Photo courtesy of Shaogeng Tang

Prof. Jeremy Baskin in his lab

September 6, 2016

THE SCIENTIST | Cornell University Professor Cures Diseases Using Chemical Biology

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Prof. Jeremy Baskin, chemistry and chemical biology and a member of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, works with his multidisciplinary team of students to combat disease in a unique way. Baskin was recently named a Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences, an award that recognizes exceptional and creative researchers researchers at Cornell.

Baskin’s trajectory as a researcher began when he moved from his family home in Montreal, Canada in 2000 to start his undergraduate degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with minors in biology and music in 2004.

He quickly got involved in organic chemistry research while at MIT, and his passion for chemistry was affirmed as he worked alongside graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. However, his focus shifted toward chemical biology when he took a class in biochemistry as an undergraduate.

According to Baskin, chemical biology is a term that has many meanings depending on whom you ask.

“I subscribe to a view of chemical biology as chemists making probes that can be used to study biological systems,” Baskin said.

Baskin combined his training in organic chemistry with his newfound interest in chemical biology when he moved west to complete his Ph.D in chemistry at University of California, Berkeley.

His doctoral research involved creating molecules with specific reactivity and using them to tag sugary molecules on the surface of human cells. These tagged sugar molecules can then be tracked through imaging as they move during physiological processes, potentially leading to important knowledge about topics such as development or cancer.

Despite his fascination with his doctoral research, Baskin’s mindset shifted again when it was time to apply to postdoctoral research positions. He considered how to best be prepared for the type of multidisciplinary lab that he wanted to create.

“I viewed the postdoctoral appointment as an opportunity to learn something completely different from my graduate training,” Baskin said.

This attitude led Baskin to accept a research position at Yale School of Medicine in a cell biology lab. He was exposed to a biology research environment for the first time at Yale, and he learned to think about science in a new way.

“Organic chemists are very much like little molecular engineers. We design things that we think will have certain properties and then we go about figuring out how to make them,” Baskin said. “In cell biology, the system is already made for us through millions of years of evolution, and the challenge is figuring out how it works.”

At Yale, Baskin studied lipid signaling molecules, which according to him are important in a wide variety of human processes from activating enzymes to causing cells to migrate. His goal was to understand the basic metabolism of a particular important signaling lipid.

As Baskin continued to study this signaling lipid he began to uncover possible connections to disease. He hadn’t expected these connections, but they were so interesting that he decided to pursue them.

“Sometimes when you’re doing research you have to have a clear focus…and you don’t want to get distracted by all of the shiny bright objects that are off the path,” Baskin said. “But other times you have to be open minded.”

The connection that Baskin had uncovered was to a type of leukodystrophy, a group of genetic diseases that prevent the body from producing or maintaining myelin — a compound that protects nerves in the brain. He discovered that the mutations in the gene that caused this leukodystrophy were linked closely to the signaling lipid he had been studying.

Baskin continued research in this area when he came to Cornell in August 2015. His research group focuses on chemical biology projects such as developing new imaging probes that will allow them to image the remyelination of nerves and the behavior of lipids in cells. They hope to use these tools to search for new treatments for diseases like leukodystrophies or multiple sclerosis.

Baskin’s group approaches this problem from multiple disciplines. They focus on biology projects such as studying proteins that are connected to lipid metabolism, myelination, and multiple sclerosis.

“What I’m trying to establish in my lab at Cornell is an environment where the chemistry and biology projects can inform one another and build off one another,” Baskin said.

Baskin’s research group includes graduate students from the chemistry and biochemistry, molecular and cell biology departments as well as undergraduate students from both the chemistry and biology majors.

Baskin regards teaching as an important part of his work in chemistry, and in the last year he has discovered how much he enjoys watching students develop as scientists.

“There are students in my lab who are at various stages in their careers, and it really brings me great joy to have a scientific discussion with them and have them bring up outstanding ideas that I hadn’t thought of,” Baskin said.

In addition to the time he spends with his students, Baskin enjoys his research because of the rush he experiences when he uncovers something new.

“The thrill of discovery is really, really fun. It doesn’t happen every day, but you push forward because you remember what it was like and you want that feeling again,” Baskin said. “There’s nothing I want more than for all the students in my lab to experience that.”