David A. Harris, M.D. Ph.D.—Chair of Biochemistry

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 molecular, cellular, and genetic processes, and how these are altered in disease. 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.

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 six new faculty members (5 Assistant Professors and 1 Associate Professor), and the renovation of four floors of our research building. We have just initiated a major new recruitment initiative in the areas of genetics and genomics, with the goal of hiring several more faculty members to start in 2016.

I would like to summarize some of the exciting, new developments in our department.


One key to maintaining a rich and varied intellectual landscape has been our success in faculty recruitment. During the past six years, we have recruited a total of six, outstanding, new faculty members to join our department.

Dr. Xaralabos (Bob) Varelas, Assistant Professor, works on signaling pathways that control cell size and fate during development and in disease.

Dr. Valentina Perissi, Assistant Professor, studies transcriptional regulation via signal transduction pathways, ubiquitin conjugating machinery, and chromatin remodeling enzymes.

Dr. Mikel Garcia-Marcos, Assistant Professor, works on a class of unconventional, non-receptor, GTP exchange factors that play important roles in health and disease.

Dr. Brigitte Ritter, Assistant Professor, studies clathrin-mediated endocytosis, and aims to understand how receptor transport controls and drives complex physiological processes.

Dr. Daniel Cifuentes, will start as an Assistant Professor in November, 2015. He is a talented developmental biologist who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Antonio Giraldez at Yale working on the role of RNAs and RNA binding proteins in embryonic re-programming. His work focuses on the vast reorganization of gene expression that renders different tissues and cell types of the developing embryo from primordial cells. His work utilizes zebrafish as a model organism.

Dr. Alla Grishok will start as an Associate Professor in March, 2016. She is a spectacular molecular geneticist we have recently recruited from Columbia University. Alla has a long-standing interest in non-coding RNAs dating to her graduate and postdoctoral training with Profs. Craig Mello and Philip Sharp. Her work has provided important insights into gene regulation via endogenous RNAi and chromatin modification. She has exploited the advantages of C. elegans as a model genetic organism for her studies.

Together, Drs. Cifuentes and Grishok establish a new focus on RNA biology in the department, and they introduce two new model organisms: zebrafish and C. elegans.


Genetics and genomics are pillars of modern biology. Our department aims to tap into these intellectually rich and translationally important areas by the hiring of several new faculty members during the coming year. In collaboration with the Genome Science Institute (GSI) at BUSM, we are currently recruiting at all levels (Assistant, Associate, Full Professors) in areas including, but not limited to, chromatin structure and function, epigenetics/epigenomics, regulatory mechanisms of gene expression, stem cells and development, and cancer genomics. We anticipate that these individuals will complement the existing strengths of our faculty, and will establish us as a department with broad expertise in molecules, cells, and genes.


In 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.

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.

An additional floor of Biochemistry space (K4) is now being renovated to accommodate our recently hired faculty members, as well as those who will be hired as part of the Genetics and Genomics Initiative.


A number of other activities 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) Departmental Retreats; (4) a biweekly Happy Hour, with rotating faculty hosts (probably the most instantly popular innovation!).
  • 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 and core facilities. 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); (4) a state-of-the-art, Zeiss LSM 880 laser scanning confocal microscope with Airyscan; (5) we have recently opened a new Mass Spectrometry Core for proteomic analysis via LC/MS/MS. This Core supplements the internationally renowned Mass Spectroscopy Center at BUSM, headed by Dr. Catherine Costello, a Biochemistry faculty member.


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. Our department has evolved and expanded as well, and now encompasses the fields of biochemistry, cell biology and genetics. This is an incredibly exciting time, 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, M.D., Ph.D.
Chair of Biochemistry
September, 2015