The News Service
Life science departments will welcome 11 new faculty for 2004-05
Amy Austen, Wayne Bowen, Yoav Gilad, Mark Johnson, Gerwald Jogl, Osvaldo Sala and Arthur Salomon in biology; Thomas Griffiths in cognitive and linguistic sciences; Wolfgang Peti in medical science; Carlos Aizenman in neuroscience; and Mary Hixon in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
Like most Brown undergrads, Carlos Aizenman was an intellectual omnivore. He took classes in art, European history, Latin American literature, modern culture and media. But Aizenman found his calling in the bustling lab of former Brown neuroscientist Mark Bear.
Bear studied the cellular basis of learning and memory. Students were an integral part of his research. So there was Aizenman in his off hours, placing tiny electrodes into slices of rat brain to record electrical activity that flashed in a matter of milliseconds. The goal: Understand the way brain signals work in the visual cortex and, ultimately, find a cellular model for memory.
The work landed Aizenman with co-author credits in two journals, including Science. But it wasn’t glory that drew him in to neuroscience. It was the trouble-shooting and tinkering that come with bench science – the comraderie of the lab, the thirst to fill in some blanks in the book of knowledge about the brain.
“With neuroscience, I like the questions you get to ask,” Aizenman says. “What is vision? How does it happen? Day to day, science isn’t necessarily exciting. But the goal you are trying to reach definitely is.”
Eleven years after Aizenman graduated from Brown, the 33-year-old native of Mexico is back. His office is located along an empty corridor of Metcalf Chemistry Lab. “I call it the Aizenman wing,” he jokes. Just down the hall is a big, quiet room that will soon bustle with his own research.
As an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience, Aizenman will teach and conduct experiments on development and the brain.
Aizenman believes development is a function of both nature and nurture. But what is the interplay between genes and experience? How does the brain become hard-wired during childhood and adolescence? And can this malleability be recreated with adults? Answers could help people who’ve suffered from strokes, seizures or other brain trauma.
“If you can find the mechanisms behind brain development,” he explains, “you could come up with a drug or treatment that could minimize damage after an injury and promote recovery.”
To conduct his research, Aizenman uses tadpoles – an ideal model for the study of brain building. Aizenman is particularly interested in visual development. By changing the tadpole’s visual environment – flashing lights near the tank, for example – Aizenman will study how genes alter their activity in response. If he can pinpoint the genetic changes and how those changes in turn affect cells, Aizenman will understand more about brain malleability – and come closer to finding a target for treating brain injury.
He’s already got a head start, based on Ph.D. work at Johns Hopkins University and post-doctoral projects at Cold Spring Harbor Lab in New York. In his own lab, Aizenman wants to recreate the experience he had at Brown. There will be a lot of students around.
– Wendy Lawton
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Back in his elementary school days, Wayne Bowen liked to raid the medicine cabinet. He’d bring a stash of pills and powders and syrups into his bedroom, then mix them up in cast-aside condiment jars to create new concoctions.
Bowen’s hobby landed him some trouble. “But it’s also how I got my first chemistry set,” he says.
Now Bowen studies how drugs affect the brain. It’s a complex field, combining chemistry and biology, pharmacology and neurology. He is considered a national expert in sigma receptors – proteins in the brain and in tissues like liver and kidney that are believed to regulate cell survival and growth. Because they are so powerful, Bowen says, sigma receptors are fascinating research subjects. “They’re also a big mystery,” he says.
When Bowen arrives on campus in October to begin his appointment as professor of medical science in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology, it will be a homecoming.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Morgan State College, then a doctorate in biochemistry and neurobiology from Cornell University, Bowen came to Brown in 1983. The Virginia native taught biochemistry and founded the macromolecular biochemistry facility, a one-man lab that is supplying synthetic peptides to scientists all over campus.
In 1991, Bowen took a job designing drugs at the National Institutes of Health, but he never really left Brown. Every fall, he returned to deliver neuroscience lectures to undergraduates. Now as a full professor, Bowen will continue those talks and will teach the Medical School’s pharmacology course. He also plans to create a course on small-molecule drug design.
At 51, with an encyclopedic mind and an easy laugh, Bowen looks forward to returning to Providence. Teaching connects him with students, and students keep him close to the thrill of discovery – the beating heart of science.
“Teaching is not a solitary pursuit,” he says. “Students are so excited, so curious. I missed that at the NIH.”
Edward Hawrot, chairman of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology, says Bowen is a strong faculty addition because he excels in both the classroom and in the lab. “He can really pull it all together,” Hawrot says.
At Brown, Bowen will continue research into the unexplained intersection of drugs and the brain. By understanding sigma receptors, Bowen says, scientists will better understand how drugs damage and kill brain cells.
Sigma receptors bind to anti-psychotic drugs used in the treatment of common disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. Finding out how to block and stimulate these proteins, Bowen says, could help scientists create safer, more effective psychotropic drugs. Sigma receptors have implications for cancer, too. Activating their cell-destroying powers, Bowen said, may help stamp out cancer cells resistant to chemotherapy.
Setting up his lab will be Bowen’s first order of business. His second? Bowen laughs: “Write a grant to fund it.”
Some scientists are interested in identifying genes unique to humans. Yoav Gilad is compelled by the opposite – genes humans share with their ancestors.
Specifically, Gilad wants to know how activity in the genes of humans, apes and monkeys differs. Which genes are expressed, or “turned on,” to make the proteins that run the body’s cells? Which ones aren’t expressed, or “turned off?” And what role did evolution play in flipping the switches?
To get answers, Gilad did something no one else has done. The 29-year-old geneticist built a custom microarray to conduct interspecies comparisons.
Microarrays combine chemistry and computers to measure the expression level of hundreds of gene sequences simultaneously. A copy of DNA, called a probe, is affixed to a glass slide. When placed in a temperature-controlled chamber, similar DNA copies bind to it. Sophisticated software analyzes this pairing process – which identifies the gene and charts its expression. Results can show how the body changes at the molecular level during development or disease.
Thanks to the Human Genome Project, human genes can be studied easily using microarrays; Biotech companies sell pre-made slides. But Gilad had to make his own. He amplified gene sequences from the liver tissues of humans, chimpanzees, orangutans and rhesus macaques, then affixed those sequences – or probes – onto glass.
This is the work that absorbs him at Yale University, where he is a post-doctoral fellow in the Genetics Department.
“This project,” Gilad says, “is a completely new world.”
Gilad will continue his interspecies work at Brown as an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry. By studying the evolution of gene expression – how mutations are good, bad or neutral to the survival of humans and their ancestors – Gilad hopes to understand more about natural selection. But because humans are more susceptible to HIV and some cancers compared with primates, his work may also show how evolution plays a role in human disease.
When Gilad arrives on campus in January, he will set up shop at 70 Ship Street, the new biomedical research building in Providence’s Jewelry District.
“I was really impressed by Brown’s willingness to build a genetics facility from scratch,” he says. “It shows a real commitment from the University, where there are a lot of good scientists who want to get better.”
Growing up in Israel, Gilad dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. At six years of age, he brought home animals – a cat, a dog, a pigeon, a lizard, even crickets – to tend. But at Ben Gurion University, he discovered genetics and the thrill of lab research.
“If you are a scientist and you uncover something, for a while you are the only person in the world who knows that bit of information,” he says. He laughs. “I don’t know if that is discovery or egomania. But it’s the feeling that charmed me.”
– Wendy Lawton
So you’re cooling your heels on the corner, waiting for a bus. You don’t have a schedule. You’ve only used the route once before. “How long will I wait?” you wonder.
Last time you waited seven minutes for this bus. When you got to the corner, one had just pulled away. And it’s started to snow. After a few seconds of thought, you expect to see a bus in 15 minutes’ time.
Tom Griffiths calls this an “everyday inductive leap,” a garden-variety judgment we make on the commute, in the office, at home fixing pasta. These leaps – where we use small amounts of data to come to a larger conclusion about how the world works – are one of Griffiths’ intellectual obsessions.
He is bringing them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Brown, where he is a new assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences. At just 25, Griffiths brings a host of honors with him.
At the University of Western Australia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology, the London native was awarded the best liberal arts student. At Stanford, where he earned three degrees – a master’s in statistics, a master’s in psychology and a doctorate in psychology – he earned two teaching awards. And he earned a pair of student paper prizes at the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference.
At Brown, Griffiths will teach computational cognitive science. That choice reveals the heart of his research – using computer modeling, math and statistics to explain the way humans think.
“Why do we think the way we do?” Griffiths says. “How do we make generalizations? How do we predict the future? How do we think something is a coincidence? We can come up with answers by relating cognition to computation and statistics.”
Machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, is another area of research interest. Griffiths wants to develop algorithms to make machines “think” more like humans. Take Google, he says. The popular Internet search engine solves a problem similar to human memory: organizing huge amounts of information so that the right facts can be retrieved when needed.
“Google is the kind of thing you can create by solving these problems,” he says.
Griffiths’ interest in both computers and the nature of thought is no surprise. His father is a trained electrical engineer, his mother a psychotherapist.
“I’m somewhere between the two,” he explains. “Cognitive science has a rigor about it, formal systems. But it also poses big questions about how people form opinions and make decisions. You use math to think about the mind.”
– Wendy Lawton
If there is one question Mary Hixon would like to answer, it is this: How do good cells go bad?
The question came to her in high school, after reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a seminal piece of science writing that detailed the toxic affects of pesticides and insecticides. Hixon read the book and was angry. She was also intrigued. Carson revealed a basic truth: Our environment, from the chemicals in our homes to the air that we breathe, can cause disease and death.
Hixon was predisposed to science. She grew up in the mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania, digging for dinosaur bones and reading National Geographic. But Silent Spring sealed her fate. She got a bachelor’s degree in biology from Hiram College in Ohio. Then she got a master’s degree in environmental health science from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Finally, she went to the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and earned a doctorate in toxicology – the study of compounds that make good cells go bad.
Specifically, Hixon investigates how the environment – mostly the sorts man-made chemicals Carson wrote about – affects genes and how, in turn, those genes can make humans sick. To pursue her work, Hixon came to Brown nearly two years ago, in the dead of winter, to work as a postdoctoral fellow in a pathology lab. Her task: Reveal the secrets of an important gene with a plain-Jane name.
The gene, called Akt1, regulates both body and organ size. Akt1 also helps control apoptosis, or cell suicide, the body’s way of sacrificing sick or mutant cells. When Akt1 is activated, it can prevent cell death – allowing mutant cells to multiply. This can lead to cancer.
Akt1 is linked to several forms of cancer, such as certain kinds of leukemia and cancer in the breast and prostate. Hixon is interested in the role the gene plays in testicular development and in testicular function following a toxicant-induced injury. While working under Kim Boekelheide, a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Hixon began investigating three forms of Akt. She wanted to know what these genes do, where they’re expressed, or active, in the body, and what cells they affect in the testes. Hixon discovered that Akt1 is indeed expressed in the testes and affects specific cell types.
Her work helped land her a permanent job. Hixon is now an assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. This year, she will teach a graduate seminar in pathology and continue her research into Akt1 in her new laboratory, located at the Ship Street facility in Providence’s Jewelry District.
The 37-year-old researcher will also investigate other poisons that make good cells go bad. Because of her work with prostate cancer, she is interested in understanding why sperm counts are falling in animals, including human men, around the world. Part of her work will investigate how plasticizers may affect certain cells in the testes. These chemicals, which make plastic malleable, can be found in thousands of products, from food wrap to toys.
Because the reproductive system is controlled by the endocrine system, Hixon will also conduct experiments that shed light on the role PCBs and other pollutants play in lowering thyroid levels – and possibly reducing sperm counts.
“Many diseases have an environmental component,” she explains. ”Think about smoking or asbestos. What interests me is how these poisons work, what they do to damage DNA and destroy cells. There are a lot of toxins out there. And we’re just beginning to understand what they do.”
– Wendy Lawton
In popular science, genes get the glory. But it’s the proteins genes create that do the hard work of building our cells and running our bodies. Understanding how proteins are built, how they function and how they interact with each other is biology’s new frontier.
Gerwald Jogl is out on that edge, mapping these powerhouse molecules. As an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry, Jogl will set up a laboratory in the new biomedical research space on Ship Street.
“We’re going to have a marriage of techniques and disciplines down there,” Jogl says. “And that is the best way to do science. You have to integrate knowledge. A single lab can’t do everything.”
The expertise that Jogl will bring to Ship Street is in X-ray crystallography. The technique combines strong X-rays and sophisticated computer software to create digital images of proteins.
The process: A salt solution is mixed with a pure protein sample, forcing the protein to form a crystal. Crystals are frozen in liquid nitrogen then bombarded by X-rays. Patterns of light diffraction are recorded, looking much like tiny stars in a vast sky. These patterns are run through a computer to create 3-D pictures of a protein.
Knowing a protein’s structure, Jogl says, is critical.
“Once you understand how they’re structured, you can understand how they work,” he explains. “It is rare in science to get a complete answer. With crystallography, you do.”
Jogl’s particular interest is finding proteins that are damaged, which jams the insulin signaling between cells. Finding this mutant protein or proteins would shed a lot of light on the cause of diabetes, a potential killer disease that affects an estimated 18.2 million Americans. Jogl is also interested in teaming up with Brown biologist John Sedivy to study other cell-signaling defects that contribute to cancer.
Jogl is a 36-year-old native of Austria, where he earned his Ph.D. and master’s degrees in physical chemistry from the Karl Franzens UniversitÄt Graz. Jogl has spent the last four years at Columbia University, where he’s studied, among other things, the structural biology of enzymes involved in fatty acid metabolism – an essential process that provides fuel to cells and can offer clues for diabetes treatments.
Jogl works with big machines – X-ray generators, particle accelerators – and uses heavy concepts culled from chemistry, physics and math. But there is simple, startling beauty in the job. When proteins turn to crystals, they appear under a microscope like colored bits inside a kaleidoscope. “Just like jewels,” he says.
– Wendy Lawton
Plants and people have more in common than you’d think.
Take Arabidopsis thaliana, or mouse-ear cress, a fast-growing plant in the broccoli family that sprouts tiny white flowers from a spindly stem. It can be found in fields – even in sidewalk cracks – in temperate regions around the world.
Humans share one-third of their genes with this common weed. Which is one reason that Mark Johnson, and many plant biologists, finds Arabidopsis a perfect model for research.
“So many of the basic functions of plants and humans are similar – how proteins are made, how energy is stored and used by cells,” Johnson said. “There is a gene called cryptochrome that plants use to grow toward or away from light. It was first discovered in Arabidopsis and it was later found that mammals use it to entrain our circadian rhythms, our day-night cycles. There are lots of connections.”
Johnson is bringing his passion for plants to Brown, where he will be an assistant professor of biology in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry.
Johnson said he’ll teach plant biology and possibly create a new course on the molecular and genetic analysis of plants. First order of business: Set up his laboratory in J.W. Wilson, where he will continue exploring Arabidopsis and other flowering plants.
Johnson’s research focuses on pollen. Specifically, he’s trying to better understand how pollen cells deliver sperm to the plant’s eggs, which are buried deep within the flower. Pollen germinates on the stigma surface and then it grows a long tube that grows precisely toward an egg to fertilize it. But how do pollen tubes “know” how to hit their targets?
Deciphering the cell signaling that guides that growth could have important human applications, the 33-year-old Pennsylvania native says.
“A basic scientific understanding of how cells invade other cells can tell us more about cancer,” he says. “Neurons also have tip growth and grow toward targets, so the research could also apply to neurobiology.”
But Johnson’s work could have another application – in agriculture.
He notes that a key concern about genetically modified crops is that these engineered plants could pollinate wild relatives, creating a new invasive species that can’t be controlled by insects or chemicals. But what if you could design a transgenic plant that can’t fertilize its wild cousins?
“You’d contain the spread of genetic modifications,” he says. “That would be huge.”
Johnson got interested in plant biology at Wake Forest University, where an influential professor turned him on to the topic. Johnson went on to earn his Ph.D. in microbiology and cellular and molecular biology from Michigan State, then headed to the University of Chicago as a postdoctoral fellow.
While Johnson believes his work can have an impact on people, he also believes that plants should be studied in their own right. They supply our oxygen and feed us. They’re the basis for most of our medicines.
And they’re incredibly complex. “Plants are chemically more advanced than animals,” he says. “They’re much better biochemists.”
– Wendy Lawton
The other students hated her, but Wolfgang Peti recalls with fondness his Austrian high school chemistry teacher. An older woman with gray hair, she was infamous for tough tests and strict ways.
But his teacher stayed after school to help students. And she had an abiding passion for science – which she passed on to Peti.
“I found chemistry fascinating,” Peti says. “It provides the recipe for everything.”
Peti went on to study chemistry at the University of Vienna, then earned a Ph.D. in the field at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. His high school teacher’s high standards paid off: Peti graduated from both universities with the highest academic honors.
At Brown, Peti will be an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology. His research will focus on the structure, dynamics and interactions of proteins. They are the body’s master chemists, playing a role in everything from metabolism to memory. An entire subfield of science has sprung up to study them.
One tool researchers use to study proteins is nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy or NMR. Peti is a wizard with this technique.
Like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), NMR instruments use strong magnets. Samples of proteins are immersed into their magnetic fields, which sets some atomic nuclei spinning. Radio frequency waves detect, decode and analyze these nuclei. Results are used to create 3-D images of a protein’s structure.
All the action takes place using outsize equipment. When Peti sets up his lab in the new Ship Street research building, he and his department colleague, Dale Mierke, hope to get funding for a 21.2 Tesla magnet – which is about two stories tall and weighs in at nearly 15,000 pounds. The technology will allow scientists to study very large proteins or protein complexes involved in a variety of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and epilepsy.
At Ship Street, Peti expects to work closely with faculty who use X-ray crystallography to study proteins. What makes NMR spectroscopy different, Peti says, is that the technique not only shows how proteins are built, but how they move. This is important to understand how proteins interact to cause everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.
One of Peti’s research projects at Brown will be a collaboration with the University of Connecticut to study the proteins used in the formation of biofilm, thin layers of bacteria that stick to any number of surfaces, from our teeth to our drain pipes. In the case of patients with implants and prosthetics, Peti says biofilm can be dangerous. It can cause infection and can even cause the body to reject implants, from pacemakers to artificial hips. Identifying proteins that create biofilms could pave the way for better treatments.
When that project is over, who knows what he’ll do. “Right now, I have so many ideas and hopes,” he said. “I’m just excited to get into the lab.”
– Wendy Lawton
Tom Roberts puts turkeys on treadmills. There is, of course, a scientific reason to do so.
Roberts is a functional morphologist, an expert in how animals (including humans) are built and how they move. Research can net important insights into locomotion, which can be used to build faster submarines, more efficient airplanes or better artificial limbs.
Wild turkeys, Roberts says, make great research subjects. They are small, so they’re easy to care for. They are trainable, so they can hit a treadmill. They are good runners, hitting speeds of up to 18 miles per hour.
“There is also a practical reason,” Roberts says with a laugh. “They have two legs, not four, so there is half as much analysis to do.”
Roberts’ particular interest is muscles and tendons. Scientists have only a limited understanding of how they work – alone and together – to help humans and animals run, fly, jump, swim and slither.
A new assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Roberts has observed various animals on the move: ponies, bullfrogs, elephants, emus, ostriches and mice. But as a doctoral student in biology at Harvard University, Roberts started what he calls his “turkey work.”
For his thesis, Roberts studied how the body runs economically, how it uses as little energy as possible. He measured the force and fiber length of the leg muscles of running turkeys. Roberts and his team found that running economy is improved when muscles and tendons work together as springs that store and recover energy, rather than act as work-producing, energy-expending engines.
This was an eye-opener. Muscles and tendons, Roberts found, work in a very different way during running than they do in other activities such as swimming. To use an automotive analogy, they operate more like shock absorbers than motors.
The research wound up in Science and Roberts wound up doing an interview with a reporter from the BBC, who managed, after repeated requests, to get him to reproduce the sound he used to get turkeys moving. Roberts obliged, hollering on live radio.
At Harvard, Roberts met Ted Goslow, a long-time professor at Brown in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, during a dissection class. The two stayed in contact, and Roberts met many department Brown faculty members over the years – one reason why he’s coming to Brown from Oregon State University.
“There is a really strong core of functional morphologists here,” he says. “But I also like the breadth in the department, the fact there are geneticists and ecologists I’ll be working with. When you’ve got this breadth, you get new and interesting ideas for your work.”
In his lab in the Bio Medical Center, the 38-year-old scientist will continue his turkey work, conducting experiments on both acceleration and steady-speed running. Two questions he’d like to answer: Why does it take more energy to run faster? And why does an animal’s weight – not its shape – determine how many calories it burns?
His investigations could lead to better rehabilitation therapies or more efficient prosthetic legs. But they will also simply answer a few compelling questions about evolution and how it literally shaped the planet.
“Animals are fascinating machines,” he says. “We’re just doing some reverse engineering to see how they work.”
– Wendy Lawton
In January, Osvaldo Sala will come to Providence from Argentina. He will leave behind his ecology research and teaching at the University of Buenos Aires. And he will leave behind his beloved habitat – the Patagonian steppe.
This vast stretch of land is an ecological marvel marked by poplar stands, thorn thickets, wiry grass. It includes plateaus, plains and desert along with 2,000 miles of coastline. Within its wind-swept borders live pumas and peregrin falcons, sea lions and black-necked swans, red foxes and Chilean flamingos. Guanacos, or wild llamas, live there. So do mara, leggy rodents the size of small dogs.
When Sala first saw the steppe, it was summer. The grasses were gold and green. The night sky held more stars than Sala had ever seen. At the time, Sala was a new graduate of the University of Buenos Aires, where he studied agriculture. But out on the steppe, working in the field with a favorite professor, he decided to study something else: ecology.
“I knew I had wanted to be in science. I knew I wanted to be outdoors. And I knew I wanted to study nature. Ecology put it all together for me,” Sala says. “With ecology, you can study the competition between two plants. And you can study biodiversity on a global level. I like being able to move between scales.”
Moving between scales is something Sala will do at Brown.
He will be a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and he will direct the Center for Environmental Studies, where he will coordinate undergraduate teaching, research and service.
He will also head up Brown’s new Environmental Change Initiative, a multidisciplinary research and education program addressing the drivers behind global environmental change. The program will pull experts from every corner of campus – biology and geological sciences, sociology to international policy – as well as scientists from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, which recently teamed with the university to create a new graduate program in biological and environmental sciences.
This trio of hats will allow Sala to work with students, which inspires him. It will allow him to orchestrate an undergraduate program he praises as “outstanding.” And it will allow him to build, from scratch, a program that he hopes will be an internationally recognized center of scientific excellence and a player in pressing policy issues such as global warming, species loss and land use change.
The 53-year-old scientist has the background to back up his ambition.
Sala is a former Guggenheim fellow and has taught at Stanford University, the University of Buenos Aires and Colorado State University, where he earned master’s and doctorate degrees in ecology. He serves as editor of Global Change Biology, as a member of the governing board of the Ecological Society of America, and as secretary-general of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment.
Sala’s research ranges from the study of rainfall on grasses in the American Great Plains to the effect of ozone depletion in Tierra del Fuego, located at the tip of South America. Sala is proudest of a project he led that included scientists from 18 universities, who developed biodiversity scenarios for the year 2100 based on changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, climate and land use. The findings, published in Science, were grim: Farming and fossil fuels will kill off many species – think big cats and redwoods – and create a weedy, homogenous world.
But Sala doesn’t find this depressing. When people understand the risks and benefits, they will make changes needed to preserve the planet. “I believe in education,” he says.
– Wendy Lawton
When Art Salomon applied for a job at Brown, he gave a talk on his research to potential colleagues in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry.
Typically, Salomon says, these academic auditions can be quite dull – he talks, professors listen politely. Not at Brown. Here, researchers asked questions, sparked conversation. Salomon was so inspired by the discussion, he went back to his laboratory in the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in San Diego and set up new experiments.
“My feeling about Brown is that it isn’t competitive – it’s curious,” Salomon says. “There is a great intellectual interest in other people’s work and the faculty is interactive. That’s totally invaluable. You can’t possibly know everything. But if you’re talking with your colleagues, you can get a broader perspective on the field. Your science is better.”
This collaboration will continue when Salomon, a 31-year-old assistant professor of biology, heads to the new Ship Street lab. The Jewelry District facility was built to foster teamwork – labs are open, lounges shared – and researchers will hail from four different biomedical departments.
Salomon is a chemist. It isn’t a surprising career choice. Both parents are chemists – his father is a professor at Case Western Reserve University and his mother is a chemical company manager – and talk around their Cleveland dinner table often involved reagents and reactions.
At Case Western, however, Salomon initially pursued physics. Then, during his sophomore year, he signed up for his father’s organic chemistry class. The experience was inspiring. Salomon got hooked on the subject and studied four hours a day. He wound up with an A – and a new major.
“It’s like I’m wired for chemistry,” he laughs. “So why fight reality? I enjoy it. It comes naturally to me.”
After graduating from Case Western, Salomon earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Stanford, studying the pharmacology of a highly selective anti-cancer agent. Since then, he’s been working at the Genomics Institute. His specialty: protein research by mass spectrometry.
Proteins – chemical dishes cooked up by gene recipes – are the subject of intense study by biomedical researchers. Salomon is an expert with a mass spectrometer, a hulking piece of equipment that uses a superconducting magnet to smash a peptide, or protein fragment, into even smaller pieces. The machine then measures the mass of these bits and reveals their sequence and amino acid modifications in a fraction of a second.
Understanding modifications to protein sequences is critical to understanding diseases, Salomon says. That’s because these changes, which show up as distinct patterns in mass spectra, can contribute to illness. Salomon is particularly interested in revealing protein modifications relevant to Type II diabetes, cancer and allergies.
“If we can understand these modifications, we could possibly find novel drug targets,” he says. “For me, that is really important. I want my work to impact people’s lives.”
– Wendy Lawton