Raphael Cohn, a graduate fellow in Vanessa Ruta’s Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior, is a recipient of this year’s Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, one of the country’s most prestigious graduate student prizes in the biosciences. The award, given by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, recognizes quality, originality, and significance of thesis research.
Cohn, who joined Rockefeller in 2011, studies how the brain of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster flexibly responds to its changing environment and to its previous experiences. Focusing on an odor-processing center of the fly’s brain known as the mushroom body, Cohn’s thesis work addressed how the same sensory experience can be translated into different behaviors. Using functional imaging techniques, he and his colleagues recorded the activity of dopamine neurons in the mushroom body while a fly was exposed to a neutral odor and given either a sugar reward or an electric shock. They found that the mushroom body functions like a switchboard in which the same odor signal conveyed by dopamine neurons was dynamically rerouted to different behavioral circuits depending on the fly’s experience, a discovery that likely parallels the action of dopamine in the human brain.
Cohn received undergraduate degrees in cognitive science and computer science and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Oxford. He will receive his Ph.D. from Rockefeller next year.
Established in 2000, the Weintraub Award honors the late Harold M. Weintraub, a founding member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s basic sciences division who died from brain cancer in 1995, at the age of 49. Weintraub was an international leader in the field of molecular biology who, among other contributions, identified genes responsible for cell differentiation.
Winners of the Weintraub Award will participate in a scientific symposium at the Hutchinson Center in Seattle on May 5, and will receive an honorarium from the Weintraub and Groudine Fund, established to foster intellectual exchange through the promotion of programs for graduate students, fellows, and visiting scholars. Cohn is one of 13 recipients this year.
Cohn is the 12th Rockefeller student to receive the Weintraub Award. Past recipients are Agata Smogorzewska, Karina Del Punta, Paul Cohen, Vanessa Ruta, Sung Hee Ahn-Upton, Nadya Dimitrova, Johannes Scheid, Teresa Davoli, Nora Pencheva, Alex Gitlin, and Wenyan Jiang; an additional recipient, Gabriel Victora, was a visiting student at Rockefeller when he won the award.