Columbia University Medical Center


Report on the Summer 2020 Activities of SPURS:
A Biomedical Research Program


With funding from the National Institutes of health (NIH) and other generous private donations, the SPURS program was able to accommodate 19 fellows: 9 females and 10 males; 12 African–American, 3 Hispanic-American, and 1 Asian-American, and 3 Native American. This year, we had six students attending schools in New York including: Columbia University, Vassar College, and CUNY Hunter College. The remaining students attended schools from across the country including: Williams College, Yale University, Texas Christian College, Rutgers University, Smith College, Duke University, Brandeis University, University of Pennsylvania, Howard University, Emory University, Bowdoin College, and Johns Hopkins University. We received a record number of 232 applications this academic year. We partnered again with Prep for Prep to integrate their students into the SPURS program.

Introducing the SPURS Class of 2020

The participants are listed below along with the title of their research project and mentor’s name.

Abraham Eafa
Williams College
Mentor: Dr. Oliver Clark
"The Coronavirus Envelope Protein"


Alexa Michel
CUNY Hunter College
Mentor: Dr. Shawn Liu
“Development and Applications of DNA Methylation Editing Tools in Diseases”


Alexis Fisher
Columbia University
Mentor: Dr. Steven Siegelbaum
“Role of the Hippocampal CA2 Region in the Social Behavior and Aggression of Mice”


Aminah Williams
Smith College
Mentor: Dr. Filippo Mancia
“Reviewing the Structure of ABC Transporters in the Context of Multidrug Resistance and Human Disease”

Brooke Boisvert
Texas Christian University
Mentor: Dr. Wes Grueber
“Level Dependent Transcription Factor Control of NO-signaling in Dendritic Arborization Neurons”


Bryan Cabezas
Rutgers University
Mentor: Dr. Jeanine D'Armiento
“Identification of HMGA2 Independent Genes in TSC2 Tumorigenesis”

Darien Herndon
Duke University
Mentor: Dr. Manu Ben Johny


David Stevenson
Vassar College
Mentor: Dr. Anne Moscona
“Inhibition of Coronavirus Entry in vitro and ex vivo by a Lipid-Conjugated Peptide Derived from the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Glycoprotein HRC domain”


Domenick Raphael
Brandeis University
Mentor: Dr. Stavroula Kousteni
“The Role of the Mitochondria in the Progression of Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS) to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)”


Eden Teferi
Columbia University
Mentor: Dr. Edward Owusu-Ansah
“Identifying Novel Regulators of Complex 1 Assembly with MitoCarta”


Elias Tzoc-Pacheco
Columbia University
Mentor: Dr. Angela Christiano
“RNA-Seq Analysis of Alopecia Areata”


Eric Ohakam
University of Pennsylvania
Mentor: Dr. Robert Bauer
“The Role of Adipocyte Tribbles-1 in Coronary Artery Disease”


Justin Rodriguez
Rutgers University
Mentor: Dr. Emily Mace
“Natural Killer Cells in GATA2 Deficiency”


Kateland Keene
Johns Hopkins University
Mentor: Dr. Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir
“Mapping Asthma and Pollution in Schools”


Khristina Cassanova
Howard University
Mentor: Dr. Andrew Marks
“Role of Ryanodine Receptors/Intracellular Calcium Release Channels in Glucose Metabolism in Type I Diabetes”


Matthew Neil
CUNY Hunter College
Mentor: Dr. George Hasko
“The Role of Purinergic Signaling in Sepsis”


Mustapha Tahiru
Emory University
Mentor: Dr. Virginia Cornish (Qianna Wilson)
“Discoveries in Aromaticity and Antiaromaticity”
Samira Iqbal
Bowdoin College
Mentor: Dr. Andrew Marks
“Age-dependent Muscle Loss in C.elegans Due to Calcium Channel Leaks”
Thompson Uwanomen
Yale University
Mentor: Dr. Tom Connors
“The Impact of Iron Deficiency on Early Life Immune Development”


In light of the 2020 SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, SPURS transitioned to a virtual format. Although our students were not able to work in the laboratories at Columbia University Medical Center as they were in all previous SPURS summers, all were involved in research projects with faculty and remotely attended daily events described in detail below.

SPURS 2020 Program

1) Orientation

The program began on Monday, June 15th, 2020 with an orientation led by Kyle Stearns, and SPURS co-Directors Drs. Monica Goldklang, Andrew Marks, and Jeanine D’Armiento. Orientation included an overview of the summers’ curriculum, as well as a laboratory safety training and a discussion of research ethics. In order to fully prepare our students for their eventual return to labs, they received instruction in Laboratory and Research Safety from the CUMC Environmental Health and Safety Department. This comprehensive lecture included how to maintain a safe environment through hazardous waste management, biological safety, fire safety, the use of personal protective equipment and chemical tracking/safety. Orientation concluded with a discourse regarding ethical conduct of research followed by our first guest lecture by SPURS alumnus Dr. Michael Holsey (Class of 2007).

2) Premiere Lecture Series

The virtual program format enabled the SPURS Premier Lecture Series to include academic and industry leaders from across the United States. The diversity and wealth of the speakers’ backgrounds were reflected in the breadth of discussions they had with the students. All speakers were encouraged to reflect on their career paths and provided insight into the students’ own career development regarding MD and PhD programs. Examples of the topics covered in the formal portions of lectures included cutting-edge scientific research, establishment of Alzheimer’s awareness campaigns for communities of color, inner workings of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the NIH, and how new drugs are developed. In addition to career insights, speakers also discussed personal stories of difficulties encountered by underrepresented persons in academic medicine, and professional decision making to excel in graduate school and beyond. This year we had an especially diverse set of speakers at various stages in their careers.

The panel of speakers included: Dr. Michael Holsey, Dean Anil Rustgi, Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, Dr. Jaime Rubin, Dr. Henry Colecraft, Dr. Dennis Mitchell, Dr. Anne Moscona, Dr. Emily Mace, Dr. Lyndon Mitnaul, Dr. Stavroula Kousteni, Dr. Alyson Fox, Dr. Ira Tabas, Dr. Olajide Williams, Dr. Robert Bauer, Dr. Steve Marx, Dr. Wonder Drake, Dr. Rama Mallampalli, Dr. Anne Taylor, Dr. Antonio Fojo, Dr. Muredach Reilly, Dr. Wellington Cardoso, Dr. Robert Whittington, Dr. Nicole Redmond, Dr. Angela Davis, Dr. Susan Bates, Dr. Elisa Konafagou, Dr. Mignon Moore, Dr. Kimara Targoff, Dr. David Goldstein, Dr. Hasina Outtz Reed, Dr. Torry Tucker, Dr. Enid Neptune, Dr. De'Broski Herbert, Dr. Monica Goldklang, Dr. Andrew Marks, and Dr. Jeanine D’Armiento. These sessions also served as an opportunity for the program directors to monitor the students’ progress, address any issues or concerns, and connect.

3) Mentor Guided Research

Students received “hands-on” experience by working with a CUMC faculty member with shared research interests. The exact nature of the work was primarily tailored to the student’s respective interest relating to their faculty member’s area of expertise. Students became familiar with their PI’s research and techniques. When possible, PI’s provided their students with data analysis training and an opportunity to apply what they learned to progressing the laboratory’s research.

4) Techniques and Methods Video Sessions

All students participated in a weekly seminar focused on general laboratory techniques. Columbia faculty and graduate students gave live tutorials covering fundamental and novel techniques being applied in their laboratories including PCR, western blotting, flow cytometry, and RNAseq. These demonstrations covered the practical benefits and theories of the various techniques.

5) Journal Club

Each Tuesday, 2 students were selected to find scientific papers they found especially interesting. The students then sent their chosen paper out to the rest of the SPURS class for review. On the following Friday, the students who selected the journal articles provided an overview of the work and lead a group discussion about the implications of the publication.

6) COVID-19 Lecture Series

An unprecedented amount of research has focused on the current pandemic. In addition to fundamental research on the SARS-CoV-2 virus topics addressed relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic included: public health, ethical, scientific, and social issues. Once a week, the SPURS students observed a series of COVID-19 related lectures that are part of the Columbia Virtual COVID-19 Symposia, followed by a group discussion. The series of talks highlighted interdisciplinary scientific approaches being applied in an especially relevant context.

7) Social Events

An integral part of the program are the connections made between the students. In the past we fostered these connections through events outside of the laboratory, including concerts and ball games. Therefore, in this virtual environment in addition to the lectures and research centered interactions, we organized social events where the students could get to know each other in an informal setting. These events included group game nights and a homemade ice cream cooking class.

8) Social Events

The 2020 program culminated on August 4th and 5th when each student gave an oral presentation of their summer project to Drs. Marks, D’Armiento, Goldklang, as well as mentors, post-doctoral fellows, faculty, and graduate students. Extensive feedback to each SPURS student was provided with guidance on the scientific content as well as presentation.