BCMP Welcomes Alan Brown

Structural biologist eager to study the mysterious cilium

The Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology welcomed a new faculty member in fall 2017: Alan Brown, a structural biologist, moved across the pond after completing postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.

Now that he’s settling in, Brown talked with Harvard Medicine News about taking leaps in science as well as geography and about what he likes to do when he has leisure time in between running a lab and raising two young children.

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Alan Brown
Assistant professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology

Lab website

Research focus: I’m actually switching focus from how proteins are made by the ribosome to how proteins are moved around the cell. I’m particularly interested in a fascinating but somewhat understudied organelle called the cilium.

Cilia are hair-like projections on the surface of pretty much every eukaryotic cell, and they’re crucial for health and disease. They propel cells through liquid. They remove mucus from cells in the airways. They act like antennae for cell signals. For cilia to maintain their function, proteins have to be transported to and within them. We hope to visualize this transport process using structural biology methods, particularly electron cryomicroscopy, or cryo-EM.

Then we can start to understand what goes wrong. A lot of people have mutations in these transport machines that cause cilia dysfunction, which can lead to infertility, respiratory diseases, blindness and more. We’re lucky to have some grants to study the role of cilia in moving the protein rhodopsin around in the eye and the effect of mutations on retinal degeneration or blindness.

Where it all began: When I was 6 or 8 years old, my parents bought me a toy plastic microscope. It was completely useless—it was about the same as a magnifying glass. But I liked it. We’d go pond dipping and throw samples on slides. Then I progressed to more advanced microscopes.

I’ve always wanted to look ever smaller. Some people like to look at the stars and think big. That scared me, looking up at the heavens. I wanted to look at atoms. Never below the atom level, though; that can get scary again.

Reordered time: It’s quite a jump, going from a postdoc to a group leader. You go from focusing entirely on your own small project to suddenly having people to look after and four projects on the go at the same time and all these additional meetings and administration, and your nice working day is fragmented into chunks. It’s been difficult to adjust, but it’s also been fun.

Outside the lab: It feels like such a long time ago that I had hobbies! There’s no time to read with a four-year-old and a one-year-old at home. My wife is Chinese, so we used to travel a lot in Asia and Europe, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of the U.S. We also love to eat and go to restaurants, although now we have to go to child-friendly restaurants. I really enjoy watching sports. Now I have to get used to all these American sports. Formula One is my number-one thing, but that’s not popular here, I think.

Why HMS: I interviewed at a lot of places, and they were all great. I met some brilliant people. But BCMP was one of the best departments. Everyone was friendly as well as being great scientists. They take structural biology really seriously. There are fantastic structural biologists here.

Another selling point was Harvard’s recognition of the growing importance of cryo-EM in biology. When the facility is built here, it will be as good as anywhere in the world. If you want to stay ahead of other places, you have to put money into science. It’s great how the medical school and the hospitals could come together and share the costs. It’s a good blueprint for how science should work.