DC sports fan, so I try to catch a few football, hockey, and baseball games when I can.  My husband and I are also hoping to go on our honeymoon soon.

Q: You are married? Congratulations. How long have you been married for?

A: Since August 14th of this year.

Q: Wow, you have a lot going on. What about your plans once you graduate?

A: I am thinking about my options. Once I get some post-doctoral experience, I guess I’ll have to test the waters. I always thought that I would go straight into the industry, but I am realizing my interests in and the benefits of academic research.

Congratulations on both your recent marriage and exciting award. Good luck with your research, we all hope you find the answers you are looking for. With such a positive attitude and excellent capabilities, Becky will have plenty of options as she decides on her future plans.

By GMS student,

Margaret Bailey Wentworth

AWIS: Balancing Science & Life

September 20th, 2010 in General News

GettyImages_91274850Have you ever struggled to balance your academic or professional life with a personal life? The challenge to develop a successful professional career and a fulfilling social or family life is a common theme for young professionals at Boston University. The Massachusetts chapter of the Association for Women In Science (AWIS) and the Boston University Division of Graduate Medical Sciences is pleased to be hosting a lecture on this relevant topic on October 12th, 2010.

The AWIS is a non-profit national organization dedicated to promoting equality for women in mathematics, science, engineering, and technology. A few of the major benefits of being an AWIS member include discounts to AWIS events (local and national), camaraderie, quarterly issues of the AWIS Magazine, professional development tools, professional mentoring and network development.

For the first time, BUMC will be hosting a local AWIS event, featuring keynote speakers Dr. Joanne Kamens and Dr. Galit Lahav. Dr. Lahav, Assistant Professor at the Harvard Medical School, has recently published an article on combining motherhood and academia in Molecular Cell. Dr. Kamens is the founder of the Massachusetts AWIS chapter, has her Ph.D. in Genetics from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Medical Sciences and is currently the Director of Research Collaborations for RXi Pharmaceutical Corps. This is an exciting and unique opportunity for women and men alike to reap the wisdom and advice of two women who are experienced and successful in both realms of their careers and family life. Co-organizers of the current BUMC event, Anne-Ellise Tobin, Julia Brown and BU post-doctoral fellow Beth Hovey, have been working tireless to share the benefits of AWIS with the BUMC and Boston community at large. Dr. Hovey emphasizes what a unique and valuable experience this event and AWIS itself are for establishing local professional connections, networking, and especially learning from experienced and successful AWIS mentors.

The event, on October 12th, 2010 from 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm at 72 E. Concord St. (Rm L110), Boston, is free for all BU students, post-doctoral fellows, and AWIS members. Nominal fee of $5 for other students and $20 for all other non-members are charged to attend the event.

Registration is available online:

Learn more about local AWIS events at or the national AWIS organization.