July 2012

From zinc fingers to ASBMB

Photo of Jeremy Berg

I am pleased to introduce myself as the 83rd president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. My formal training is primarily in chemistry, although my research interests shifted toward biochemistry and molecular biology early in my career. As someone trained in inorganic chemistry studying the structures of DNA-binding proteins as a postdoctoral fellow, the proposal that certain eukaryotic DNA-binding proteins contained zinc fingers, structural domains organized around bound zinc ions, captured my attention, and much of my early independent research was devoted to understanding the structures and the metal- and nucleic-acid-binding properties of zinc-finger domains. These studies expanded in many directions, including the use of protein-sequence databases for detecting structural domains, the thermodynamics of protein folding and secondary structure preferences, and protein design. In addition to studying zinc-binding domains involved in a range of macromolecular interactions, my research also has involved intracellular targeting processes, particularly to peroxisomes, and the uses of proteins constructed from all D amino acids.

I had a tremendous opportunity early in my career to become involved in administration and leadership when I became director of the biophysics and biophysical chemistry department at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. My primary goal as director was to build up a strong department from a small but solid core. I am very proud of the accomplishments of both the faculty members who already were present and the newer recruits who have developed into outstanding independent scientists and educators. In my role as director, I also had opportunities to participate in schoolwide activities, including serving as chair of the Professorial Promotions Committee and as an adviser to the newly formed Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association. These experiences broadened my appreciation for the lives and challenges of the diverse people who drive the research enterprise. Throughout my time at Johns Hopkins, I was deeply involved in teaching, first with undergraduates and graduate students when I was in the chemistry department and then with graduate students and medical students when I moved to the School of Medicine. I always found teaching to be a satisfying and rewarding experience. Courtesy of my undergraduate research experiences at Stanford University in Lubert Stryer’s laboratory, I also had an opportunity to contribute to the education of students in a different way when I took over as the lead author on Stryer’s textbook “Biochemistry.”

After 13 years as department director, I had another great opportunity, this time to become the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. NIGMS is the institute at NIH that is most focused on the fundamental mechanisms that underlie life processes, including many aspects of biochemistry and molecular biology. NIGMS had supported my research throughout my career as a graduate student, postdoctoral fellow and faculty member. In my role as NIGMS director, I had a great vantage point from which to view the biomedical research enterprise, from the most basic studies through a range of clinical and translational investigations. I also led efforts to examine key aspects of training and student development; NIGMS plays a leading role in promoting research training through a range of institutional programs, including the combined M.D./Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program and a variety of programs intended to increase the diversity of the biomedical work force. I also participated in key NIH-wide activities, including the Enhancing Peer Review initiative and the Women in Biomedical Careers working group. As someone who went into the NIH from the outside, from where I saw the NIH largely as a black box, I worked on improving transparency and communication between NIGMS and members of the scientific community, including through the first blog written by an NIH institute director, the NIGMS Feedback Loop. About one year ago, I moved with my wife, Wendie, and the youngest of our three children to join the University of Pittsburgh, where I am now the associate senior vice-chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences and a faculty member in the computational and systems biology department.

Being elected to serve as president of the ASBMB presents another great opportunity for me. Biochemistry and molecular biology and related disciplines are thriving. Our growing body of knowledge and powerful technologies and concepts are driving these fields forward into a range of areas, including biomedicine but also the generation of sustainable energy and food sources, forensics, anthropology and many other disparate fields.

The society is also in excellent shape due to the work of its strong professional staff, adept leadership from previous presidents — including, most recently, Suzanne Pfeffer — and the hard work of the members who actively participate in society activities. I, along with those of you who were able to attend, witnessed this directly at the annual meeting in April in San Diego.

Nonetheless, these are challenging times for members of the society. Appropriations for the NIH have been below inflation for nearly a decade, leading to substantial decreases in buying power for funded researchers. Appropriations for the National Science Foundation have been increasing, but the competition for these funds across fields of science is fierce. These relatively flat budgets and other factors connected to the economic downturn and slow recovery are revealing that there are not currently enough sources of financial support available for the number of scientists competing for resources and being trained. These are fundamentally systems problems, and many groups must contribute to finding sensible and effective approaches for dealing with them. As ASBMB members, we must engage among ourselves and with other groups to work on these issues. I hope that you will feel free to share your thoughts on these and other issues with me as we move forward together.


Photo of Jeremy BergJeremy Berg (jberg@pitt.edu) is the associate senior vice-chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences and a faculty member in the computational and systems biology department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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