MESSAGE FROM THE CHAIR – July 2014

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David A. Harris, M.D., Ph.D.

Welcome to the Department of Biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine.  This is an exciting place to be!  We are a diverse group of 20 faculty members working on fundamental cellular and molecular processes, and how these are altered in disease.  Our research encompasses several major areas, including (1) neuroscience & aging; (2) signal transduction & cancer; (3) extracellular matrix & cellular injury; (4) metabolism, obesity & diabetes; (5) proteomics, glycomics & lipidomics; and (6) development.  Our department is ranked among the top Biochemistry departments nationally in terms of NIH funding, and we have a long history of making path-breaking contributions to key areas of biochemistry and molecular biology.  Our department encompasses molecular, cellular, and systems approaches to scientific problems.

Perhaps our most important resource are the people in our department, including faculty, postdoctoral fellows, students, and staff.  We work in an intellectually vibrant and intensely collegial environment characterized by extensive interactions within the department and with other basic science and clinical departments at the medical school.  We are committed to the education of our graduate, medical and dental students, and to the principles of diversity and inclusiveness.

Since I started as Chair of Biochemistry in September, 2009, the Department has embarked on a major expansion initiative that has resulted in the hiring of four new Assistant Professors, and the renovation of three floors of our research building.  We have just initiated another round of recruitment with the goal of hiring two more faculty members to start in 2015, and we are in the midst of renovation of an additional floor of laboratory space to accommodate these new hires.  I would like to describe these and several other exciting, new developments for you.

FACULTY RECRUITMENT

During the past 3½ years, we have successfully recruited four, outstanding, new Assistant Professors to join our faculty:

  • Dr. Xaralabos (Bob) Varelas, who started in January, 2011, is a superb cellular and molecular biologist who completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Jeff Wrana at the University of Toronto.  Dr. Varelas works on signaling pathways that regulate cell size, and his research has important implications for understanding the growth and development of tissues and organs, and how the underlying pathways go awry in cancer, and lead to tumor metastasis.
  • Dr. Valentina Perissi, who started in July, 2011, is a spectacular biochemist and cell biologist who did her graduate and postdoctoral training with Dr. Geoff Rosenfeld at UCSD working on transcriptional control and the assembly of regulatory complexes on DNA.  Her most recent work has important implications for inflammation and obesity.
    Drs. Perissi and Varelas are sharing newly renovated laboratory space on the Harrison Avenue wing of the 6th floor of the Silvio Conte Building
  • Dr. Mikel Garcia-Marcoswho started in January, 2012, is an outstanding biochemist from Marilyn Farquhar’s lab at UCSD working on a class of unconventional, non-receptor, GTP exchange factors.  His work has important implications for basic cellular processes such as cell migration and autophagy, and also for diseases such as cancer.  Mikel is sharing space with the Harris, Layne, and Schreiber laboratories on K2.
  • Dr. Brigitte Ritter, who started in April, 2012, is a fantastic cell biologist from Peter McPherson’s lab at the Montreal Neurological Institute (McGill) working on clathrin-mediated endocytosis.  Her work provides important insights into mechanisms of intracellular trafficking, and has direct connections to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.  Brigitte shares space with the Kandror and Kirsch labs on K1.In our current round of recruitment, we plan to hire at least two more faculty members who will start in 2015 in newly renovated space on K4.

LABORATORY SPACE

Between March and November of 2010, we completed renovation of three floors (approx. 30,000 sq. ft.) of Biochemistry space in the Silvio Conte Medical Research Building (“K Bldg.”).  The renovations (approx. $2 million/floor) involved extensive reconstruction of all interior areas, as well as replacement of major infrastructural elements, including HVAC and purified water systems.

The logistics of the renovation process were complex and challenging.  However, there was a remarkable sense of cooperation among all members of the team (faculty, architects, contractors, and B.U. facilities staff), which greatly contributed to the success of the entire operation.

The newly renovated floors are magnificent.  Each floor has an open lab plan, allowing more efficient space utilization and enhanced interactions, dedicated rooms for large equipment, tissue culture, and microscopes, as well as common break areas for informal gathering.  The first floor is also equipped with a seminar room capable of accommodating 80 people, a spacious lunchroom area, and a common glassware washing and autoclaving facility.  The second floor houses the newly renovated Departmental office suite.

A celebratory event was held on January 26, 2011 to mark the completion of this phase of the renovation.

An additional floor of Biochemistry space (K4) is now slated for renovation over the coming year (2014-15).

OTHER INITIATIVES

A number of other initiatives have been launched during the past several years, among which are the following:

  • Creation of several new, department-wide events, including (1) a monthly Student-Postdoc Seminar Series (to provide students and postdoctoral fellows with experience in public speaking); (2) a monthly “Chalk Talk” series (to provide an opportunity for faculty to share scientific ideas and obtain input from colleagues); (3) a biweekly Happy Hour, with rotating faculty hosts (probably the most instantly popular innovation!); (4) A department picnic in the summer.
  • Department Retreats.  The 2011 Retreat was focused on faculty research, and was held on October 5 at the MIT Endicott House, a historic mansion in Dedham, MA.  The Retreat was a great success and led to initiation of a series of Special Interest Groups, collections of faculty laboratories working on common themes that meet regularly to discuss data and ideas.  The 2012 Retreat was an overnight event that was open to all department members, and was held from October 18-19 at Wachusett Village Inn in Westminster, MA.  The Retreat featured scientific talks, presentations by editors from Cell Press and Nature Medicine, a panel discussion on intellectual property, posters, and social events.  Future retreats are in the planning stage.
  • Joint Thematic Seminar Series, organized in collaboration with the Evans Center in the Department of Medicine.  Each series (one per semester) was based on a single, cutting-edge, scientific theme that bridges basic science and disease (“Molecular Mechanisms of Aging” in fall, 2010; “Cancer, Development, and Stem Cells” in spring, 2011; “Protein Quality Control and Disease” in fall, 2011; “Mitochondria: Engines of Life, Drivers of Disease” in spring, 2012; “The Cytoskeleton in Health and Disease” in fall, 2012; and “Non-coding RNA in Health and Disease” in spring, 2013).  New series are planned for the future.
  • Major endowment gift. The Department of Biochemistry recently received a generous endowment gift from the family of a BUSM alumnus. This donation is being used to support new departmental initiatives with a direct impact on our students and faculty.  For example, the gift has allowed us to establish a fellowship program that provides stipend support to two of our Biochemistry graduate students.
  • New equipment.  Our objective is to provide department members with access to cutting-edge scientific equipment to further their research.  We have recently been able to purchase (1) a Bio-Rad ProteOn XPR36 surface plasmon resonance (SPR) instrument for detecting protein-protein and protein-ligand interactions; (2) a Li-Cor Odyssey Infrared Imaging System for quantitation of Western blots; and (3) an additional real-time PCR system (Applied Biosystems ViiA, with 384-well plate capacity).  We are about to open a new Mass Spectrometry Core for proteomic analysis via LC/MS/MS.

THE PAST AND THE FUTURE

Biochemistry as a discipline has evolved significantly over the past 70 years from its origins in attempts to catalogue the molecular parts of living organisms.  Today, biochemistry can encompass virtually any study of biological processes at the cellular or molecular level.  Pick up a copy of any of the major scientific journals, and you will find that the papers it contains utilize biochemical techniques.  This is an incredibly exciting time in biochemistry and cell biology, with the advent of major insights into the workings of living organisms, fueled by the application of powerful, new technologies, and the possibility of developing molecular cures for devastating human diseases.  Please join us on our journey of scientific discovery in the Department of Biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine!

David A. Harris, MD, PhD
Chair of Biochemistry
July, 2014