September 5, 2006
Life sciences departments welcome seven new faculty for 2006-07
Seven new members of the regular faculty are beginning work in the life sciences at Brown this fall:
Amal Trivedi and
Robert Goldberg in Community Health;
Stephen Porder and
Daniel Weinreich in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology;
Robert Reenan and
Mark Zervas in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry.
Ana Baylin spent much of the summer getting lost in the rain forest in Costa Rica. Why? She’s looking for ways to get precious omega-3 fatty acids into the diets of populations too poor or too landlocked to get fish.
Baylin wants to find ways of deriving the same benefits from plant sources. Her travels on the trail of this healthy fat has taken her from her native Spain, all over the world – Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and finally to Brown’s new home for Public Health at 121 South Main Street.
Baylin received her training in nutritional epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and did postdoctoral research there as well. Her training in nutritional, genetic, and cardiovascular disease epidemiology has made her a leader in the field of nutritional epidemiology. She joined Brown’s faculty during the spring semester of 2006.
Nationally and internationally known as the author of more than 25 papers on epidemiology, Baylin is a welcome addition to Brown's Department of Community Health and the University’s increasing investment in public health. Her research focuses on the interaction between genes and diet on the risk of myocardial infarction, for which she was awarded an American Heart Association Fellowship in 2004.
Her field also concerns “nutrigenomics” – the emerging study of the intersection of nutrition and genomics – in the hope that one day it might be possible to inform dietary guidelines based on genetic background.
What got her hooked on nutrition? Well, she comments, the subject does come up at least three times a day: “I like eating,” she says. “We are what we eat.”
– Molly de Ramel
Robert Goldberg, professor of epidemiology in the Department of Community Health, is researching ways to improve the coronary heart disease rate in the local Rhode Island communities.
“I am involved in a number of heart disease surveillance projects in the areas of heart attacks and congestive heart failure as well as a variety of primary and secondary prevention studies of heart disease,” he said. “Part of my research involves looking at a number of studies that take a broad population perspective into the magnitude, outcomes and management of some of the nation’s leading killers, namely heart attacks and heart failure.”
Goldberg’s research goal is to prevent the occurrence of these conditions or modify their natural history, which would lead to better treatment. “Ultimately, I want to improve people’s prognosis or enhance their quality of life once they’ve been diagnosed with these conditions.”
Goldberg received a Ph.D. in epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. He is internationally recognized for his work in cardiovascular epidemiologic research, having served as principal investigator on multiple projects funded by the National Institutes of Health. Goldberg initiated the Worcester Heart Attack Study, ongoing since the late 1970s, to examine the incidence, survival rates and management of acute myocardial infarction in residents of the Worcester metropolitan area. Findings from this landmark study, which is viewed as one of the premier epidemiologic studies of heart disease in the United States, have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He is also leading a project titled “Community Trends in Heart Failure,” which was initiated with funding from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“What most attracts me is that [Brown is] making steps toward creating a separate school of public health and I think that is very important. I am phenomenally excited to be one of the groundbreaking faculty who will be making teaching and research commitments to that new school, the community and the state of Rhode Island, and certainly to the nation as a whole. To be training graduate students, junior faculty and others in epidemiology and preventive medicine – that is what really excites me about Brown.”
– Amy Morton
Stephen Porder wants to create a new course at Brown, one that explores the intersection of science and policy. It’s a timely topic. The issue of how evolution is taught in public schools has hit courts across the country, and the Bush administration’s relationship with science and scientists on issues ranging from AIDS to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has resulted in front-page headlines in the New York Times.
Porder’s interest in politics and science, however, stretches back a decade. While pursuing a master’s degree in geology at the University of Montana, Porder went to hear a lecture by acclaimed biologist E.O. Wilson. When asked how scientists could most effectively trod onto policy turf, Wilson said: Become an expert first. Fast-forward five years to Stanford University, where Porder was pursing a Ph.D. in biology under the guidance of renowned ecologist Peter Vitousek. Porder was on his way to expert status – and decided to wade into politics.
Porder became active in public policy because he believed the Bush Administration was suppressing or distorting environmental science. In 2003, he joined with a handful of Stanford students and did what scientists do: Test their hypothesis. The students analyzed all sorts of data – presidential statements, Congressional reports, agency policies – on issues ranging from the Endangered Species Act to clean air standards. They concluded that the administration was misusing scientific findings. They wrote a statement saying so, got nearly 2,000 scientists to sign it, and posted it on a Web site. They also wrote letters to Nature and an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle and they did a series of radio interviews to spread their message.
Last year, after a Congressional report on the topic, a lively debate in the science press, and a full-blown campaign by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the students decided they’d done what they could.
“The issue was out there,” Porder said. “I’d never say we put it on the collective radar screen, but we were part of the effort. I’m proud of that. To serve science, and society, you need to speak out about what is true.”
Porder’s own research on how tropical plants get and use nutrients can inform land use and conservation policy. Fertility depends on soil nutrients and Porder is particularly interested in figuring out where, and why, certain tropical landscapes are more fertile than others. The sources of these nutrients are varied, from the rock below the soil to dust in the air. For example, globetrotting Gobi desert dust feeds old Hawaiian forests, dust from the Sahara fertilizes the Amazon, and volcanic activity in Costa Rica provides lowland forests there with a relative abundance of nutrients.
To understand nutrient supply and demand, Porder has traveled to some of the world’s most important – and scenic – ecosystems. The work that he and others do in the field may help policy-makers determine which tropical forests, if any, are fertile enough to withstand land use change and which are likely to be the most fragile in the face of human activity.
Porder will join the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in December and is one of two new faculty hires under the University’s Environmental Change Initiative. The 34-year-old also plans to be an active member of the Center for Environmental Studies.
“At Brown, I want to continue to be engaged in national and global issues,” he said. “At the ECI and the CES, we’re poised to do that.”
– Wendy Y. Lawton
When it comes to biology, Robert Reenan is an omnivore. His work has touched on aging and addiction, gene repair and cell communication. He has experimented with yeast, bacteria, flies. He has dabbled in pesticide resistance and helped discover one of the first genes that extends lifespan.
Fascinated by both the grand sweep of evolutionary biology and the infinitesimal records written in genes, the 44-year-old likens himself to a 12-year-old.
“You want to understand how something works so you break it open,” he laughs. “I like to take apart processes. But I am also interested in history, in how things came to be. One way to understand a process, biological or otherwise, is to know how it began.”
For several years, Reenan has focused his research attention on a phenomenon known as RNA editing. To understand the process, it helps to think of DNA as a recipe for a protein. These protein recipes, however, aren’t always strictly followed. Sometimes, they get tweaked, or edited, after cells copy DNA to RNA. Typically, only a single letter of genetic code is changed. Tiny changes, however, can produce big effects. Editing can cause disease. And it can alter anatomy or behavior, biological differences that create the invisible barriers between species.
The type of editing Reenan studies appears to act on genes that help brain cells send and receive electrical and chemical signals – in short, the genes that make thought possible.
To better understand how this editing works, Reenan studied 34 species of insects – butterflies, ants, flies, mosquitoes, moths – and how they edited synaptotagmin 1 – syt – a gene that helps control the speed of nerve cell signaling.
Reenan had previously shown that fruit flies edit syt. Now he wanted to know whether other insects edited the gene and, if they did, whether the insects altered their protein recipes the same way. What Reenan found was a surprise. Each species altered the same genetic recipe in different ways, which may be the source of differences in chemical signaling in these insects’ brains.
Reenan went on to compare the genomes of these different insects, tracing variations back 250 million years, when syt was first edited. Nature published the results last year.
A Harvard-trained biochemist, Reenan spent the last decade conducting his wide-ranging research and teaching genetics at the University of Connecticut Health Center. At Brown, Reenan will continue his editing work as a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry. He hopes to teach genetics here, too.
“Editing can be found in every animal – flies and fish, squid and humans – and it is an important process for modifying behavior,” he said. “I’d like to know how many genes are edited in a genome. I’d like to know why editing is good for a species. Lots of stories to tell.”
– Wendy Y. Lawton
Amal Trivedi found his calling as a third-year medical student hustling the halls of a sprawling Los Angeles hospital. Like all doctors-in-training, Trivedi was getting his first taste of bedside care by shadowing UCLA doctors as they practiced their specialties – surgery, pediatrics, psychiatry. During a rotation with cardiologists, Trivedi noticed something disturbing.
Patients who came into the hospital with the same symptoms of chest pain or irregular heartbeat – the hallmarks of a heart attack – got different treatments. One group of patients, mostly whites with health insurance, were cared for by experienced physicians that made up the hospital’s private service. Those patients got angioplasty, a life-saving procedure that opens blocked arteries. The others, mostly minority patients without insurance, were treated by medical residents staffing the public service. Those patients got a blood-clot busting drug, which, while effective, can cause life-threatening bleeding.
Why, Trivedi wondered, were there two standards of care for heart attack victims? Who decided which patients would be assigned to the two hospital services? And why did separate services for care exist in the first place?
“What I saw went against my notion of fairness,” Trivedi said. “And as I went through medical school, I saw that this wasn’t an isolated incident. Different standards of care existed with other medical treatments. You could even see differences just by walking into a hospital. Go to the emergency room in the county hospital and it’s overcrowded. There can be delays in even getting an X-ray.”
Trivedi’s research passion is understanding and addressing disparities in medical care. From the start, he knew he’d need to study public health and public policy to grasp why race – and ethnicity, language, geography, gender and income – matters and how to create equality in the health care system. So after graduating from UCLA, Trivedi earned a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard University then stayed on to serve as a social medicine research fellow.
Trivedi’s biggest research splash so far is a study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine. The work painted a nuanced picture of the equity issue.
After studying the health records of thousands of elderly patients compiled by the federal government over a seven-year period, Trivedi and his team found that the racial gap had narrowed for clinical performance for people with diabetes and high blood pressure and cholesterol. Doctors, they found, over time increasingly ordered appropriate tests or prescribed effective drugs for patients regardless of race. But the racial gap persisted when it came to the bottom line – health outcomes. Blacks were still more likely to have out-of-control blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and elevated levels of blood sugar after treatment. The news was picked up nationally, landing on National Public Radio, the New York Times and the front page of the Washington Post.
As an assistant professor of community health at Brown, Trivedi will continue his disparities research. The 33-year-old will also teach a graduate course on quality of care and also see patients at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“We know that disparities exist in health care and we are getting a better understanding of why they exist,” Trivedi said. “It’s multifactorial, from issues of literacy and access to care to racial bias. One powerful way to address the inequities, I believe, is to look at systems of care. The coordinated care practiced by health maintenance organizations – where treatment guidelines are in place for all patients – may provide some powerful lessons.”
– Wendy Y. Lawton
Daniel Weinreich comes to Brown from Harvard University, where he was a postdoctoral research associate, but this is not his first encounter. In 1998 he served as a postdoctoral research associate at Brown, working with David Rand in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Weinreich received his B.S. in computer science with honors from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor in 1983 and his Ph.D. in evolutionary genetics from Harvard University in 1998. He draws on expertise in population genetics and computational, molecular, microbial and protein biology to explicate the Darwinian paradigm in fundamental terms. He is interested particularly in the theoretical and empirical connection between functional interactions of loci and genomes and genetic constraints on evolution by natural selection. He will be joining Brown’s growing Center for Computational Molecular Biology.
Mark Zervas was always interested in science, then he got a job as an EMT in Boston, on the night shift. That got him hooked on genetics and cell biology and diseases of the human brain – especially schitzophrenia. “Because of the complexity of it,” he says, ”I studied in between calls.”
At Brown, he will tackle the brain’s earliest development, asking the most fundamental of questions: “How do you take a poorly designed structure to get the complex structure that is the adult brain?” In finding out, he looks at the process between embryogenesis and the final product in adults by marking cells and following them in vivo as they develop, expand and connect with other cell types. The process is called genetic inducible fate mapping (GIFM).
Zervas received his B.S. at the University of Massachusetts–Boston in 1993 and received both his Master of Science (1996) and his Ph.D. (2000) from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is currently a NIH postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Developmental Genetics Program at Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, NYU School of Medicine. He plans to investigate Wnt1 function in MB/aHb development and dopaminergic neuron development by generating a conditional Wnt1 allele. He is the recipient of the NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service award.
Zervas has published more than 20 articles and abstracts. He’ll tackle his work at the Laboratories for Molecular Medicine on Ship Street, taking fate mapping “to the next level.”
– Molly de Ramel