Postdoctoral Research Excellence Celebrated at 2020 Dennis Shields Prize Ceremony

On Wednesday, November 11, 2020, the Belfer Institute for Advanced Biomedical Studies hosted the 17th annual Dennis Shields Postdoctoral Research Prizes ceremony, to honor postdoctoral fellows whose research and published work exemplify excellence in the field. This year's winners are Rebecca Brown, Ph.D., (cell biology), and Maria Eugenia Dieterle, Ph.D., and Denise Haslwanter, Ph.D., (microbiology & immunology).

Anne R. Bresnick, Ph.D.

Anne R. Bresnick, Ph.D.

As with all major campus events during the pandemic, the ceremony was held online, where the winners presented their published research to a virtual audience of faculty, students, staff, and their fellow postdocs.

“It's so important that we maintain traditions such as this event, which recognizes postdoc excellence at Einstein,” said Anne Bresnick, Ph.D., director of the Belfer Institute and professor of biochemistry. “Dennis was a champion for postdocs and the prizes honor his memory and the legacy he established as the first director of the institute.”

Dr. Brown presented her work “Multiple Capsid Protein Binding Sites Mediate Selective Packaging of the Alphavirus Genomic RNA,” completed in the laboratory of Margaret Kielian, Ph.D. Her research advanced understanding about how alphaviruses—disease-causing RNA viruses that have no approved vaccines or antiviral treatments—package their genomes to produce infectious particles. The work, published in Nature Communications, provided a new model for how this packaging process occurs, as well as new tools and experimental approaches for studying this critical step of the alphavirus life cycle.

Rebecca Brown, Ph.D.
Rebecca Brown, Ph.D.

Drs. Dieterle and Haslwanter gave their presentation titled, "A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: Surrogate Viral System for Rapid Discovery and Characterization of COVID-19 Therapeutics," conducted in the laboratory of Kartik Chandran, Ph.D. The two researchers genetically engineered a surrogate coronavirus: a relatively harmless virus that expresses the coronavirus’s spike proteins on its surface. Investigators can use the surrogate to conduct coronavirus research without the stringent biosafety requirements required to study the actual SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The paper was published in Cell Host & Microbe.

Drs. Dieterle and Haslwanter also developed a reliable and rapid assay for detecting and quantifying antibodies that neutralize SARS-CoV-2; their assay was used to screen plasma donated by more than 200 people who had recovered from COVID-19. They also screened and evaluated the neutralizing ability of over 300 human antibodies, with the goal of developing a monoclonal antibody therapy—findings that were published by them as co-authors in Science.

Eugenia Dieterle, Ph.D., Denise Haslwanter, Ph.D.
Eugenia Dieterle, Ph.D. (left), Denise Haslwanter, Ph.D.

The winning postdoctoral fellows presented their research findings during a virtual event, during which Gordon F. Tomaselli, M.D., the Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean, presented each winner with their prize and a $5,000 award.

The annual award is named for the late Dr. Dennis Shields, who was professor of developmental and molecular biology and of anatomy and structural biology for 30 years, and the first director of the Belfer Institute. Dr. Shields’ advocacy on behalf of Einstein’s postdoctoral fellows was influential in ensuring that their contributions to science and the academic community are more widely recognized.