Skirball Institute’s 16th Annual Symposium Brings Top Scientists to NYULMC to Delve into ‘The Dynamic Nucleus’

On Friday, September 18, NYU Langone welcomed an internationally renowned group of scientists for the 16th annual Skirball Institute Symposium. This year’s topic was “The Dynamic Nucleus.” The eight speakers, chosen by an organizing committee comprised of six junior and senior members of the Skirball faculty, presented their latest discoveries in their respective fields related to the inner workings of the cellular nucleus. (Pictured on left, Dr. Ruth Lehmann, standing, with Dr. Rick Young, who gave the annual Severo Ochoa lecture.) 

 

In addition to the day-long scientific symposium, the event also provided a rare opportunity for the Institute’s graduate students and postdocs, as well as its faculty, to interact with the visiting scholars in an intimate and extended way throughout the day.  The chance to attend scientific talks by such a well-known cadre of speakers drew scientists not only from the NYU Langone Medical Center community but from throughout the New York metro area, including NYU’s downtown campus and other area institutions. 

“The symposium represents a remarkable opportunity for our faculty to propose a topic that is on the forefront of biomolecular science right now, and then gather an exceptional group of speakers together to present some of the best work being done,” said Ruth Lehmann, PhD, Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Professor of Cell Biology and director of the Skirball Institute. “We look forward each year to bringing some of the top minds in our field here to the Medical Center, which always results in a lot of lively scientific exchange.”

 

 

“It’s something you don’t want to miss,” said Karim-Jean Armache, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology and a member of the organizing committee for this year’s event. Dr. Armache’s lab studies the structure of chromatin, and how genome organization and DNA in the cell nucleus affects cell processes. “To see all these people who are doing transformative science, all together, at your own institution—you definitely want to participate if you have the chance.” 

The Collaborative Road to a Signature NYULMC Event

The annual symposium is a team effort from the outset, as faculty, students, postdocs, and the administration all contribute to its success. Each year, Skirball faculty vote on a theme for a future symposium, and over the course of the next two years the winning choice is organized into a day-long event.  

This year’s topic was the brainchild of Agnel Sfeir, PhD, assistant professor in the Institute and the Department of Cell Biology (pictured above, far right), who studies the role of telomeres, structures that form protective caps on the ends of chromosomes in humans and other mammals. “So much goes on in the nucleus,” she said. “It’s the center of my universe, at least.” She had recently read an issue of the journal Cell devoted to the topic and thought it would make for an exciting day-long meeting. “We know now that the nucleus isn’t a static thing,” she explained of her suggestion for this year’s subject. “Its dynamic nature was really highlighted [by the journal].”

 

 

(Pictured above, the speakers at this year's Skirball Institute Symposium, with Dr. Ruth Lehmann, center.) Each year’s topic is put to a faculty vote, and Dr. Sfeir’s colleagues agreed that the cell’s nucleus was well worth focusing on. Based on the final choice, Dr. Lehmann appointed a committee of six faculty members who then decided which sub topics needed to be covered and, accordingly, who should be invited to speak at the event. In addition to Drs. Armache and Sfeir, this year’s symposium was organized by Matthias Stadtfeld, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology; Mamta Tahiliani, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology; Susan Smith, PhD, professor of pathology; and Moses Chao, PhD, professor of cell biology, neuroscience and physiology, and psychiatry. 

“The committee had about five very intense meetings where we debated who would be the best speaker for each area,” said Dr. Sfeir. “They had to do cutting-edge science, but they also had to be a good speaker—not everyone does both!” she added. 

The Short List

For each area the committee members thought should be covered, they identified a primary speaker and a back-up, in case their first choice wasn’t available. Then everyone on the Skirball faculty had a chance to weigh in. “We hear a lot of, ‘Why this person, why not that one?’” said Dr. Sfeir. “We made a few adjustments and in the end, the line-up was fantastic.” 

“We had a very diverse range of expertise,” said Dr. Armache. “We had speakers from the translational side, and those doing more basic studies, as well as people using a variety of techniques. Yet the day was still one coherent package.”

 

 

Rick Young, PhD, professor of biology at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (pictured above), gave the annual Severo Ochoa lecture, in honor of the 1959 Nobel Prize–winner, NYULMC’s former chair of pharmacology and biochemistry. Dr. Young’s talk, delivered to a packed house at Farkas Auditorium, was entitled “Chromosome Structure and Transcriptional Control in Normal Cells and in Cancer.” Other speakers presented on topics as diverse as the biophysical basis of movement of materials into and out of the nucleus, chromatin structure, epigenetics, ribosome profiling, and genome design. You can see the full program here.

Insights Beyond the Lab

In addition to the scientific talks that were held in Farkas Auditorium, post docs and graduate students had the chance to attend lunch with the speakers and meet with them in small groups. “The discussions range from talking about new scientific techniques and results, to talking about life in academia and how to balance work and personal life,” said Chelsea Maniscalco, a PhD candidate in the lab of Jeremy Nance, PhD, associate professor. She is studying primordial germ cells throughout early embryonic development in C. elegans (earthworms). She added, “It’s a great way to explore potential career options too, hearing the speakers talk about their own journeys as scientists.”

Brian Sosa-Alvarado, PhD, a post doc working to understand the structural basis that governs chromatin silencing, in the lab of Dr. Armache, agreed. “The speakers provide a view into the inner workings of different institutions, funding situations, mentorship philosophies and, most importantly, what drives them to do what they do,” Dr. Sosa said. 

Postdoctoral fellow Wendy Huang, PhD, observed that “The opportunity to network with leaders in the field of transcription and nuclear architecture is really important. I was very much inspired by their passion for science and encouragement of young scientists.” Dr. Huang works in the lab of Dan Littman, MD, PhD, Helen L. and Martin S. Kimmel Professor of Molecular Immunology, HHMI Investigator and professor of pathology and microbiology.

The symposium was very well attended, with over 250 people participating throughout the day. And while this year’s event is barely in the rearview mirror, planning is already well underway for the 17th annual Skirball Symposium, to be held in September 2016.