Applying Chemical and Physical Methods to Understand the Complexity of Biology – 1/6

[MUSIC PLAYING] BARBARA IMPERIALI: I'm the class
of 1922 professor of chemistry and biology at MIT. I run a pretty nice-sized
research program including about 10 co-workers. Currently, my group is housed
in the Department of Biology. And my overall research
program and goals at how MIT are to apply
chemical and physical methods to understand the
complexity of biology. I'm homegrown at MIT. So I got my PhD at MIT in
synthetic organic chemistry. And then after a few
years away at Caltech, I moved back to MIT in 1999. My overall research
really focuses on what people joke as being the
third half of the genetic code. So the first half of the
genetic code is gene sequence. The second half is protein
sequence and folding. But the third half really is
modifications of proteins.

And so what my
group tries to do is apply innovative chemical
and physical methods to understand the repercussions
of protein modification in a large array of
different transformations. But my group specifically
focuses on two processes– glycosylation, which
is the attachment of sugars to proteins,
and phosphorylation, which is the attachment
of phosphates to proteins. And both are fascinating
processes in their own right. And we really run a
synergistic program where we developed
tools and apply them specifically in
these research areas to provide new
fundamental insight, but also provide new tools
for people in the community to use in their own systems.

I love communicating the
excitement of science and how much activity there
is at the current time. How we are now able
to delve into problems we never thought feasible to
even tackle because of advances in technology. And so during my
time at MIT, I've taught both undergraduate
organic chemistry and now I'm teaching– this
is my third year of teaching undergraduate general biology. And that's a course all majors– everyone at MIT,
rather– has to take. And many of the engineers
go into this course somewhat unwillingly. But I really try to open to
them the reality that together, science and engineering can
solve or at least provide insight into some of
nature and medicine's most fundamental problems. So teaching to me is
my way of realizing how spectacular biology
is, communicating it, but also communicating that we
are starting to understand it at such a molecular level.

We're gaining a lot of control
on understanding issues that face human health. I think it really
makes them realize after taking the class
that biology isn't just cutting up frogs on a
dissection table anymore. It's really molecular and
it's really physical methods to really see
molecules in action and understand processes
at a much more atomic level than ever thought possible. So modern biology looks so
different from old school biology. It's something we
want them to realize. And their gains
a lot of interest from not just the scientists,
but the engineers as well.

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