Brandeis professors win National Medal of Science
The Justice interviewed Profs. Marder and Petsko to learn more about this recognition and their research.
President Joe Biden awarded Brandeis Profs. Eve Marder (BIOL) and Gregory Petsko (BCHM) with the National Medal of Science on Oct. 24. The National Science Foundation recognizes this achievement as the most prestigious national honor for scientists in the U.S.
According to the foundation, the National Medal of Science is given to scientists across all fields for their “outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, engineering, or social and behavioral sciences.” Its recipients are chosen by a presidential committee of scientists after being nominated by other members of the scientific community. A press release from the National Medal of Science Foundation stated that Dr. Marder won the award for “her visionary application of theoretical and experimental approaches to understanding neural circuits” and Dr. Petsko for his work on developing treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, which has “raised the ambitions of our nation regarding aging with dignity.”
Dr. Marder’s research in neuroscience has significantly advanced the field’s understanding of the way that neural circuits generate behavior. She was one of the first to consider the role of neuromodulators, chemicals that affect groups of neurons, in neural circuits and behavior. She later discovered that neural circuits rewire themselves to maintain homeostasis and developed the first models of homeostatic regulation of intrinsic excitability. Dr. Marder said that she developed these models with Dr. Larry Abbott, who is now the William Bloor Professor of Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University. Her work has led to further groundbreaking studies on the mechanisms involved in homeostatic regulation. Dr. Marder also collaborated with Dr. Abbott to design the dynamic clamp, a technique used to build such models. The dynamic clamp allows experimentalists to change neurons’ conductance and is widely used in studies of neural circuits.
To study how neural systems work, Dr. Marder uses the neural systems of crabs and lobsters because they are small enough to identify all of the neurons within the system and determine how they interact, she explained in a Oct. 31 interview with the Justice. When a graduate student and a postdoc in her lab struggled to build a model of the currents in a neuron called the LP neuron using specific parameters, she and Dr. Abbott hypothesized that the LP cell was changing its dynamics to maintain homeostasis.
“The general principle that cells have to constantly rebuild themselves is almost certainly the case,” she said. “Neurons are going to live for hundreds of years, so they need to rebuild themselves.”
Dr. Marder currently runs a biology lab at the University, where she studies how neural circuits maintain their function over a lifetime, how neuromodulators can allow a single neural circuit to generate diverse behaviors, how similar behaviors are generated by different means, and why different animals have variable responses to environmental stimuli.
In the next few years, Dr. Marder hopes to “get a little bit more insight into the long-term changes that are brewing in animals and people as a result of experience.”
“These are the kinds of changes that you see in people who come back with PTSD … They’ve had a really terrible experience, something’s happened, and they can appear to be fine until the wrong trigger happens,” she explained. “I call those cryptic changes, so that’s what we see in the crabs. If you don’t challenge them, they all look perfectly fine, and then it’s only when you really challenge them and push them you see that they’ve been altered.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Petsko’s research focuses on finding treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, frontotemporal dementia, and multi-system atrophy. He has also raised awareness through many popularly viewed online lectures about the impending global economic and health crisis that could result from a rapidly increasing elderly population, which is particularly vulnerable to these age-dependent diseases. Dr. Petsko predicts that this trend will lead to a drastically diminished workforce, a financially depleted healthcare system, and a future where most people will know someone affected by these diseases.
“[The crisis] was, in effect, a comet that was threatening to hit the earth, and we needed to act with a sense of urgency much greater than we currently had. I made it my mission to alert as many people as possible,” he said in a Nov. 3 statement to the Justice.
Dr. Petsko’s lab at the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School researches the biological causes of these diseases in order to better understand how to develop effective treatments. In his lectures from the Science Communication Lab, he explains that a common thread between all age-dependent neurological diseases is the formation of clusters of proteins, or protein aggregates, in the brain. Dr. Petsko studies the genetic changes underlying protein aggregation in order to determine which genes or proteins to target therapeutically, starting with yeast and neuron models and then eventually moving on to human clinical trials.
Dr. Petsko originally studied structural enzymology, but became inspired to study neurodegenerative diseases and aging after reading Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.”
“I had become, like Ulysses, comfortable with my structural enzymology, and I could have kept doing it for the rest of my career, but where was the adventure in that? I felt a desire to be uncomfortable again, as I had been when I started out, and to pit myself against a new, bigger challenge. Tennyson has Ulysses say this: ‘Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done.’ So I sought one last work of noble note to try to do, and here I am,” he explained. “When I decided to change the direction of my research, I looked around for the toughest, most important problem I could find. It seemed that the neurodegenerative diseases fit that requirement, so I started reading everything I could find about them.”
Dr. Petsko and his collaborators have developed treatments for ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, which they hope to soon test in human clinical trials. However, Dr. Petsko said his long-term goal is “to succeed in showing a great benefit to patients.”
Dr. Marder and Dr. Petsko have each won many awards throughout their careers. Still, this award is distinct to them.
“[What’s] wonderful about this one is it’s given in all areas of science … There was another plant geneticist and a physicist or a chemist, so, from that point of view, it’s more special,” said Dr. Marder. “Most of the other awards I’ve gotten so far have been for neuroscience, so this is a broader award.”
“The spirit of science is not a spirit of tyranny, it is a spirit of liberty. And in presenting me and the other awardees with this medal, the President not only celebrated that spirit, he became part of it. That’s special,” said Dr. Petsko. “The other thing is that unlike, say, the Nobel Prize, this medal is given not for a specific discovery but for a life’s work, and one who receives it must also have demonstrated service to the nation … That’s also special.”
Both laureates shared their advice for aspiring scientists. Dr. Marder divulged the “secret of success” she received as a postdoc from Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel: “Just keep working.” She explained, “If you just keep going and you do things well, you’re bound to stumble on something interesting.”
Dr. Petsko emphasized the importance of learning from failure, questioning your assumptions, and working in the interest of the public good.
“Science is not a profession because it is a skilled job; it is a profession because it is a service performed for the public good,” he said. “... [I]f you are called to it you are among the luckiest people in the world.”