Brandeis at 75

‘Science Was More Intellectually Stimulating’

Part of Exceptional Results

In 1986, Roderick MacKinnon ’78, H’05, faced a professional crisis. He’d gone to medical school, and practiced medicine as an intern and a resident for three years. And he’d discovered he didn’t want to be a doctor.

“Medicine was interesting,” he says he realized. “But science was more intellectually stimulating.”

He went to see his undergraduate mentor, biochemistry professor Christopher Miller, for advice. It was in Miller’s lab that MacKinnon, as a junior, began the research that would eventually earn him the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Miller told MacKinnon he could rejoin his lab as a postdoc, an offer MacKinnon eagerly accepted.

“Chris’ enthusiasm was infectious,” MacKinnon says. “He was clearly having fun. When things got you down, he’d say, ‘Be a happy warrior.’”

Several years later, MacKinnon moved to Harvard, then to The Rockefeller University, where he is now the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor, directing a molecular neurobiology and biophysics lab. He’s also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

He won the Nobel for work that revealed the structure of ion channels, openings in cell membranes that enable ions (atoms or molecules with an electrical charge) to flow in and out of cells. The channels are critical for transmitting electrical signals between nerve and muscle cells, and regulate a raft of physiological processes, from muscle contractions to heartbeat.

When MacKinnon worked with Miller as an undergrad, Miller had only recently arrived at Brandeis. His lab consisted of one technician (and Miller’s dog made regular appearances). As a result, MacKinnon got to do advanced work and handle research tasks typically assigned to graduate students.

“Rod had this amazing intelligence,” Miller says. “What arose from it was not ambition for fame and riches, but a raw curiosity about how nature works, this broad scientific intellectualism.”

At the time, Miller’s research focused on the selectivity of ion channels — specifically, why they let in potassium molecules while forbidding entry to sodium molecules. When MacKinnon returned as a postdoc, Miller was looking at why a molecule found in scorpion venom blocked ion-channel passage. He had a hunch the venom acted like a cork in a bottle. MacKinnon helped prove him right, which in turn helped researchers understand how ion channels selectively filter the flow of potassium.

MacKinnon eventually determined the three-dimensional structure of the potassium ion channel. His recent work focuses on how mutations in ion channels lead to a wide range of diseases, including neurological and cardiovascular disorders.

“Brandeis was a really good place for me,” MacKinnon says. “Had I not had that experience with Chris Miller, who knows how my life would have turned out.”