When Rowena Matthews first envisioned what would eventually become the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan, she never pictured herself actually working there. So it is especially rewarding — and somewhat surprising — that today, nearly a decade after the idea first germinated, she is among the first faculty members of the new institute.
Matthews began her career as a biology major at Harvard, where she worked in George Wald’s lab and in 1963 published a paper describing the first G-coupled receptor, an intermediate known as R* linked to vision. Wald, who went on to win the Nobel prize four years later, “was really an inspiration to me,” Matthews says. “He really turned me on to biology.”
In 1963, Matthews and her husband headed to the University of Michigan for her graduate studies in biophysics and his medical residency. “I took a lot of physics and math,” she recalls. “I needed to understand some of the more quantitative aspects of protein function.” That led her to mechanistic studies of enzymes, which remains her specialty today. She’s been at Michigan ever since.
By the mid-’90s, Matthews was a member of the commission that recommended the Life Sciences Institute — a unique, interdisciplinary research institution that would breed increasingly collaborative projects to better link the various arms of life sciences. When the institute became a reality, Matthews was part of the search committee responsible for finding a leader for it. She remembers talking to Alan Saltiel, who became LSI’s director, and who managed to persuade Matthews that “really what I ought to do was join,” she says. “I’ve never looked back.”
While scientists and industry watchers across the country are debating the merit of such interdisciplinary institutes, Matthews doesn’t — and never did — need convincing. “Because of my own experience jumping across fields, I really thought this was the way science should be done,” she says.
Her research has seen benefits from the institute already, she adds. For a long time, she has seen what other scientists have done with knockout mice and felt that “it was fabulous, but I wouldn’t have thought that I could make a knockout mouse in my laboratory,” she says. But at LSI, Matthews’ neighbors David Ginsburg and John Lowe are resident knockout experts. With their help, “we have just knocked out one of the enzymes … thought to maintain homocystine at low levels,” Matthews says. The data gleaned from these experiments will speed her research ahead, she believes, and would never have happened if it weren’t for the interdisciplinary environment. Next up: she’s interested in tapping into the signal-transduction expertise of people like Saltiel to study phosphorylated proteins.
The key to success at these places, she says, is having the right people. “It’s very important to choose people who are interactive,” she says. “It’s hard enough to cross barriers between fields. If you sit in your office and don’t talk to people, the whole is not going to be greater than the sum of its parts.”
— Meredith Salisbury