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Jake Vaynshteyn

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Taking on the Brain

The cerebral cortex – the outermost layer of neural tissue on the brain that plays a modulatory role in memory, perception, attention, thought, language and consciousness – may represent the pinnacle of engineering. It’s also the launching pad for a million questions.

“How does the cingulate cortex – a portion of the cerebral cortex that is involved with forming and processing emotion, as well as learning and memory – affect the reward circuit, for example,” asks Jake V. Vaynshteyn (City College, B.E., 2009). “In order to look at that, you need to look not just on the molecular scale, but on the circuit scale and on the behavioral scale.”

Vaynshteyn intends to refine his research topic as a first-year doctoral student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University with the support of a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The three-year, $126,000 grant is the most prestigious award for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“I’m proud to say that I’m from City College and the Grove School of Engineering because they take their engineering very seriously. They craft your mind to solve problems,” he says.

But his experience working for two years after graduation as a technician at Rockefeller University shifted his interest from solving problems to asking the kinds of questions that neuroscientists pose. “I really got interested in seeing what the fundamentals are in the brain,” he says.

One guide in this journey was a postdoctoral student in a molecular genetics laboratory at Rockefeller. The postdoc needed help setting up a system in which she could test animals; with his engineering background, he got her going. “They were using techniques that were mind-blowing and caught my interest,” he says.

He points to the work of Rockefeller professors Nathaniel Heintz and Jeffrey Friedman as having played a role in persuading him to pursue his own research. Heintz designed the translating ribosome affinity purification (TRAP) technique, which identifies how types of cells respond to genetic changes or drug interventions; that led to the definition of biomechanical pathways whose altered activity points to central nervous system disorders.

For the moment, however, Vaynshteyn is rotating through various laboratories and has not yet chosen which one will give him the tools he needs to learn.

Vaynshteyn was born in the Soviet Union to parents who were artists “but decided they were not willing to paint Soviet regime propaganda” and moved to France and then to Utah before settling in New York when he was ready for junior high school. He started at Queens College as a mathematics major and then became interested in biomedical engineering, which led him to City College.

While at Queens, he met and ultimately married Wendy Sanchez, who had a dual major in chemistry and computer science and sought to combine her interests in biomedical engineering. She also switched to the Grove School. They worked on his senior project together, designing a system that allows Boston Scientific scientists to measure shear stresses induced by fluid flow on endothelial cells (normally found inside blood vessels) that were grown on stainless steel. She earned her B.E. degree the year after he did, 2010.

The couple, who have two sons, aged 3 and 19 months, are at Einstein. Wendy Sanchez Vaynshteyn now works as a laboratory technician three floors down from where he is doing his rotations.

“She understands the workload, and we can have lunch together,” Vaynshteyn says. “She’s a vital influence on me and has made me the skeptical scientist that I am today. Without her, I would have never pursued science.”