Every year, BCMB increases its list of participating faculty. This year, the two newest members, Chris Potter (Neuroscience) and Frank Bosmans (Physiology), peddled their science before a crowd of potential rotation students at the retreat. BCMB News caught up with them after the retreat to find out a little more about their backgrounds and their research.
Chris Potter’s office is sunny and airy, and has a view overlooking Washington Street, on the 4th floor of the Rangos building. Potter welcomes me into his office, and we get to chatting about his journey from grad student to BCMB faculty. “I did my graduate work at Yale, in a fly lab there. My project was to look at tumors in flies.” Upon seeing my look of confusion, he elaborates. “Flies actually do get tumors, surprisingly!” Potter moved from Yale to a postdoctoral position in another fly lab at Stanford University. His lab at Hopkins also uses Drosophila as a model system. “I do like Drosophila!” Potter exclaims. Far from tumorigenesis, his current lab is affiliated with the Department of Neuroscience. “We’ve been here for two years,” says Potter. “I started in March 2010, and then I think somehow I went through a loop-hole and didn’t get added to BCMB right away.” Happily, the situation was remedied, and Potter couldn’t be more excited. “I would LOVE to have a BCMB student,” says Potter.
His lab recently stumbled upon a biochemistry-oriented project that would be perfect for an interested rotation student. At the retreat, his talk centered around this work, which deals with pheromones. I ask him how a neuroscience lab ended up studying this topic. “It was completely unexpected,” Potter said, “We weren’t actually aiming to work on pheromones at all. The original plan was to look at a panel of different odorants and to see how [they] would give rise to attraction or repulsive behaviors.” While running controls to switch between different odorants, Potter and his group observed some unexpected behavior in their flies. After careful evaluation they determined that the food odor was stimulating flies to secrete an attractive pheromone that persisted beyond the odor’s removal. “We’d really like to figure out what the receptor is, the actual molecule that’s binding the pheromone on the fly’s antennae, you know, what is that, because I think it’s going to be something that no one’s ever seen before. We’re interested in getting into the nitty-gritty details about how the molecules are involved in these types of processes, and I think BCMB students would be perfect for that.”
In contrast to Chris Potter’s office, Frank Bosmans’ lab has a dark, yet cozy feel. In the newly renovated 2nd floor of Biophysics, Bosmans comments that he had a large part in designing the layout of the lab. In a separate room, a large machine dominates the space, presumably used for the precise measurement of electrical currents. Bosmans is truly new to Hopkins and to BCMB, having just initiated his lab in April 2012, after completing his postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH.
His PhD work was done in his home country of Belgium. He goes on to talk about some differences between graduate school in Belgium verses in the US. “We don’t have the rotation system [in Belgium] so we basically choose a lab that we think is interesting, and that’s it – you stay there for five years, so it’s kind of a blind choice. I kind of like [the rotation system].” Bosmans’ lab seems like a fun environment for a rotation. “I have some pretty cool stories to tell,” Bosmans says, “Actually once I accidentally injected myself with green mamba venom.” He laughs. “Purely accidentally but I’m still telling that story to my students. Luckily it was only my thumb… my thumb was twice the size of normal!” At this point, the reader may be wondering why Bosmans has snake venom lying around the lab. His research focuses on human sodium channels, many of which are targeted by snake, spider, and scorpion venoms. Bosmans got his start studying these molecules, and their interactions with insect sodium channels. “At the NIH I switched [from studying the toxins] to the sodium channel itself: where does this toxin bind on the sodium channel, and can we use these toxins to investigate how the sodium channel works?” He also switched from insect to mammalian sodium channels. Now, his research aims at characterizing both human sodium channels and their auxiliary subunits, which have been implicated in cardiac and epilepsy diseases. I ask what a typical rotation student could expect from his lab. He replies, “A typical rotation project involves sodium channels, which are among the fastest voltage-gated ion channels in existence, so they’re not easy to record. You take out a sodium channel from the human body and stick it into a [frog] oocyte and you can actually record pico currents, you can see it happening on the screen while you’re doing it. Throw in some molecular biology, doing mutagenesis on huge molecules… I guess that’s why I’m still doing it, I think it’s pretty cool.”