November 28, 2014

Two former FMI PhD students honored for outstanding PhD theses

Today, Benjamin Towbin, a former PhD student in Susan Gasser's lab, received the University of Basel Faculty of Science Prize for the best thesis in Natural Sciences. Faculty Prizes are awarded annually at the Dies Academicus event. Earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Steffen Wolff, a former PhD student in Andreas Lüthi's group, was awarded the Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience for his outstanding PhD thesis.

For his thesis at the FMI, Benjamin Towbin studied the processes in the cell nucleus that lead to spatial segregation of active and inactive domains of the genome. His experiments showed that an enzyme called SAM synthetase, which generates the universal donor for lysine methylation, S adenosylmethionine (SAM), is critical for the proper spatial segregation of chromatin in the nucleus. Assuming that the methylation of specific lysines within histones might be the signal for heterochromatin sequestration, Towbin then identified two histone methyltransferases (HMTs), which act sequentially to generate a trimethylated lysine 9 in histone H3 and thus trigger the anchoring of heterochromatin to the nuclear envelope.

Benjamin Towbin is currently pursuing postdoctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

» More about Benjamin Towbin's work


While at the FMI, Steffen Wolff used optogenetics to study the neuronal circuits involved in learning. His research led him to the discovery of a novel neuronal mechanism which controls the formation of new associative memories and regulates their strength. He showed that distinct types of inhibitory interneurons act as “gatekeepers”. During learning, their specific interactions lead to the graded opening of a neuronal “gate”, which allows new memories to be formed and determines their strength. Carol Mason, President of the Society for Neuroscience, said: “With great drive and experimental rigor, Dr. Wolff has made significant strides using cutting-edge cellular techniques to answer important questions about fear.” Steffen Wolff is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.

The Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience was established in 2013 by columnist, author and career coach Marty Nemko, on behalf of the Nemko family.

» More about Steffen Wolff's work

» An interview with Steffen Wolff

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