In the tissues of human beings and many other organisms, it's the surface of the cell that allows it to sense, signal, and respond to its surroundings.
"If we can learn how to engineer cell surfaces, we can learn how to control the 'social' behavior of cells," says Carolyn Bertozzi of Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences and Physical Biosciences Divisions. "We can target tumor cells and other disease cells for diagnosis and treatment; we can insert genes into specially labeled cells; and we can design cells to join with artificial materials." The list goes on.
Only a few years after earning her doctorate, Bertozzi has become associate professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley. Her many honors include being named an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, being awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, and winning Berkeley's highest prize for teaching, the Distinguished Teaching Award.
Her work combines the disciplines of chemistry and biology, but she almost didn't become a scientist at all. She was good at so many things history, literature, music it was hard to make a choice.
On her way to graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1988, Bertozzi sang and played keyboards with a band who called themselves Bored of Education. She still occasionally plays with a rock group of chemists who get together at conferences.
It's hard to believe Carolyn Bertozzi was ever bored of anything. She grew up in a family of high achievers, among them her father, an MIT professor of physics, and her older sister, a professor of mathematics and physics at Duke, whom she thinks of as "the smarter one in the family." When Carolyn heard she'd been awarded a MacArthur fellowship, she says, "My first reaction was, they got the wrong Bertozzi."
As an undergraduate biology major she discovered organic chemistry by accident; she became entranced by it and soon changed her major to chemistry. "Molecules are as diverse as human beings. Some are high energy, others more complacent . . . strained, unpredictable, volatile, or explosive."
If Bertozzi were a molecule, she'd be one of the high-energy kind. She did research at Massachusetts General Hospital, AT&T Bell Labs, and Harvard as an undergraduate; then she came to California and received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1993. After a postdoctoral fellowship at UC San Francisco, she joined the UC Berkeley faculty and Berkeley Lab in 1996. Today she keeps 40 students and postdocs busy in a lab that takes up half a floor of Latimer Hall.
Of her affiliation with Berkeley Lab, Bertozzi says:
"the people here focus on collaborative research across many disciplines. That is a key to encouraging creative thinking."