Spotlights 2023


March 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Shefali Banerjee

I started as a postdoctoral fellow in Mariano Garcia-Blanco’s lab in 2021 where I am focusing on unravelling the mechanisms of DEAD-box RNA helicase 39B (DDX39B) function in RNA alternative splicing. I completed my PhD from National University of Singapore where we were looking at microRNAs as therapeutic targets for mitigating vasculopathy during dengue. I started my first postdoc stint at University of California, Davis, where we explored the adaptive mechanisms employed by poxviruses- a DNA virus - to overcome host-species barriers and adapt to new hosts. We discovered that adaptive mutations in the viral RNA polymerase may have important roles in changing the transcriptional environment in response to host restriction during cross-species adaptation. I have had a significant background in virology but in all my past projects there has been an important component of RNA biology which has always piqued my interest. So, in Mariano’s lab I decided to switch gears and explore RNA biology with a specific focus on alternative splicing. DEAD-box RNA helicases are integral to RNA metabolism and consequently have important immune functions. Our group has previously shown that DEAD-box RNA helicase 39B has a strong genetic association with MS risk where DDX39B depletion increases IL7R exon 6 skipping which encodes for proinflammatory soluble IL7R. I am focused on understanding what cis-acting and trans-acting factors dictate DDX39B-mediated RNA alternative splicing outcomes. The goal is to identify key factors involved in DDX39B function which can be tweaked and design therapeutic interventions targeting RNA splicing in diseases.

 In my free time I like to listen to and practice my Indian classical music. I also like running and I am currently back on fitness journey to get back on track and run marathons.


Braun-Schein, Catherine01

February 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Catherine H. Schein

Dr. Schein received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Biochemistry with several minors, her MSc from MIT in biochemical engineering, and a PhD in Industrial Microbiology/Biotechnology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich Switzerland (ETHZ).  She continued from postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zürich into interferon/ cytokine research and development at Biogen, where she ran large scale production of IFN-α2 for preclinical trials and wrote project proposals for the scientific board. After becoming an Oberassistentin at the ETHZ, she worked in T7-RNA polymerase crystallography and studying the interaction of IFNs with ribonucleases (in work funded by the Zürcher Krebsliga). She joined the faculty of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in 2006 and is currently an Adjunct professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as well as a Faculty in the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the UTMB.

Dr. Schein’s research has focused on clarifying the structural and sequence relationships between epitopes of allergenic proteins (especially through the Structural Database of Allergenic Proteins, SDAP) and designing physicochemical property consensus (PCPcon) antigens for flaviviruses (Dengue), enteroviruses (Polio and Coxsackie A/B), and alphaviruses (Venezuelan and eastern Equine Encephalitis, Chikungunya). Her work has shown that PCPcon proteins fold like the wild type proteins they are based on, retain function and can be designed to stimulate serotype specific or broad-spectrum protective antibodies.  She has also published on protein solubility for structure determination and therapy and docking and repurposing of molecular libraries in drug design.  Her work, published in over 100 peer reviewed papers and book chapters (H-factor= 42; I10=89), has been funded by grants from NIAID, USDA, EPA, US-FDA, UTMB-Mitchell Center, UK-US Bioscience Initiative, Sealy Center for Vaccine Development and other internal and external sources. 



January 2023 Spotlight
Dr. John Papaconstantinou

Dr. John Papaconstantinou received his PhD in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University and continued his training as a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Baltimore, Maryland. Following teaching appointments at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Georgia, he was recruited to the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in 1979. Dr. Papaconstantinou is currently a tenured professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and is the Bertha and Robert Bucksch Distinguished Research Professor of Aging.

Dr. Papaconstantinou’s research program has focused on the role of inflammation and oxidative stress in promoting aging and, more recently, on the specific role of p38αMAPK signaling in the regulation and progression of aging. Throughout his tenure at UTMB, Dr. Papaconstantinou has demonstrated a strong commitment to the teaching of graduate and medical students, postdoctoral fellows, and mentoring of junior faculty. Dr. Papaconstantinou, known affectionately by his students as “Dr. Papa,” has served as a lecturer and small group facilitator in at least twenty different courses at UTMB. He has served as the primary mentor for over 50 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, visiting professors, and junior faculty. His excellence in teaching has been recognized by numerous awards, including the Mary and J. Palmer Saunders Professorship for Excellence in Teaching, the Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics Educator Award, and election to the UT Academy of Health Science Education. He is the recipient of multiple patents; he has been published in more than 175 peer-reviewed journals. His research ranks in the top five percent in the U.S. for National Institutes of Health funding.