Somit Scholarship Backs Student's Biochemistry, Neuroscience Work

Published July 17, 2013

Aashutosh Vihani, a junior in the Department of Biochemistry, has received the 2013 Mary Rosenblum Somit Scholarship for demonstrating academic excellence.

Investigating DNA-Protein Interactions

Vihani is studying DNA-protein interactions by single-molecule experiments. “He has characterized the strength of the optical tweezers setup and has purified a novel form of a DNA helicase,” says his mentor, Piero Bianco, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “This is exciting because he will use this enzyme to do force measurements," Bianco adds.

Vihani is grateful for the fruitful, collaborative relationships he has developed at UB. “During my time in the lab, my work and interactions with other undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellows has taught me more than any course,” he says.

In Bianco's lab, Vihani has the opportunity to use unique technology and resources, including a fluorescent microscope modified for work on single molecules. “We combine the microscope with laser tweezers and microfluidics to record single-molecule reactions in real time,” says Bianco.

Committed to Second Major in Neuroscience

The biochemistry major, who also has an interest in neurophysiology, approached faculty to propose the idea of developing a special major in neuroscience.

Working with Joan S. Baizer, PhD, associate professor of physiology and biophysics, and Matthew Xu-Friedman, PhD, from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biological Sciences, Vihani received permission to undertake the special major.

“They were both very supportive of my proposal when I approached them about it,” he says. To complete this additional degree, he will embark on a year of research while attending several graduate classes.

Support for Immigrants, First-Generation Students

The Somit scholarship, established by former UB executive vice president Albert Somit, PhD, is often given to scholars who are first-generation college students and immigrants, or the children of immigrants.

Somit, who served as the university’s acting president in 1977, established the $3,000 annual award in honor of his mother, a Russian immigrant who was widowed when he was four and who worked throughout her life to ensure that her only child would attend a good college.

Vihani’s parents, like Albert Somit’s mother, left their home country to seek a better life. They immigrated to the United States from India hoping to start a family in a place where their children would have excellent educational opportunities.

Vihani, whose research has also merited three grants from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, feels honored to have received the award. He says the Somit scholarship is more than just a reward for hard work; it is also a source of encouragement to continue working hard.