February 2011

Ruma V. Banerjee and Stephen W. Ragsdale: deciphering sulfur and carbon metabolism

Model describing redox and heme-dependent regulation of the Ca activated voltage gated potassium channel (BK channel) and heme oxygenase-2. When O2 levels are high, the redox switches in HO2 and the BK channel are in the disulfide state where HO2 binds heme tightly and has high heme degradation activity, producing CO which activates the BK channel. Under hypoxic conditions, the redox switches on both proteins are in the reduced state, which decreases HO2's ability to degrade heme lowering CO levels, while the increased affinity of the BK channel for heme leads to its inhibition. Reference: Yi, L., et al (2010) J. Biol. Chem. 285, 20117-20127.

Convergent evolutions

If one subscribes to the theory that opposites attract, then certainly Banerjee and Ragsdale were destined to find a spark from the moment they met, as their histories up to that point were a contrast in styles if ever one existed.

Banerjee, for her part, had quite a transient youth; as the daughter of a general in the Indian army, her family moved around quite a bit across the country, and she had attended 10 different schools by the time she was getting ready for college – a dizzying journey made even more astounding by the fact that Banerjee graduated high school at the age of 14.

Despite this constant fluidity, her goals solidified early on, and by the time Banerjee was 11, she had developed a strong desire to pursue scientific research, which she subsequently did, obtaining a bachelor’s and master’s degree in plant science from Delhi University.

“I can’t really put my finger on any event or influence that seemed to steer me to science,” she says. “It was more of a subconscious unfolding in that I always had a sense I was going down the right path.”

Ragsdale, by comparison, grew up in rural Rome, Ga., and spent his formative years in constant intellectual flux. He did enjoy science a great deal, but the manner in which science was typically taught – involving the rote memorization of terms and concepts – kept it as a secondary interest.

“I’ve always had a mind that was better at understanding things than memorizing things,” he says. “So in high school and college I was always drawn more to arts and humanities classes, though it was really hard to corral myself to any one discipline.”

Ragsdale’s other great passion was music; in fact, he took a few years off from full-time studies at the University of Georgia to pursue a music career, singing at various bars and coffeehouses while working odd jobs to support his dreams of folk stardom.

But some chance encounters steered these distant partners a little closer together, both in physical distance and in academic fields.

Banerjee came to the United States to conduct her doctoral work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York after she met someone affiliated with the university in India who encouraged her to attend, noting it was a fine scientific institute.

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