A Longstanding Relationship

Einstein at the Seashore: Seeking New Knowledge on the Cape

For many people, spending the summer steps away from the ocean in the New England vacation playground of Cape Cod would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Such was the case for Rachel Fremont, who is earning M.D. and Ph.D. degrees through Einstein's Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). But the experience didn't have anything to do with the sun, sand or sea.

Ms. Fremont recently completed a Grass Foundation Fellowship at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The fellowships enable early-stage investigators planning careers in neuroscience to carry out independent research projects in a historic, multidisciplinary setting that Lewis Thomas once called "the uniquely national center for biology in this country."

Einstein student David Hunt, in the lab
Einstein student David Hunt, in the lab
"I was given the freedom to explore," said Ms. Fremont, after returning from Woods Hole. "I've grown as a person and a scientist, and I'm just thankful for the opportunity I had through the Grass Fellowship."

During the 14-week fellowship, Ms. Fremont, a member of Dr. Kamran Khodakhah's lab in Einstein's Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, sought to answer the question, "Is cerebellar dysfunction a common mechanism in genetic dystonias?"

She was joined at the MBL by Einstein neuroscience student David Hunt, a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Pablo Castillo's lab. Mr. Hunt devoted his Grass Fellowship to exploring the "Characterization of cellular bistability in CA3 pyramidal neurons."

Ms. Fremont and Mr. Hunt were two of just eight 2012 Grass Fellows, who came from as far away as Singapore. But they weren't the only members of the Einstein spending an idyllic summer in Woods Hole.

Nurturing Young Investigators

Dr. Alberto Pereda, professor of neuroscience at the College of Medicine, was there, too, serving the first year of a three-year term as director of the Grass Fellowship Program. Previously, he helped teach neurobiology courses at the MBL for nine summers. He called his new role – the first such appointment for an Einstein faculty member – "a huge honor."

He added, "The scientific values of the Grass Fellowship and of the Marine Biological Laboratory are true scientific values, the values of discovery. These are close to my heart."

According to Dr. Pereda, the fellowship program and the MBL create a synergy that gives young investigators the infrastructure, mentorship and support to explore their own scientific questions for perhaps the first time.

Alberto Pereda, Ph.D. at Woods Hole
Alberto Pereda, Ph.D., at Woods Hole
"It's a very nurturing atmosphere," he said. "For the fellows, the experience can be life-changing. It can be a huge boost to their self-confidence, in a critical period, as they attempt their first steps as independent researchers."

Fellows receive lab space, animals, equipment, housing, living assistance and other support. Most of all, they benefit from being part of the lab's diverse scientific community.

"The lab is an exciting environment and a beautiful area. I can't imagine a better place to think, to write and to be stimulated by other scientists and other scientific approaches," Dr. Pereda said. "If you have a passion for science, you come here."

As the new fellowship director, he said, one of his roles is to "make sure young investigators know they are my colleagues, and to expose them to big thinkers" at the MBL.

An Established History

The Grass Fellowship Program is the hallmark initiative of The Grass Foundation, a not-for-profit, private organization founded by Albert Grass, an electrical engineer, and his wife Ellen, a neurobiologist. The two formed the Grass Instrument Company, which built some of the world's first commercially available electroencephalographs (EEGs) in the 1940s.

The MBL was a natural choice when the Foundation sought a location for its fledgling fellowship program in 1951. Neuroscientists had been coming to the MBL for years, attracted by the scientific community and access to diverse marine life, which often provide useful, simpler models for researchers exploring the nervous systems of vertebrate animals.

Since then, Einstein has maintained a strong presence with the program. In addition to Ms. Fremont and Mr. Hunt, Grass Fellows with Einstein ties have included:

  • Dr. Stanley Crain, a 1957 fellow and professor emeritus of neuroscience at Einstein;
  • Dr. Michael V.L. Bennett, a 1958 fellow and distinguished professor in the department, who holds the Sylvia and Robert S. Olnick Chair in Neuroscience;
  • Dr. Donald Faber, a 1969 fellow and the department chair, who holds the Florence and Irving Rubinstein Chair in Neuroscience;
  • Dr. David Spray, a 1971 fellow and neuroscience professor;
  • Dr. Vytautas Verselis, a 1985 fellow and neuroscience professor; and
  • Sung-Min Park, an MSTP student who completed his Grass Fellowship just last year.

Einstein student Rachel Fremont, in the lab
Einstein student Rachel Fremont, in the lab
In addition, both Dr. Faber and Dr. Khodakhah have served as foundation trustees.

"Einstein neuroscience faculty, students and alumni have been fortunate to enjoy longstanding relationships with the Grass Foundation, as well as with the entire Marine Biological Laboratory," said Dr. Faber. "From the Grass Fellowship to summer courses and labs, the Einstein community participates in the MBL community in many ways. There's a natural, wonderfully productive synergy between Einstein scientists and their peers in Woods Hole."

Dr. Steven Zottoli, a 1978 fellow who has written about the history of the Grass Foundation, agrees. In mentioning the examples of Dr. Pereda and others who return to the MBL year after year to teach and mentor, he said, "Some really excellent scientists have come to the Marine Biological Laboratory from Einstein. The quality of the applicants says something about the quality of their program.

"The MBL is a unique community, and everyone who's been associated with the fellowship becomes part of that community. The experience changes you as a scientist profoundly, creating a love and a loyalty that makes you want to give back."

But perhaps the highest praise for the experience may be the words of Ms. Fremont, who used a mouse model to examine the relationship between proteins expressed in the brain's cerebellum and dystonia, one of the most common movement disorders. After four weeks of research, "knocking down" proteins in the mice, she finally noticed the onset of dystonic symptoms.

"I was jumping for joy, so excited I couldn't hold the camera straight to take pictures," she recalled. "It was an incredible experience. It was the excitement of taking an idea from the conceptual to the concrete."

Posted on: Wednesday, October 31, 2012