On Monday, March 22, the Einstein research community gathered virtually to toast the winners of the Julius Marmur Awards and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the prize. The award is presented each year by Einstein's Graduate Programs in the Biomedical Sciences to three graduate students in recognition of their exceptional contributions to research in their field.
“It is truly a distinctive honor to be selected as an awardee,” said Victoria Freedman, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences. The prize was established a quarter-century ago in memory of pioneering molecular biologist Julius Marmur, Ph.D., who was a member of Einstein’s faculty for 33 years until his death in 1996. “Dr. Marmur was an exceptional mentor who brought 20th century understanding of molecular biology to students, and he was very supportive, always encouraging us to aim for the highest scientific goals.”
2021 Award Winners: Honored and Humbled
This year’s winners, who represent a range of basic science fields, presented their research during a noon online symposium in lieu of the traditional poster session with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions still in place. All three spoke of the meaning the award held for them.
Helen M. Belalcazar, Ph.D. candidate, was recognized for her Drosophila (fruit fly) research on KDM5—a gene that, when mutated, causes intellectual disability and how the enzyme it codes for influences synapse structure and function. Ms. Belalcazar’s mentor is Julie Secombe, Ph.D., professor of genetics and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience. department of genetics.
“As a first-generation college student, receiving a Ph.D. degree seemed a distant dream, but that never discouraged me,” said Ms. Belalcazar, who was raised in Bogota, Colombia. “Instead, it made me work harder. This award represents a recognition of that effort and dedication. I am so proud and honored to have been selected among my talented graduate student colleagues. We all do our best to contribute in a significant manner to science.”
Marta Gronska-Peski, Ph.D., was honored for her work with mice showing that fibroblast growth factor (FGF) receptors influence how hippocampal stem cells respond to enriched environments and exercise and for research into novel cell transplantation methods for brain repair. Dr. Gronska-Peski’s mentor was Jean Hébert, Ph.D., professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and in genetics.
Dr. Gronska-Peski, a native of Poland, said: “I am extremely honored and humbled to be selected among such a spectacular group of past and present awardees. For me in particular, the Julius Marmur award has a very special meaning as it commemorates the memory of an outstanding geneticist and mentor with Polish roots. His legacy inspires me to always remember that the greatest science comes from a group effort of many dedicated individuals.”
Joshua Weinreb, M.D./Ph.D. candidate, was recognized for his work with zebrafish showing that mutations in the gene Ddx41, which occur in some patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), causes inflammatory signaling that abnormally increases the number of hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells, making the Ddx41 protein a potential drug target for treating MDS. Mr. Weinreb’s mentor is Teresa Bowman, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental & molecular biology and of medicine.
Mr. Weinreb said that since first coming to Einstein, he was inspired by the work of previous recipients of the Marmur Award. “Their work is synonymous with excellence in science and has shown graduate students that there is no limit to what one can accomplish scientifically here at Einstein,” he said. “I am both humbled and honored to be selected.”
Marmur Alumni Offer Advice
In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the award, four previous Marmur winners participated in a virtual panel discussion in the afternoon. Current and prospective Einstein graduate students, along with faculty members and alumni, gathered to hear the speakers share their experiences and offer advice.
Dr. Marmur was an exceptional mentor who brought 20th century understanding of molecular biology to students, and he was very supportive, always encouraging us to aim for the highest scientific goals.
Victoria Freedman, Ph.D.
Speakers included panel emcee Penelope Ruiz, Ph.D., a 2019 Marmur winner who is now working as a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University; Diany Paola Calderon, M.D., Ph.D., a 2011 winner and an assistant professor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College.; Irene Jarchum, Ph.D., a 2008 winner and a scientific liaison at biotech startup Immunai; and Utpal Pajvani, M.D., Ph.D., a 2005 winner and an associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
Winning the Marmur Award, they all said, gave them a boost of confidence and encouraged them to reach for other fellowships and awards. “As a student, you never know—am I really doing a good job? Is my science making sense beyond my lab?” asked Dr. Jarchum. “Winning the Marmur was a huge honor and validated my training as a scientist. It was probably one of the most salient awards I’ve had in my scientific career.” Dr. Calerdone agreed, noting “It encouraged me to pursue a career in academia.”
Dr. Pajvani said that as a physician-scientist, “you're pulled in different directions a lot. And sometimes research isn't the most lucrative or easy path, as many of us know. But I think external validation, like from the Marmur Award, gives confidence and the impetus to keep going.”
The four talked about finding their first positions after graduate school. “I had a hard time thinking about what kind of science I wanted to do,” Dr. Jarchum said. “My mentor really helped me talk through things like potential labs, and I talked to other immunologists to think through some of the most interesting questions. And then I applied and I interviewed, and I ended up joining a top science lab.”
Dr. Calderon agreed that having good mentors is essential. “They were instrumental in guiding me while I was working to get funding and learning how to write grants. If your application gets rejected, you find it doesn’t matter—you just apply again. I think that mentorship was crucial for me to gain the confidence I needed. And of course, the networking that mentors provide is incredibly important.”
As a M.D./Ph.D. student, Dr. Pajvani said he picked a residency program based in large part on whom he wanted to work with during fellowship. “I had developed an affinity for endocrinology hormone action, how cells communicate. And I knew of the research of several people at Columbia. And I thought that if I had the opportunity to work with them, then that would be a reason enough to pick a clinical training program. And it worked out beautifully.”
Dr. Ruiz said as she was deciding on her post-Einstein position, she was switching fields, moving into DNA replication and repair. “I spoke to my committee, and I was able to make a list of people I wanted to do postdocs with,” she says. “I relied on advice from my committee and other faculty members to help guide me toward which labs were good for what I wanted to do next.”
Encouraging Future Participants
All four members of the panel encouraged Einstein graduate students to participate in future Marmur Symposiums.
“When you present at the Marmur Symposium, even a poster, that becomes a line on your CV. And when you're a Ph.D. student going for that postdoc or residency, that extra line of presentation is nice to have,” Dr. Ruiz said. “Plus you'll learn a lot about how to present your work in the best possible light. When you go on those interviews, it's about selling yourself and your research—and we all do amazing research at Einstein.”
Dr. Calderon said the poster presentation “was a very nice way for me to practice my English and explain my project. I struggled, but it really forced me to do that. And I think I got better.”
Dr. Pajvani said he didn’t win the first time he applied for the Marmur Awards. “But I reapplied the following year. And that's when I won it. On the interview trail for residency, especially in the New York area, the name Julius Marmur carries some weight. He was an outstanding biologist well known for his contributions. This sort of recognition suggests some internal validation of your work, which then separates you a little bit from your peers.”
Dr. Jarchum agreed that the application process was worth the effort: “You can say that you were considered for it. And there's no doubt that you will learn a lot from the process. It will give you a chance to speak to your advisor about your project and highlight everything you've just covered. I think that is satisfaction in and of itself even if you don't get it.”
Posted on: Wednesday, April 07, 2021