Columbia Students Take Top Honors at Science Competition

Feb. 15, 2010Bookmark and Share
Columbia University students have earned top honors at the Sara and Frank McKnight Prize in Undergraduate Sciences competition. Anish Shah (CC’10), a biochemistry and economics major, won first place in the chemistry portion and Noam Prywes (CC’10), a chemistry major, earned second place in the biophysics and computational biology section.
 
An illustration of the protein-manufacturing process, from the presentation poster of Noam Prywes
An illustration of the protein-manufacturing process, from the presentation poster of Noam Prywes
The two were among 15 finalists who traveled last November to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, which administers the prizes, to present posters on their research. The national competition honors top research projects submitted by college seniors. Steven McKnight, chairman of biochemistry at UT Southwestern, created the prize to honor his parents. Winners were chosen in three categories—biochemistry, chemistry and biophysics/computational biology—for the significance of their work and for the quality of their presentation. First-place winners received $2,000; second-place winners $1,000; and third-place winners $500.
 
“It would have been very exciting to have one winner, but to have two is really quite special,” said James Valentini, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department. He attributed Columbia’s strong showing to a number of factors. “We attract some spectacularly talented undergraduates,” he said. “And all of our chemistry majors work closely with faculty, pursuing research on substantive, important projects.”
 
Anish Shah’s research, which he undertook with assistant professor of chemistry Scott Snyder and associate professor of biological sciences Brent Stockwell, involved synthesizing compounds that showed effectiveness against nerve cell death. “The end goal is to come up with a compound that we could submit, down the line, as a model for a drug against neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s,” said Shah. He is applying to medical school this spring with an interest in surgery as well as clinical research.
 
Noam Prywes’s laboratory work, which he undertook with assistant professor of chemistry Ruben Gonzalez, focuses on ribosomes. Found in the cells of all living things, ribosomes make proteins based on simple genetic instructions. Using ribosomes that had been chemically modified with fluorescent dyes, Prywes and Gonzalez were able to show, in real-time, how the protein-manufacturing process works. “Reducing these extremely complex systems to the bare bones, so we can understand them at the most basic level, is what I think is really cool,” said Prywes, who hopes to earn a doctorate in chemistry.
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