Sackler students collaborate with Emerson College in science communication course

As graduate students, we all know what it is like to present our research to a scientific audience that is not familiar with our research topic and the accompanying task of making the research and larger implications relatable. Most likely, however, the majority of us are not familiar with presenting in detail our research topic to a general audience: those who don’t know what the difference between DNA and RNA is, or what ‘epithelial’ means, or how cell culture works.

This spring, a group of Sackler students were presented with the opportunity–or challenge–to do so through a collaboration with Emerson College. Seven graduate students from various programs were paired with undergraduate students–whose majors ranged from journalism, TV production, video production, and animation–enrolled in an upper-level science course focusing on science media/communication. The main goal was for the Sackler participants to serve as scientist contacts with whom the Emerson students would put together three science-centric media pieces. The first two were written, one being a profile piece on the graduate student scientist who the undergraduates were paired with and the second being an article reviewing, explaining, and reporting on the graduate student’s research topic and field. The information gleaned from both of these interview experiences also culminated in planning and executing a final project in video form. These videos ranged from animated science-explainer videos to mini-films profiling the scientist collaborator, showcasing the broad interests and talents of both student groups.

The course instructor, Dr. Amy Vashlishan Murray–who earned her PhD in genetics from Harvard University–is a strong advocate for comparing, contrasting, and combining science and media. Her passion for science communication started in college and grew deeper in graduate school where she participated in various outreach programs, including the Science in the News lecture series. When she started teaching at Emerson, she created this ‘Science in Translation’ course as a way for her–from the perspective as first a scientist and second a communicator–to make an impact on future contributors to media and communication fields. In particular she designed the course for depth, as it was one of the first upper-level science classes to be introduced to the curriculum at Emerson. She wanted to help art-focused students find “the place of science in their world” by facilitating a “peek behind the curtain” of scientific research.

In addition to teaching, Dr. Vashlishan Murray initiated Boston’s branch of the Ask for Evidence campaign. This program, which is sponsored by the organizations Voice of Young Science USA and Sense About Science, seeks to have members of the public investigate consumer-directed advertisements making science-based claims and test whether those claims are indeed accurate. This effort dually challenges the public to think critically about scientific claims while also challenges those who use scientific claims to do so more carefully and accurately. Her work related to Ask for Evidence helped  her win the 2014 Paul Shin award from the Washington, D.C.-based grassroots group Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), which honors trendsetters and pioneers in the science communication field.

Dr. Vashlishan Murray took a flexible and welcoming approach to the class, letting it serve the needs of her students and science collaborators in equal turn; she frequently took into account and implemented suggestions from both groups throughout the course. The Sackler students started off the semester by attending an improv class with the Emerson students to pull down any initial social barriers and to encourage critical thinking about how we communicate not just with words but with movement and facial expressions and how one-on-one versus group communication works. We also were invited to many of the course’s classes, some discussion-based and others in which guest lecturers spoke, including science communicators from Story Collider and Stat News. The tables turned when we were the ones presenting in the form of 8-minute research flash talks, which the Emerson students critiqued based on how well we communicated the science for a general audience.

The majority of our time for this collaboration, however, was spent working with the students themselves. The semester-long relationship of in-person interviews, email correspondence, planning and filming sessions for the final video project, and discussions following the completion of each media piece facilitated deeper understanding and engagement on both sides.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm (for the scientific content and for the cause of science communication) expressed by many, if not most, of the students in the class,” Melissa LaBonty, one of the program collaborators and a CMDB graduate student, commented when asked about her experience with the Emerson students.I was also happy to learn that given the correct information and background, a lot of non-scientists can become just as passionate about our scientific interests as we are!”

Dr. Vashlishan Murray was able to share some of the Emerson students’ responses and noted that the majority of them mentioned the collaborative aspect of the course as the most impactful. In particular, she highlighted that many of them described their experience this semester as finding “the humanity in science.”

As for what future iterations of the course will be like, Dr. Vashlishan Murray mentioned she’d like to delve deeper into communication theory in relation to science for the Emerson students. For the scientist collaborators, more feedback about their communication skills and more involvement with the guest speakers are things she’d like to expand upon. Both additions would strengthen an already engaging and transformative experience that this course provided, enriching the knowledge gain for both the science-focused and communication-focused student groups.

Tufts “Meet The Scientist” event builds bridges with local community

Inspired by a conversation between post-docs at a science and education conference, the Tufts’ TEACRS (Training in Education and Critical Research Skills) and TII (Tufts Innovation Institute) worked together to host a community outreach event this May. The “Meet the Scientist” event took place on the Medford campus and consisted of a science faculty-hosted panel session and an activity session, with attendees including local families and students from all levels of schooling. The panel session allowed community members to ask insightful and probing questions of Tufts faculty that facilitated an open, honest, and engaging conversation about science and science research. Following this, the activity session consisted of six stations hosted by TEACRS post-doc trainees. Children, teens and adults alike had the opportunity to play with silk and DNA legos, to look at flies and talk about circadian rhythms, to isolate some of their own DNA, and to watch how music played from a mobile phone could make a cockroach’s leg muscles move.

With a strong turnout and enthusiastic hosts as well as attendees, this event succeeded in strengthening bridges between Tufts’ scientists and the local community. This type of connection is a significant component in narrowing the gap between the public and their understanding of science and strengthening trust in scientists and the work we do.

Sackler Spotlight – Bina Julian, PPET and Jen Nwankwo, PPET

This spring, two outstanding Sackler students–Bina Julian (PPET) and Jen Nwankwo (PPET)–were awarded the Tufts Presidential Award for Citizenship and Public Service. Established in 1999 by former university president John DiBiaggio, this award honors both undergraduate and graduate students who have shown substantial commitment to and achievements in building community through service and leadership. To highlight these accomplishments, we interviewed Bina and Jen about the work that led to their nomination and eventual awarding as well as what they do at the bench as well (note: at the time of publishing, Jen was out of town, thus we will update this article once we get a chance to talk with her).

Can you tell us about the work that led to you being nominated for this award?

Bina: I have a really strong desire to help people achieve their goals by increasing their self-awareness and connecting them with opportunities. And a parallel desire to figure out how to scale that impact when something works well…probably because I’m an engineer. That’s what drew me to the Tufts Biomedical Business Club (TBBC).

Our TBBC team runs like a small startup. From the beginning, we all saw the potential to connect Tufts students with professional resources, the Boston biotech community and each other. So we each went out and made connections [see Collaborator List] and designed ways for our members to learn and practice the business of science [see About TBBC]. Soon opportunities started coming to us, external groups reached out to collaborate, and our members were being recruited for jobs. I’m really proud of what we’ve built and how many people we’ve helped over the years.

Receiving this award especially acknowledges the work past and present TBBC leaders have done to shape TBBC into a sustainable and engaging training ground.


Box 1: Tufts Biomedical Business Club

TBBC is a way for researchers to gain industry awareness and professional development.  Members get introduced to TBBC by attending our seminars featuring business leaders in several areas including venture capital (Bob Tepper, Third Rock), biotech startups (Sandra Glucksman, Editas), and consulting (Chris Von Seggern, ClearView).  Many take a step further and participate in one of our self-guided initiatives, like Case Study Group, Biotech Journal Club, Biotech Buzz or hosting a speaker.  Others gain critical business experience by competing in our Tufts New England Case Competition (TUNECC) or the Gordon Institute’s Tufts $100K New Ventures Competition.  Regardless of whether or not our members become PIs, entrepreneurs or consultants, we hope their time with TBBC empowers them with the network and perspective to pursue a successful career.

Recent TBBC Connections

Internal Connections: TUSM Advancement Office, Sackler Graduate Student Council, Sackler Dean’s Office, Gordon Institute, Tufts Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, Tufts Clinical & Translational Science Institute, Tufts Entrepreneurial Network (of student leaders), Tufts Entrepreneur Society (undergrad group), Tufts Institute for Innovation, Tufts MedStart, Tufts MD-MBA Program  , Tufts Office of the Vice Provost Office, Tufts Postdoctoral Association, Tufts Tech Transfer Office, TUSM Public Health and Professional Degree Programs

External Connections: Venture Café, Biotech Connection Boston, Boston Entrepreneurs and Advanced Degree Meetup Group, Northeastern Biotech Entrepreneurs, Boston University BEST Program, Hopkins Biotech Network, MIT Biotech Group, Harvard Graduate Consulting Club, Yale Graduate Consulting Club

Guest speakers from: Back Bay Life Science Advisors, Biologics Consulting Group, Biomille, Brean Capital, BrightMed, Campbell Alliance, Center for Integration of Science and Industry, Bentley University, ClearView Healthcare Partners,Cowen and Company, Cyta Therapeutics, Decision Resources Group, Dyax Corp., Edits, Flagship Ventures, Foundation Medicine, Foundation Medicine, Genzyme, Google, Health Advances, LLC, Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, LEK Consulting, MPM Capital, Novartis, NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, Polaris Ventures, Propel Careers, RA Capital, Simon-Kucher & Partners, T2 Biosystems, The Isis Group, Third Rock Ventures, Thomas, McNerney & Partners, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, Tufts Gordon Institute, Tufts Institute for Innovation, Vaxess Technologies, Visterra, Inc.

How do you feel that your work connects to your current and future research/career goals?

Bina: I think it highlights the kind of impact I would like to have and scale up. I’d like my future career to bring together my skills as an engineer, a scientist, an educator and a “connector.”

What was the experience of being nominated like?

Bina: I actually had no idea I was being nominated. I have Jaclyn Dunphy and Julie Coleman to thank for going above and beyond to find this award and gather recommendation letters from current and former TBBC executives. When I got the award email and learned what they had done, I was incredibly moved and humbled.

[The Presidential Awards Ceremony took place on April 21st, 2016.  Awards were presented by Tufts University President Anthony Monaco, Tisch College of Civic Life Dean Alan Solomont and nominators.  Watch segments from the awards ceremony here.]

How would you like to see your work continued past your time at Tufts? How do you feel your efforts currently support that vision?

Bina: I hope that TBBC will continue to have an impact and that our connections within and outside of Tufts stay strong. It’s encouraging to meet engineering, policy, medical, dental, nutrition and even veterinary students at our events; they bring such different perspectives to our discussions and also connect Sackler students with opportunities happening at other institutions.

I hope future leaders extend TBBC’s mission with fresh ideas and diligently assess the needs of its members so TBBC stays relevant. Most of all I hope that future TBBC leaders make a conscious effort to not only hone their own leadership skills, but also invest in the professional development of their teammates.

The only way any of this vision will survive is if everyone gets involved – students, faculty, administration, alumni, and the biotech community at large.  We’re a completely student run organization with a multi-year, personal commitment to produce high quality events and initiatives for our members. Whether its volunteers, event ideas, business workshops, speaker connections, conference discounts, alumni mentorship, job/intern opportunities and of course financial support – the executive team welcomes donations in all forms!

Last but not least, can you tell us about the work that you do in the lab?

Bina: I’m a Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics grad student working with Dr. Alan Kopin, who directs the Molecular Pharmacology Research Center at Tufts Medical Center. The Kopin lab studies G Protein-Coupled Receptors (GPCRs), a superfamily of 7-transmembrane receptors known for modulating a wide array of intracellular signals in response to extracellular stimuli. These cell receptors are considered highly “druggable” as they are targeted by nearly 40% of FDA approved drugs.

Cells use GPCRs to sense cues in their environment and make decisions. I study a GPCR subfamily of chemokine receptors, whose primary function influences decisions surrounding cell migration. My thesis work characterizes a rather understudied chemokine receptor called CCR6. Notably, CCR6 is highly expressed on and influences the migration of Th17 cells – an immune cell type whose aberrant recruitment to inflamed tissue is associated with several chronic inflammatory diseases. Many are interested in the therapeutic potential of CCR6, yet few tools exist to tease apart and modulate CCR6 receptor signaling.

In the lab I’ve developed molecular tools and assays that can enable screens to identify and characterize CCR6 modulators.  Most recently I established a Bioluminescent Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET) assay to measure beta arrestin recruitment to CCR6.  Most people know that GPCRs signal through G proteins as their name suggests, but they have an alternative pathway mediated through beta arrestin.  The BRET assay allows me to observe dynamic protein-protein interactions with CCR6 and tagged signaling molecules.  We are also interested in how naturally occurring variations in CCR6 affect signaling and if these alterations could predispose individuals to disease.

CCR6 plays a complex role in inflammation at the level of individual cell types and the field needs tools to tease apart its influence. And unlike the reputation of its GPCR superfamily, chemokine receptors have had little drug development success (only one FDA approved compound modulates the migratory function of its chemokine receptor target). Overall I hope the insights from our study of CCR6 variants as well as the genetic constructs and assays we’ve developed can be used by both immunologists and pharmacologists to translate this work to help patients.

Adenine Methylation in Mammals: N6-mA is the new 5mC

Guest Post by Ila Anand, 3rd year, Micro

The advent of the epigenetics field occurred more than a decade ago and has since rapidly revolutionized our understanding of disease and inheritance. The term epigenetics encompasses any molecular switches attached to DNA that turn “on” or “off” the expression of genes. In germ cells, these molecular motifs can be passed onto the progeny. Although several types of epigenetic markers are known to exist, two types have been well characterized. The first one being histone modifications, which indirectly impact gene expression by altering nucleosome structure, and the second one being direct methylation of the DNA. The prevailing dogma in the field is that mammalian DNA methylation exclusively occurs on the fifth position of cytosine (5mC). However, the Xiao lab at Yale recently confirmed in the March issue of Nature that adenine methylation (N6-mA) can also occur in mammalian embryonic stem cells (ES cells).

Historically, adenine methylation has been known to predominantly occur in prokaryotes. Dam methylase, the bacterial enzyme responsible for methylation, has been heavily studied in E. coli since the 1970’s and controls mismatch repair of DNA, DNA replication, and gene expression. It was only until recently that several groups reported N6-mA occurring in the invertebrates, such as Drosophila, C. elegans, and green algae. Interestingly, N6-mA in these “simple” eukaryotes was implicated in activating gene expression. This is in striking contrast to 5mC, which represses gene expression in mammals. In December, a research team at the University of Cambridge published the discovery of N6-mA occurring in mouse and human cells, albeit at several orders of magnitude less frequently than cytosine methylation. However, this team was not able to identify the consequence of N6-mA on mammalian gene expression.

The Xiao lab at Yale elaborated on this discovery by finding that N6-mA represses genes on the X-chromosome of ES cells. First, the team confirmed adenine methylation was occurring in ES cells using SMRT-ChIP and mass spectrophotometry techniques. Next, they identified the demethylase enzyme Alkbh1 to be responsible for controlling N6-mA by generating a homozygous Alkbh1 knockout line. In this knockout cell line, they found increasing N6-mA levels on the X-chromosome of ES cells, indicating that adenine methylation is misregulated without Alkbh1. Intriguingly, the team found N6-mA to correlate with the silencing of LINE-1 elements. These elements are retransposons that are enriched at the X-chromosome. Although the majority of LINE-1 transposons have lost the 5’UTR and other proximal regions, several full-length “young” LINE-1 transposons exist at the X-chromosome and can be autonomously transcribed. The researchers found N6-mA to accumulate on “young” LINE-1 elements but not older, aberrant elements. Furthermore, N6-mA accumulated and silenced neighboring LINE-1 genes. These neighboring X-chromosome genes are known to play a role in cell fate decision.

The implications of the Xiao team’s findings are numerous. First, adenine methylation of LINE-1 elements appears to have evolutionary significance. N6-mA at these sites silences LINE-1 expression and neighboring gene expression and this is exactly opposite to the role N6-mA plays in invertebrates. The researchers hypothesize that controlling LINE-1 expression safeguards the active transcribed elements from reintegrating into the genome and creating genomic instability. Additionally, since neighboring genes are silenced by N6-mA, the epigenetic marker could play a salient role in embryogenesis. Although Alkbh1 cells are capable of differentiating, the Xiao team found that these knockout cells have an imbalance in cell fate decision. Another implication of N6-mA on the X-chromosome is that it could be the mechanism of X-inactivation in females and ultimately control sex ratios, since LINE-1 elements are enriched at the X-chromosome. Finally, because LINE-1 elements are also enriched in tumor cells, N6-mA sites can give us some more insight into oncogenesis. In conclusion, the Xiao lab’s findings enhance our understanding of the mammalian epigenetic repertoire and open new avenues to therapeutic design for a range of diseases.



DNA methylation on N6-adenine in mammalian embryonic stem cells

Wu, Tao P., et. al.

Nature 532 (7599), 329-333

Notes From the Library…Measuring Research Impact: Altmetrics

What are altmetrics?

The graduate student who coined the term ‘altmetrics’ in a 2010 tweet has defined altmetrics as “the study and use of scholarly impact measures based on activity in online tools and environments” (Priem, 2012).  The term is often used to describe any alternative, non-citation based measure of research impact, such as:

  • Number of times an article has been viewed or downloaded from a journal website, or database
  • Number of times an article has been exported to a citation manager
  • Number of times an article has been shared via email or on Twitter, Facebook or other social media sites
  • Mentions in the mainstream media

How are altmetrics different from traditional citation metrics?

Altmetrics are generated rapidly, as opposed to citations which take time to accumulate.  Altmetrics capture data from a variety of sources, both within and beyond the scholarly community, versus traditional citations, which only capture information from published scholarly works.  Altmetrics also recognize research products beyond the peer-reviewed journal article, such as data sets and code (Khodiyar, Rowlett and Lawrence, 2014).

Where can I find altmetrics? 

Look for altmetrics when viewing an article on a journal’s website:  Many publishers, such as PLoS, provide the number of times an article has been viewed, shared, saved or download from their site.

Look for an Altmetric score: Altmetric ( monitors online activity for mentions of scholarly articles.  The collected data is used to calculate an Altmetric score, a measure of the quality and quantity of attention that an article receives.  A recent article in the Annals of Emergency Medicine describes how the Altmetric score is calculated, and the potential impact and limitations of this score.

Install the free Altmetric bookmarklet to get stats for an article you are reading online, or look for an Altmetric score Altmetric Score when viewing articles on:

  • A journal’s website
  • JumboSearch: Copy and paste the title of an article into our library’s search tool, JumboSearch ( If an Altmetric score is available for the article, then you will see an Altmetric Box icon  below the abstract.
  • Scopus: Scopus is a database that indexes journal articles, conference proceedings and books from the sciences, social sciences, art and humanities. When viewing an article abstract in Scopus, look for the Metrics box in the right-hand column.

Impactstory: Impactstory ( is a web-based tool that gathers metrics on research products (articles, data sets, etc.) from a variety of sources, including Facebook, Google+, Twitter and PubMed Central.  Impactstory profiles display raw numbers as well as badges that indicate how a product has performed compared to similar products in the same discipline.  Individuals with an ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) can create an Impactstory profile for free.

So, what do these all this mean?

Altmetrics are an evolving area of use and study.  Altmetrics provide a more nuanced picture of how articles are being used, and therefore compliment, not replace, traditional measures of research impact.  For more on altmetrics, see ‘Research Impact: Altmetrics Make their Mark’ from Nature, and ‘Rise of “Altmetrics” Revives Questions about How to Measure Impact of Research’ from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

From the Shelf…

For work…

Sackler School Biomedical Resources Guide

Electronic Resource: Sackler School Biomedical Sciences Resource Guide


The redesign of the library’s website eliminated pages dedicated to each school in favor of individual ‘guides’.  You can access the Sackler School Biomedical Sciences Resource Guide either directly via the link above or by choosing ‘Biomedical Sciences’ from the Find drop-down menu on the HHSL homepage (  This guide includes resources for finding journal articles, chemical and drug information, and protocols.  The guide also links to other library guides of interest.  I will be modifying this guide over the summer to ensure that it provides easy access to library resources.  Please contact me ( with any questions or suggestions!

And leisure…

Letters to a Young Scientist

Letters to a Young Scientist, by Edward O. Wilson

Location: HHSL Book Stacks, Sackler, 5th Floor, QH 31 W64 S4 2013

Pulitzer-Prize winning biologist and Harvard emeritus professor Edward O. Wilson shares advice and autobiographical anecdotes from his long career.  The author of several books on entomology and conservation, as well as memoir, Wilson was name one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans in 1995.

PubMed Tip of the Month: My Bibliography

As I mentioned in my March post, the My Bibliography section of My NCBI allows you to save citations to your journal articles, book chapters, presentations, meeting abstracts, etc.  This list of citations can be shared via a stable URL, exported to a text file, or saved as a PDF.  NIH recommends using My Bibliography if you wish to include a link to a complete list of published works in your biosketch.  My Bibliography is also used to demonstrate compliance with the NIH Public Access Policy on progress reports.

Access My Bibliography

Log in to your My NCBI account, find the My Bibliography box (note: you can drag and drop the boxes in My NCBI to change the order in which they appear) and click the ‘Manage My Bibliography’ link.

Add Citations

Once you are in My Bibliography, use the buttons in the right-hand column to add a citation from PubMed (preferred method), manually (use for articles not in PubMed, or other products, such as meeting abstracts, presentations or data sets), or from a file (must be in either MEDLINE or RIS format).

Citations can also be added to My Bibliography from any PubMed results page.  Click the boxes next to the citations you wish to add, then choose My Bibliography from the Send to dropdown menu at the top of page.

Add citations from PubMed results page

PubMed Send to

Make Publicly Available

Click the ‘Edit settings’ link at the top of the My Bibliography homepage.  This will bring you to a page where you can change your sharing settings from private to public.  Once you do so, the URL will appear at the top of your My Bibliography homepage.  Note: do not copy and paste the URL that appears in your browser when you are in My Bibliography because this is different than the unique URL generated for your collection.

Public URL and edit settings for My Bibliography

My Bibliography homepage