Kene Piasta

Kene Piasta, Assistant Professor of BiologyAssistant Professor of Biology

My professional interests are grounded in an educational philosophy where students must obtain a comprehensive understanding of the material in order to grasp the mechanisms behind what is being studied. Being able to explain why something happens, how it occurs, and how that generalizes to a novel scenario is indicative of a deeper understanding. With comprehension comes the ability of the student to take what has been learned and apply it - the true test of learning.  I use this philosophy in my teaching, mentoring, and research to help push my students to build knowledge and skills required for a scientific career.


Biology education and protein structure-function

My teaching career started at Brandeis when I was senior doctoral student and the Biochemistry Department was designing a new laboratory course.  I was asked to design a module focusing on membrane protein purification.  This experience stuck with me and after my research postdoc was completed, I returned to Brandeis to further develop me teaching credentials and skills by coordinating the undergraduate introductory biology laboratory class with Professor Melissa Kosinski-Collins.  In this position, I revamped the assignments and developed new assays that utilized modern equipment that would be broadly applicable to research in the laboratories on campus.  The course also focuses on science communication, both written and oral communication, in order to develop students who understand the science and how to communicate it effectively.

Now as a faculty member at Brandeis, I am aiming to continue to update the classes I teach in order to make sure students are prepared for the modern research landscape.  I am currently redesigning the Biostatistics course to utilize R in order to increase digital literacy, working to update writing assignments in the introductory biology lab to expand scientific communication skills, and designing a new project lab for the M.S. students in the Biotechnology program to introduce cutting-edge research techniques.

In my teaching career I have noticed that many students, especially those from underserved populations, have the intelligence to succeed in a STEM major, but often do not have the skills required to navigate the constantly changing college landscape.  For this reason, I have always been interested in increasing retention of underserved populations and increasing inclusiveness in science.  To that end, I acted as a mentor for the Galaxy program at Brandeis and now I am directing the program.  I hope to increase retainment of all students in STEM majors through participation in this near-peer mentor program, while increasing the inclusivity for all STEM students.

The courses I regularly teach are:

  • General Biology Laboratory (BIOL18B): a project-based laboratory focusing on essential molecular cell biology and biochemical techniques. This course provides skills required for success in a research lab.
  • Biostatistics (BIOL51A): an introductory statistics course aimed at both research and health driven science trajectories. This class focuses on critical concepts to understand the statistical tests commonly utilized in biology.
  • Project Laboratory in Protein Biochemistry (BIOL151A): a project-based laboratory which pushes students to design and execute protein purification protocols.  Then protein characterization is performed using functional and structural assays.=

Other courses I have taught include Cells and Organisms (BIOL15B), Introductory Biochemistry (BCHM88B), Advanced Introductory Biochemistry (BCHM100A), Writing for the Sciences (ESL205G and ESL206G), Molecular Biotechnology (BIOL101A), Experiential Learning Practicum (EL94A), and Readings in Biology (BIOL98B)

Research Background

I began working in a laboratory as an undergraduate in the laboratory of Professor Geoffrey Davies and Dr. Elham Ghabbour at Northeastern University.  The lab focused on humic substances, the essential component of soil that chelate metals and retain water.  After spending time in the lab, I realized I loved attempting to figure out ways to answer questions that were currently unanswerable. This formative experience still guides my thinking on teaching and mentoring today.

I then started graduate school at Brandeis in the laboratory of Professor Chris Miller. My research focused on determining the equilibrium binding constants of various cations for KcsA, the canonical potassium channel.  This work provided the first experimentally determined dissociation constants usable in molecular dynamic simulations to probe the molecular underpinnings of ion selectivity.  I transitioned from Brandeis to Postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the laboratory of Professor Joe Falke. I dissected the structure-function relationship in the bacterial chemotaxis system in order to understand how CheA kinase was turned on and off by ligand binding to the extracellular domain of the Tsr chemoreceptor, the ultra-stability of the chemosensory array, and the overall architecture of the CheA/CheW ring.

Throughout my research, I found that I often enjoyed the process of teaching and mentoring undergraduates and graduate students more than performing the actual experiments.  This realization has led to a career in science education specifically focusing on providing the most realistic research experiences possible in laboratory-based classes, while reinforcing foundational knowledge in the classroom.

Selected Publications

  • Joseph J. Falke and Kene N. Piasta. 2014. Architecture and Signal Transduction Mechanism of the Bacterial Chemosensory Array: Progress, Controversies, and Challenges. Curr Opin Struct Biol. 2014 Dec;29:85-94.
  • Kene N. Piasta and Falke, J.J. 2014. Increasing and decreasing the ultrastability of bacterial chemotaxis core signaling complexes by modifying protein-protein contacts. Biochemistry. 2014 Sep 9;53(35):5592-600.
  • Briegel, A., Wong, M., Hodges, H. Oikonomou, C. Kene N. Piasta, Harris, M.J., Fowler, D.J., Thompson, L.K., Falke, J.J., Kiessling, L.L., and Jensen, G.J. 2013. New insights into bacterial chemoreceptor array structure and assembly from electron cryotomography. Biochemistry. Mar. 18; 53(10):1575-85.
  • Natale, A.M., Duplantis J.L., Kene N. Piasta, Falke, J.J. 2013. Structure, function, and on-off switching of a core unit contact between CheA kinase and CheW adaptor protein in the bacterial chemosensory array: A disulfide mapping and mutagenesis study. Biochemistry. Nov. 5; 52(44):7753-65.
  • Kene N. Piasta, Ulliman, C.J., Slivka, P.F., Falke, J.J. 2013. Defining a Key Receptor-CheA Kinase Contact and Elucidating Its Function in the Membrane- Bound Bacterial Chemosensory Array: A Disulfide Mapping and TAM-IDS Study. Biochemistry. Jun. 4; 52(22):3866-80.
  • Kene N. Piasta and Christopher Miller, 2011. Feel the force: bio-electricity and the sensing of electric fields. Biochemist E-volution. 33(6):26-29.
  • Kene N. Piasta, Theobald, D.L., and Miller, C. 2011. Potassium-selective block of barium permeation through single KcsA channels. J. Gen. Physiol. 138(4):421-436.