MESSAGE FROM THE CHAIR – FEBRUARY, 2012
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 almost 30 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 in the top tier of 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.
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. I would like to describe these and several other exciting, new developments for you.
During the past 2½ 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 diabetes.
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-Marcos, who 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 will start 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 Alzheimer’s disease. Brigitte will share space with the Kandror and Kirsch labs on K1.
We plan to hire at least one additional faculty member over the next 1-2 years to round out this series of recruitments.
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, microscopes, and film handling, 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.
Two other floors of Biochemistry space (K3 and K4) are slated for renovation at a future date.
A number of other initiatives have been launched during the past 2½ 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 weekly Happy Hour, with rotating faculty hosts (probably the most instantly popular innovation!); (4) An annual department picnic in the summer.
- Annual Department Retreat. 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 has 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. Planning has started for the 2012 Retreat.
- Joint Thematic Seminar Series, organized in collaboration with the Evans Center in the Department of Medicine. Each series (one per semester) is 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).
- Major endowment gift. The Department of Biochemistry recently received a generous endowment gift from the family of a BUSM alumnus. This donation will be used to support new departmental initiatives with a direct impact on our students and faculty. This year, the gift has allowed us to establish a fellowship program that will provide 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).
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, 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