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Chemist Carolyn Bertozzi on bridging chemistry and medicine

Professor Carolyn Bertozzi sees Stanford ChEM-H as an ideal place for experts in chemistry, biology and engineering to join forces to improve the practice of medicine.

L.A. Cicero
Sep 27 2018

As chemist Carolyn Bertozzi takes on a new role as Baker Family Co-Director, Stanford ChEM-H, she talks about bridging gaps between chemistry research and medical practice and preparing graduate students for the future.

BY NATHAN COLLINS

Carolyn Bertozzi, a professor of chemistry, is best known for the development of bioorthogonal chemistry, a set of techniques that allow researchers to watch molecules perform their functions within living things without interfering with the native biology. That discovery launched her to the top of her field, where she’s remained for more than two decades.

In 2015, Bertozzi moved her lab to Stanford to become part of Stanford ChEM-H, an initiative spearheaded by Chaitan Khosla, a professor of chemical engineering and chemistry, to bridge chemistry, engineering and medicine to better understand and ultimately help improve human health. Almost as soon as she arrived, Bertozzi launched the Chemistry/Biology Interface predoctoral training program, which aims to train graduate students who are fluent in chemistry, biology and related fields and who can serve as bridges between those fields – something that is not as common as either Khosla or Bertozzi would like.

Earlier this year, Bertozzi joined Khosla as ChEM-H’s Baker Family Co-Director. She talked to the Stanford News Service about why she came to Stanford and what she hopes to accomplish in her new role.

 

You spent almost all of your academic career at the University of California, Berkeley, first as a graduate student and later as a professor of chemistry. Why did you want to become part of Stanford ChEM-H?

I have self-identified as a chemical biologist since the very beginning of my PhD training at UC Berkeley, and I was fortunate to do that training in an environment that, back in the 1980s, was an epicenter at which chemistry and biology were converging.

But as time went on, I became more and more interested in taking the basic science we had learned and the technologies we developed closer to impacting human health. I thought: Stanford is one of the few places where a basic scientist is so physically close to a clinical scientist that they can readily learn from each other – where I could learn about unmet needs in medicine first hand, as opposed to simply reading about them.

 

What do you hope to accomplish now that you’ve joined Chaitan Khosla as ChEM-H’s co-director?

Right now, Chaitan and I are working side by side to continue building the institute. For example, we’re running two junior faculty searches this year. One of those is targeted at basic science and engineering broadly defined, but the other is targeted at a physician-scientist, and that is an important first step in what I see as a longer-term initiative aimed at strengthening the bridge between basic science and clinical practice here at Stanford.

 

What are some of the ways you are trying to strengthen those bridges?

We’re trying to help our scientists overcome the hurdles and speed bumps associated with testing molecular hypotheses in human subjects, so we hired a clinical research coordinator, Martina Steffen, to help us get over that hump, and we launched a seed grant program to help our faculty refine their research questions and to prioritize how we deploy our resources in this regard.

But I am also interested in innovative “social engineering” activities that we can pursue here at Stanford in order to engage physicians who treat patients in a closer dialogue with the basic scientists. Our researchers with laboratories and computational tools might not be aware of many real-world problems that are right across the street from them.

And we want it to go both ways. On the one hand, right now Stanford has a strong culture of basic scientists knocking on the doors of their clinical colleagues to try to form collaborations. I think that mentality is very much in the water here at Stanford. But it seems less common for doctors who are wrangling with a patient treatment or diagnosis challenge to recruit basic scientists and engineers onto their patient’s team. I would like to think about how ChEM-H can facilitate more outreach in that direction.

 

You’ve focused a lot of energy on helping to train graduate students in ChEM-H’s way of thinking, in particular through the Chemistry/Biology Interface training program. What other educational initiatives are you thinking about?

We are interested in developing training programs in science communication for our students. This is a very important skill if you want to have impact in science and in society at large.

It is also very important for our students to acquire depth and apply the highest levels of scholarship in more than one field – to be bilingual, so to speak.  This might mean becoming accomplished in chemistry and biology, or in basic and translational science, or in engineering and medicine.  Also, the ability to function within several different disciplinary cultures requires excellent communication skills, to further add to that point.

 

What else is ChEM-H up to?

I think ChEM-H is going to grow and evolve organically, propelled by the ideas, needs and passions of the people we hire. We have three people who arrived during the last year, and one of them, Michael Fischbach, is already spearheading an initiative in microbiome science.

And we just brought in Jonathan Long and Laura Dassama over the last six months. They are looking at Stanford with fresh eyes, and I will be seeking their input: What do we need? What should we be doing? So we hire really great people and we listen to them. That’s my vision. Hire really good people and listen to them.

 

Bertozzi is also the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Child Health Research Institute, the Stanford Cancer Institute, and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. Khosla is also the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor in the School of Engineering and a member of Bio-X, the Child Health Research Institute, the Stanford Cancer Institute and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.