January ushered in two new faculty appointments in the Department of Systems Biology: Markus Basan, fresh off a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Molecular Systems Biology in Zurich, Switzerland, and Ying Lu, taking on his own lab after completing a postdoc with department chair Marc Kirschner.
Basan and Lu talked to HM News about what it’s like to apply their physics backgrounds to the field of biology, why Boston rivals even the most famous European cities, and the joys of building custom scientific instruments.
Research focus: We struggle with the same problem that many here try to tackle: the complexity of biological systems and how to go beyond a single gene/single protein approach. I look at physiology and phenotypes, do different perturbations of genes and environment, and try to find patterns that reveal underlying principles.
Some of the questions we are investigating in E. coli bacteria and fruit flies are: What determines the growth rate of a bacterium in a specific environment? Why do starving bacteria actually die? How do cells coordinate their composition, such as water content? How does a tissue know when it is full size or when it has divided enough? The hope is that we will come to understand some fundamental concepts that may then lead to insights for the treatment of disease.
Why HMS: Why not here? It has such a good reputation, the department here particularly. The whole application process was amazing. Every person I talked to left me more excited. People really seem to understand my approach. They agree that there are different ways to address the same problems.
Know thyself: I postponed coming here a bit to finish a project and to travel to Nepal and India. I did a three-passes trek there. I thought it would be like hiking in the Alps, but it was exhausting! It was really nice, though. At the same time, I realized it’s not my thing to travel for longer than a month. I know myself better now. The best thing about backpacking is when you come home and see your toilet and your shower. You’re so happy for a few days. The only problem is that this appreciation for the little things tends to fade.
World-class appeal: I’ve been fortunate to live in some nice places. I grew up partly near Munich and partly near New York City and did my undergrad in Switzerland. I lived in Paris for my PhD and San Diego for my first postdoc. I don’t think Boston fares badly. The city has a particular historical American character. The changing seasons have their charm. I’ve only shoveled once so far. We live in Brookline, and it might sound strange, but it’s almost best in terms of versatility. You can hop in the car and go shopping or get on the Green Line and be in Boston in a few minutes. The restaurants seem really nice. You can go out once in a while for a concert, and there are awesome talks. There are no Alps half an hour away, but you take the best of what’s there.
Convergence: I’m struck by the fact that physicists studying biology and biologists studying biology are still very separate. There can be two people working on the same stuff, both famous, but they’ve never heard of each other, just because one is in the physics department and the other is in the biology department. Which is weird, right? I think it’s good that the fields are starting to converge earlier, at the PhD or even undergraduate level. I don’t think you have to do 20 years of research in solid-state physics before you can jump into biology.
Research focus: Molecule-molecule interactions in our bodies happen randomly, yet many critical processes, such as transcription, translation and protein degradation, proceed with remarkable precision. How does this occur? We focus on how cells achieve accurate protein degradation and how its failure can lead to cancer, neurodegeneration and aging.
Most of our cells are in a state of homeostasis. There is always protein synthesis, but the cell’s overall mass doesn’t change, so the same amount of protein has to be degraded. We know synthesis is controlled by complicated machinery, but what tells the cell which proteins to degrade? It’s not really clear to us. Our technique is to use single-molecule analysis to observe molecules one by one under a microscope and see their actions and reactions in real time. Hopefully by combining that with quantitative biochemical methods, we can gain insight into how degradation is carried out with precise control.
Help wanted: We are a very new lab, so we don’t have people yet. Students and postdocs with diverse backgrounds—biology, chemistry, physics, math—are welcome. Anyone who is highly motivated and interested, I assure they will find a good program here.
Why HMS: I like this place. I work at the interface between physics and biology, so in the future, any kind of knowledge we require, I can probably find an expert within three miles. That makes this place a unique heart for new science and new methods. The quality of students and postdocs is great. They’re interested in science, engaged and innovative. Also my colleagues are terrific. I have several collaborations with Dana-Farber and the Harvard physics department and they are very smooth.
Fundamental simplicity: People think biology is quite complicated, more than physics and chemistry. Superficially that’s true, but once you go very deep into one problem and try to find the fundamental principles, usually you find that what seemed almost incomprehensible becomes surprisingly simple and beautiful in design. Those are the most exciting moments in my career, to make a complicated question simple.
Tinker, tailor: I like building things; I was trained as a physicist. I build my own microscopes, electronics and microfluidic devices. Sometimes that’s because what we need is very specialized. Other times instruments are commercially available but they’re expensive and there is a loss of freedom to modify them for different tasks. Right now I’m building a multicolor TIRF microscope—a total internal reflection fluorescence microscope—to look at single-molecule interactions at surfaces like coverslips or cell membranes.
Cityscapes: My wife is an architect, and we like to go around and comment on buildings in different Boston neighborhoods. We like Newton and Cambridge; they have many houses from different time periods and styles. We think about what we can learn from the designs or how we could improve them.
Quicker payoff: We also like cooking. That has been inspired in different ways. We started cooking Italian food because we had an Italian friend who happened to be a good cook. Then we had people from Japan visit us and show us how to make a Japanese style of cooking. Cooking and science experiments are different. With experiments, you wait years. With cooking, there’s instant satisfaction!