Awardee Profile - Bryan Sutton

Understanding the Landscape of the Neuron

2002 - What began as an unusual hobby became a life-directing pursuit for Bryan Sutton, one of Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s 2000 Career Awardees in Biomedical Sciences.

It is not the ingenious science this researcher is involved in, but rather his interest in playing the bagpipes, that topped his priority list in seeking a university faculty position.As a dedicated bagpipe player, Sutton decided, “Every place I picked had to have a good bagpipe band."

Dr. Sutton, who is currently a research associate in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University, began playing the pipes in college at North Carolina State University.

Dr. Bryan Sutton, in full regalia, performs on the bagpipes“I knew I wanted to play an instrument, and I wanted to play something different,” Sutton explains. “As much as I like science, it is stressful. When I’m playing the pipes I don’t think of science or writing grants or experiments, and that is absolutely required in my life right now. I need to do something that is not science.”

Sutton became interested in science in junior high when he joined the Junior Curator program at the Natural History Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“It was my first break into science,” Sutton says of the program, “along with the television shows “Cosmos” and Carl Sagan, who was infectious in the way he presented popular science. I think he spawned a lot of careers.”

As an undergraduate student at N.C. State, Sutton majored in biochemistry and worked in various labs.

“I worked in the genetics department doing dishes, then making buffers, eventually I was doing developmental biology with Drosophila,” Sutton says.

After graduating Sutton took a job as a lab technician in Houston, Texas, at The University of Texas System Health Science Center eventually moving to Dallas to take a job at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

“I heard that a structural biology lab at Southwestern needed a technician, so I interviewed for a job there and got it,” Sutton explains. “I very quickly crystallized two proteins: ANNEXIN IV, VI.”

Structural biology ignited Sutton in a way developmental biology never had; he had stumbled upon his field of interest.

“My boss at Southwestern threw a graduate school application at me and told me to fill it out. I started graduate school at the University of Texas- Southwestern,” Sutton explains. “There are a certain personality and temperament required to do structural biology, and there is an aspect of fortune-telling to it. I’ve been very successful at it.”

While understanding how flies developed held little intrigue for Sutton, deducing the structure of a protein fascinated him.

“When I succeed at developing a structure that nobody in all humanity has ever seen, I get a thrill from it,” Suttons says with a light in his eyes. “It must be like what people who discovered the New World must have felt like. That is what excites me; what keeps me here.”Sutton grins to himself at the thought and continues, “It’s a fundamental thing for people who are built to do science. It’s the feeling of discovery that all scientists crave, either the direct feeling or the desire to have that feeling again.”

After completing his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Sutton went on to do postdoctoral research at Yale University in the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry. Sutton then accepted his current position as a research associate in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. Currently, Sutton works to uncover the structure of an enzyme that is responsible for the functions of neurons in the brain. Specifically, Sutton works to crystallize the ATPase responsible for dissembling the SNARE complex.

When a protein enters the neuron it is introduced in the form of a vesicle. The vesicle must fuse with the cell in order to unload its contents into the neural channel to allow neurons to communicate. SNARE proteins, which make up the SNARE complex, mediate membrane fusion between the outer vesicle membrane the inner neural membrane. The SNARE proteins have been shown to be the minimal fusion machinery needed for controlled cell membrane fusion.

 “I am trying to understand the landscape of the neuron. Once we understand how it works we can design drugs to control fusion events,” Sutton explains. “This will lead to the design of better therapeutic drugs for neurological diseases, which there is a great deal of interest in right now. But only when we know what’s going on an atomic level will we really be able to help. Right now it’s pretty much a shotgun design.

"My research is fundamental to neurobiology and to understanding the larger picture.”

For Sutton, the BWF grant has opened up a lot of employment opportunities. “I find that departments separate me out from the rest of the crowd. The hiring committee sees the BWF award and that automatically puts me at the top of the pile,” Sutton states. “It’s really prestigious and I am honored to be able to get it. It’s very competitive out there; good faculty positions are few and far between. This award gives me a lot of negotiating possibilities.”

Careful not to assume all his success is of his own doing, Sutton also credits his collaborators, mentors, and peers with helping him down his career path.“I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” Sutton says gratefully. “I’ve been put with people that are really bright. My own experience is important but the people you collaborate with are a large fraction of any success you may have. I’ve been lucky at Yale and Stanford to be surrounded by these people all the time as well as great facilities."

Questions for Dr. Roger Sutton:

Name:  Roger Bryan Sutton, Ph.D.
Title:  Research Associate, Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology
Recipient:  2000 Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences
Affiliation:  Stanford University Medical Center

What kind of advice would you give a scientist just entering academic research?

Be aware that what you do early may not translate into what you do later. In graduate and undergraduate school I studied ion channels and it bored me. But now looking at the structural end I am getting intimate with ion channels.

It is important to ally yourself with people you respect. They can help you avoid a lot of pitfalls. Gone is the day of the gentleman scientist. Science is a very political endeavor. If you know people who have successfully navigated the political minefields then you should try to pattern your career after these successful scientists.

If you had unlimited resources, what one big scientific question would you pursue?

Structural biology and membrane protein desperately need to be understood, but it requires quite a bit of time and resources. I wish I just could continue to work on membrane proteins. This grant affords me time and money to try to tackle seemingly hopeless projects.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment? Why?

Getting involved in the field I am in right now and becoming successful at it. Structural biology is not an easy field to get into. As an undergraduate student, there is not a lot of training having to do with structural biology. It is more mathematical, on the other fringe of biology from pure biologists.

Who do you admire? Why?

In general, I admire people who are technically excellent in anything. For a big part of my life, I have been involved with music. I enjoy the music of people who technically expresses the music well. It’s the same in science; to be technically excellent really impresses me.

What do you do for fun?

I play the bagpipes. The pipes also have a cultural heritage connection for me because my family came from Britain.

What do you plan to do when you retire?

I still want to play the bagpipes; I will play them forever. I’d like to be an emeritus faculty member that still hangs out in the departments, knows the literature, and is interested in the undergraduates. I realize that science is a very progressive field and I would like to continue to keep up with the newest science. I plan to have a cup of coffee every day and talk to the newest faculty members. And I’ll play golf.

What is your favorite book?

Civil Disobedience by, Henry David Thoreau, which I read in Western Literature class in college. It was the book that meant the most to me; it had the most impact. It was one the first epiphanies I had that put me in a transition that meant a lot the rest of my life. After reading that book it was clear that you don’t have to take things as they are presented to you. The government is not a stone monument to be worshipped; you can change it if you want to.