Lizbeth Hedstrom's work probes enzymes, proteins

Research could lead to greener chemistry and new ways to make antibiotics

Photos/Mike Lovett

Professor Lizbeth Hedstrom in her lab

From biowarfare to immunosuppressed populations, the work of biology professor Lizbeth Hedstrom is proving the importance of enzyme research.

Hedstrom, who earlier this month was named a  fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, partially attributes her career path to being in the right hallway at the right time.

It was May of her senior year at the University of Virginia, when her professor, Tom Cromartie, asked what she planned on doing after graduation. "When I told him that I didn't know, he showed me a book of graduate programs then made two phone calls -- one to Penn State and one to Brandeis," says Hedstrom.

She had interviews the following week, and settled on Brandeis.

"When I think about the impact that being in the right hallway at the right time has had on my life, it's just incredible," says Hedstrom.

Cromartie recalls being surprised when he learned that Hedstrom hadn't fully considered graduate school.

"This was the 1970s, a time when science careers for women were not unknown, but certainly not as common as today," says Cromartie. "I think it was a case of getting her to realize that she had the capability if she wanted to put in the time and effort, which she did."

Hedstrom says that the work currently being done in her lab can be looked at in two streams. One is understanding how a catalyst itself works, which can be important for developing new catalysts for industrial applications such as greener chemistry and newer ways to make antibiotics. Another is working to understand what parts of proteins are important for function, which in the long run will help identify what genes do.

These are very big questions in her work, she says, as the research that they do with molecules and developing inhibitors could eventually lead to development of a drug for Cryptosporidium, a leading cause of diarrhea and malnutrition in immunosuppressed populations, which can be fatal. Cryptosporidium is also listed as a potential bioterrorism agent by the Centers for Disease Control because of its possible use as a threat to water supplies.

Life in the sciences wasn't always a clear-cut path for Hedstrom, a self-proclaimed "jocky nerd," who spent her early days playing sports and reading books.

 "I discovered that I loved chemistry in college, even when the professor was horrible," says Hedstrom. "And that, I thought, was a good sign."

She particularly enjoyed organic chemistry and learning how to put molecules together.

"You could really see the relevance to drug design, which was important to me," says Hedstrom. "I don't like doing something that's so esoteric that you can't see the down-line application."

During her college summers, when many students were waiting tables and leading campfire sing-alongs, Hedstrom worked at the Fort Detrick Center for Cancer Research -- now called the National Cancer Institute at Fredrick. She admits that to this day, she's still embarrassed that when photocopying papers she omitted many of the reference pages.

"At the time I didn't realize that they were important," says Hedstrom. "Of course now I know that sometimes those can be the most important parts of a paper."

A graduate student at Brandeis in the early '80's, Hedstrom left to do post-doctoral work at MIT and University of California, San Francisco, returning to Waltham as a professor in 1992. Now, news of Hedstrom becoming an AAAS fellow - of which there are nine others currently active at Brandeis - makes her fans smile.

"One of the most rewarding things about being a teacher at the university level is to have had an influence on students who have gone on to have successful careers," says Cromartie.

Hedstrom says that she is pleased to be honored as an AAAS  Fellow because it constitutes recognition from her peers. Boris Striepen, a professor and researcher at the University of Georgia who has worked with Hedstrom for many years, refers to her as a first rate chemist with a deep understanding of biology.

"It's this ability to bridge disciplines that was key to her tremendous success in building and leading programs that develop drugs for parasitic diseases," says Striepen. "I cannot think of a researcher more deserving of this honor."

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