July 2010

Getting to Know Suzanne Pfeffer


This month, Suzanne Pfeffer assumes the presidency of ASBMB. This article gives a little insight into her background and research interests. (Titled "ASBMB Presidential Primer: Suzanne Pfeffer" in print version.)


PfefferAs someone who spent most of her career in the San Francisco Bay Area, Suzanne Pfeffer definitely has developed some of that Northern California vibe. When you first meet her, adjectives like content, easy-going and laid-back quickly spring to mind.

Speak with her for a little longer, though, and you realize that Pfeffer, a professor in the department of biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine, also carries herself with a quiet confidence, as well as strong determination, two qualities that will no doubt serve her well when she takes over as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s 82nd president this month.

Pfeffer, who studies the molecular basis of membrane trafficking and Golgi function, brings several other valuable attributes to the table. She has executive experience, having served as president of the American Society for Cell Biology in 2003. She also is familiar with the ASBMB process, having previously worked on both the ASBMB council and the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board; and, she is currently organizing the 2010 ASBMB small meeting on the biochemistry of membrane traffic.

Perhaps her most critical trait, however, is an unwavering belief in her new constituency. “We’re a society to be reckoned with,” she states firmly, “and should not have to take a back seat to anyone.”

Given such a direct statement, it may be fitting that one of Pfeffer’s primary goals as ASBMB president will be to try to improve science communication. That includes ensuring that ASBMB continues its excellent work in the public affairs arena, where it can reach the ears of the policy makers, while also expanding efforts in educating the public about the importance and value of basic research.

As new ASBMB President, Suzanne Pfeffer will be working closely with Journal of Biological Chemistry Editor Herbert Tabor.

“When I travel on a train or plane I like to strike up a conversation with the person next to me, describe my work, and explain that their tax dollars paid for it,” she says. “It’s the kind of conversation all researchers should be doing when they can— the public doesn’t realize that they are supporting biomedical research. When they learn about it, they agree on its importance. We should all be thanking the public for their support.”

Pfeffer acknowledges that many scientists may be apprehensive, or uncertain, about how to be effective communicators, and already has hit the ground running in that regard. She’s begun developing templates to help guide ASBMB members in discussing their work in specific circumstances. These templates will be available in ASBMB Today and on the society’s website. Pfeffer also hopes to encourage more usage of new media, such as Wikipedia and YouTube, to get ASBMB’s message across.

It’s the kind of conversation Pfeffer had as a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. Entering college, she didn’t know much about the molecular sciences, but she knew she wanted to know what made the human body work— or in the case of diseases, what made it not work.

“But then at college, someone explained to me that what I was interested in was biochemistry, and that set up my path for my future career,” she says.

At the same time, Pfeffer believes that established researchers need to open more lines of internal communication, namely with the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that represent our next wave of scientific leaders.

“Most of our members are probably in academia, and therefore are involved in the business of training graduate students,” she says. “But are we training them the right way?”

Science has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, since Pfeffer first started conducting independent research. “Back then, researcher specialties were straightforward,” she says. “It used be ‘I worked on protein X, or pathway Y,’ for example. But, with all the information available today, and the rapid rate at which new data becomes available, we can’t do that anymore.”

“We may have identified more than 10,000 proteins,” Pfeffer continues. “But we don’t have 10,000 labs to study these proteins in detail. Now, we need to identify the most important questions and work with whatever proteins, pathways or techniques are required to answer it.”

More on Suzanne Pfeffer

Suzanne Pfeffer received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978, during which time she did undergraduate research on bacterial RNA polymerase with Michael Chamberlin and published her first scientific article, in the JBC (1). She then moved on to the University of California, San Francisco, for her graduate studies, where she was encouraged to try something new scientifically, and so began working with Regis Kelly on the biochemistry of clathrin-coated vesicles – beginning her lifelong research love of membrane trafficking. After graduating in 1982, she did a postdoc at Stanford University with James Rothman on protein sorting and transport in the Golgi, subsequently joining the Stanford faculty in 1986.

Currently, she continues to work on the molecular basis of membrane trafficking, with an emphasis on the Rab GTPases, which are key coordinators of vesicle traffic between organelles.

When she’s not hard at work in lab, Pfeffer enjoys tennis and scuba diving— the latter giving her an opportunity to meet her favorite animal, Metasepia pfefferi, also known as Pfeffer’s Flamboyant Cuttlefish.

So, Pfeffer believes it’s important that professors adjust their mentoring to train students not just on facts or methodologies, but also how to ask the right questions and to identify and solve problems.

They also need to expose students to the full range of career options available. “The statistics show that many students, even in the very top programs, are not necessarily going to continue in academia,” Pfeffer says. “And, from my own experiences at Stanford, I know that students are clamoring for more information about their future. So it’s vital that our society look at how to better prepare students and postdocs to enter the greater society as a whole.”

Pfeffer will explore the possibility of hosting some regional meetings specifically for students and postdocs to provide career-building assistance, and give the students a chance meet other students with similar, and different, interests. And, importantly, it might be a way to increase membership amongst the younger scientists, which is another major goal for Pfeffer.

“I have a lot of enthusiasm, and I like to see change happen,” Pfeffer explains in discussing all her energy and ideas even as she is just settling in to her new post. If these first few days are any indication, ASBMB does indeed have a new president to be reckoned with.


1. Pfeffer, S. R., Stahl, S. J., and Chamberlin, M. J. (1977) Binding of Escherichia coli RNA Polymerase to T7 DNA. Displacement of Holoenzyme from Promoter Complexes by Heparin. J. Biol. Chem. 252, 5403 – 5407.

Nick Zagorski (nzagorski@asbmb.org) is a science writer at ASBMB.

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