Like most faculty, my professional interests fall into three areas: research, teaching, and service. I get great pleasure from all of them. In research, I have long studied mechanisms of gene regulation in bacteria. During my initial years at UMBC, I worked on understanding growth rate-dependent regulation (GRDR) of central metabolism genes in E. coli. This form of regulation coordinates gene expression with the cellular growth rate as it is determined by the nutritional quality of the growth medium. The main gene we studied was gnd, which encodes 6-phosphogluconate dehydrogenase, an enzyme of the pentose phosphate pathway. We discovered that GRDR of gnd is exerted at the level of translation initiation and involves the “internal complementary sequence” (ICS), a regulatory element lying deep within the gnd mRNA and whose sequence is complementary to the ribosome binding site (RBS) of the mRNA. Formation of a long-range secondary structure in the mRNA between the RBS and the ICS plays a key role in GRDR of gnd. We also studied GRDR of zwf, which encodes glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase.
Studies of the GRDR of zwf, which occurs at the level of transcription initiation, led us into our current research: the regulation of the cell’s defense against oxidative stress imposed by superoxide and mediated by SoxS, the activator of transcription of the defense response genes of which zwf is one. We also study three other proteins whose amino acid sequences are ~50% identical to that of SoxS and which activate transcription of a common set of genes, albeit to different degrees. These proteins are Rob, whose activity is induced by bile salts and dipyridyl, MarA, whose activity is induced by salicylate, a plant alarmone, and TetD, which resides in transposon Tn10 but whose inducer is unknown. More information about our current research on these regulatory proteins, in particular our work with SoxS, which has a number of interesting and unusual properties, can be found in our Research Description,
Over the past ten years or so my primary teaching has been “Microbial Molecular Genetics”, BIOL 434/634. The course is taught almost exclusively from the original scientific literature. I don’t lecture very much. Instead, one or two papers are assigned for each two hour class period and I call on students at random to answer questions about the background, rationale, methods, data, conclusions, etc. of the papers. The general topic is mechanisms of gene regulation in E. coli. But, my philosophy for this course is that the process is more important than the content. In particular, my objective is to help students become actively involved in their own education so that when they leave the university they will be able to keep up in their chosen field by being adept at reading the relevant literature.
In addition to classroom teaching, I get enormous pleasure from working with students in my research lab. Here my philosophy is to always be available for discussions of research problems, new directions, etc., but not to micromanage. I have been fortunate to have worked with many wonderful students and it has been extremely rewarding to have played a role in their growth as independent scientists. Sixteen students have conducted their dissertation research under my mentorship. They learned to do good science and they have gone to have interesting and productive careers.
My main service contribution to UMBC has been in the area of new program development. Like my research and teaching, I have derived great pleasure from working to build educational programs at UMBC. Shortly after arriving at UMBC, colleagues in the Departments of Chemistry (now Chemistry and Biochemistry) and Biological Sciences and I developed a major, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. It is a rigorous B.S. degree program and has helped to enhance UMBC’s reputation in life science research and education.
A few years later, John Hays, my friend and colleague in the Chemistry Department, and I developed a M.S. program in Applied Molecular Biology (AMB). The purpose of the program was to train students to become middle-level researchers in the then fledgling biotechnology industry. We developed the curriculum in consultation with scientists at local biotechnology companies. We argued to UMBC administrators that this program would put UMBC on the map in molecular biology and biotechnology. They agreed and supported our initiative with four faculty positions and an up-front contribution of nearly a quarter of a million dollars for laboratory equipment. Initiation of the program was written up in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Science as the first program of its kind in the country. Now in existence for more than 25 years, the program has produced many outstanding scientists, but also some graduates have become medical doctors, veterinarians, and patent attorneys.
Subsequently, John Hays and I proposed that UMBC develop a Ph.D. program in “Basic and Applied Molecular Biology”. This Ph.D. program was a natural extension of the AMB program and together we expected that they would help recruit outstanding graduate students to UMBC. Although the Ph.D. program was not approved by the Central Administration of the University of Maryland System, the idea was resurrected a few years later as a System-wide Ph.D. program in Molecular and Cell Biology (MOCB). Hays and I ensured that the curriculum would mesh with the AMB program, i.e., most course requirements for the MOCB program would be met by the courses of the AMB program. As a result, UMBC produced the first Ph.D. graduates of the MOCB program in the System.
In 2006-2007, I led the development of the curriculum for a Masters in Professional Studies: Biotechnology and a Certificate in Biotechnology Management. The purpose of the program is to provide the means for working professionals in the biotechnology industry to expand their knowledge of the sciences underlying biotechnology and to learn good manufacturing practices, regulatory issues in biotechnology, as well as the tools of financial management, leadership and team building. The program, whose courses are taught exclusively in the evening at UMBC’s Tech Center, started in fall, 2007 with 14 students in the MPS program and 3 more in the Certificate program. I am the Graduate Program Director and we expect that this MPS program will be followed by others at UMBC.