Ruth Angus, American Museum of Natural History/Flatiron Institute
Mijo Simunovic, Columbia University
The Simons Foundation organized their fourth Simons Alumni Symposium in October this year. This annual event brings together current and former Fellows of the Simons Society and it features invited talks from leaders across a wide range of disciplines. This year’s organizers, Prof. Ruth Angus, assistant curator at the American Natural History Museum, and Prof. Mijo Simunovic, assistant professor at Columbia University, put together a series of six talks, with a common theme: the frontiers in biological sciences. The six invited speakers presented their vision for the kind of biological questions we will be asking decades from now and the kinds of technologies that will become even more relevant in the future, with the mounting global challenges. We explored novel vaccine technologies, evolutionary biology of the current age, innovations in human reproduction and embryology, genome editing, and even life in other solar systems.
Dr. Asher Williams, a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell University and an incoming Assistant Professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University, introduced the meeting with a fascinating approach to developing vaccines. She is particularly devoted to addressing the deadly gastrointestinal infections that are particularly prominent on the African continent. She showed us an innovative way of chemically modifying vaccines to increase their delivery. Dr. Williams also talked about her vision for her future lab, which will combine synthetic biology with protein and metabolic engineering to create highly designed biomolecules that can be used for targeted drug delivery, vaccine development, and for making molecular diagnostic tools.
Prof. Shane Campbell-Staton, an Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University delivered our second talk of the day. Prof. Campbell-Staton studies evolution in the anthropocene – the era characterized by the impact of humans. He first took us to Puerto Rico where he showed how Anole lizards adapted to living in cities, despite being much hotter environments. He then took us to Mozambique, where the civil war and elephant poaching led to a disproportionate number of tuskless female elephants. Finally, he took us to Chernobyl, where, incredibly, wolves living in the exclusion zone have developed adaptations that fight cancer.
Prof. Simunovic, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, then introduced us to the world of stem cell biology. At the intersection of developmental biology and engineering, Prof. Simunovic studies the first steps of human embryo development. Due to ethical and technical restrictions, the early human embryo remained a mystery, until recently. We are now able to build models of the human embryo using nothing by stem cells, and Prof. Simunovic participated in building this new biotechnology. Although only in its nascent stage, this approach has created a unique new opportunity to innovate human reproductive technologies, and to investigate the detailed mechanisms of our own development.
Prof. Sukrit Ranjan, an Assistant Professor in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, gave the penultimate talk of the day. Prof. Ranjan’s work is focused on the origin of life on Earth, the search for life on other worlds, and the atmospheres of rocky exoplanets. In his talk he described the efforts to search for ‘biosignatures’ in the atmospheres of exoplanets – gasses that can only be created by life. Prof. Ranjan outlined a number of candidates for these gases: for example molecular oxygen, ozone, and phosphene, for example, and the advantages and disadvantages of using these gasses to rule the presence of life in or out. Prof. Ranjan studies the effects of ultraviolet radiation on ‘abiogenesis’ – the spontaneous development of lifelike molecules. The lowest mass stars in the Galaxy are premium targets for life searches with the James Webb Space Telescope, but these stars may not emit enough UV radiation to get life started on the planets that orbit these small stars.
Prof. Silvana Konermann, an Assistant Professor at Stanford University and the founding director of Arc Institute, closed the series of talks. She took us on a journey through a recent era of genomic breakthroughs and her pioneering contributions in developing TALEN and CRISPR systems used broadly today to modify the genetic code. For instance, Prof. Konermann developed a genome-wide screening platform as well as CRISPR systems that target not only the DNA but also the RNA. She then introduced us to the Arc Institute, a nonprofit research institute she co-founded only two years ago, aimed at high-risk and curiosity-driven basic and translational research, the challenges of such an endeavor, and its role in contributing to a new way of doing science.
As each year, the Society concluded the day with a dinner at a nearby restaurant, where they reflected on the exciting day and continued the discussion long into the evening.
Wednesday, September 28
9:30 AM Asher J. Williams | Biosynthesis of conjugate vaccines against bacterial infections 11:00 AM Shane Campbell-Staton | Evolution in the Age of Us: Mechanisms of adaptation to a human-modified world 1:00 PM Mijo Simunovic | Synthetic Embryogenesis 2:30 PM Sukrit Ranjan | Theoretical Underpinnings of the Search for Life on Exoplanets 4:00 PM Silvana Konermann | Manipulating Mammalian Transcription for the Interrogation of Complex Disease
Evolution in the Age of Us: Mechanisms of adaptation to a human-modified world
Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University
Theoretical Underpinnings of the Search for Life on Exoplanets
Assistant Professor, University of Arizona
Manipulating Mammalian Transcription for the Interrogation of Complex Disease
Assistant Professor at Stanford University and the founding director of Arc Institute