Awardee Profile - Michael Black

Michael Black

Studying Cell Transport to Stop Parasite Invasion
Dr. Michael Black

July 2001 - Movement of traffic in cells is like an airport terminal. There is a constant flow of proteins, lipids, and sugars being taxied, loaded, or unloaded in and out of cells. Closely regulated cellular trafficking is essential for cell survival; and it is these cellular traffic patterns that have sparked the curiosity of Dr. Michael Black.

For the past two years, Dr. Black has been working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.  Dr. Black, a 1999 Hitchings-Elion fellow, has involved himself in protein trafficking using yeast as a model system.

Dr. Black decided to focus his study on traffic between the Golgi and endosomes because this step is the most applicable for his future work on the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii.  The proper trafficking of proteins from the Golgi is critical for this organism to parasitize a cell.  A more complete understanding of the cellular trafficking may lead to the discovery of an “Achilles’ heel” to block parasitic invasion.

In order to survive, cells must coordinate the regulation of a number of complex cellular pathways so they may adjust to the ever-changing environment. Dr. Black uses yeast as a model organism to study coordinated regulation between the secretory apparatus, the Golgi body, and the site of protein synthesis. The Golgi bodies package proteins to be shipped to other organelles within the cell, or to be excreted from the cell.

Ultimately the cell must decide whether to send cargo to the vacuole, to the outer surface of the cell, or back to an early compartment in the Golgi body, he explains. With his Hitchings-Elion fellowship, Dr. Black has been studying the cell’s decision-making processes. Through his laboratory’s work and that of scientists in other laboratories, a new protein coat required for vesicular transport from the Golgi to the late endosome has been identified.

Dr. Black’s research during his time as a Hitchings-Elion Fellow has led to two publications. In October 2000 he published, “A selective transport route from Golgi to late endosomes that requires the yeast GGA proteins” in the Journal of Cell Biology, which was followed a month later with his publication of  “Polar transmembrane domains target proteins to the interior of the yeast vacuole,” in Molecular Biology of the Cell.

“It has been a successful year as far as publications are concerned,” says Dr. Black. “Sometimes that is luck; I have found myself very lucky these last few years. Without Hitchings-Elion fellowship, I don’t believe I would be in this position today.”

Starting in September 2001, Dr. Black will begin an appointment as assistant professor of cell biology in the Biological Sciences Department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. He considers the greatest thing to come out of his time in England being offered this faculty position.

The fellowship, he says “relieved the financial pressure of the first two to three years of research by providing funds for this start-up period, a very rare quality of postdoctoral fellowships, and the size of the award demonstrates that BWF is confident in my abilities as a scientist.”

“In addition to the monetary support, BWF provided me with techniques for achieving success in the application and interview processes,” he adds.  “They were always available to help me during the job searches, and voluntarily played an active role in the final negotiations with CalPoly.  The BWF team has demonstrated an obvious concern over my well-being, and I believe they have been indispensable in my attainment of this position.”

“This is the exact type of position and location that I have been seeking from the moment I started my undergraduate education,” explains Dr. Black. “My position at CalPoly has a strong emphasis in teaching but they are recruiting people who are heavily involved in research. I will be training undergraduate and masters students which will be somewhat limiting to research but also exciting. I enjoy the lab but it consumes me. This will provide me with an opportunity to expand my scientific career outside of the laboratory environment.”

Although Burroughs Wellcome Fund typically funds scientists who take positions at more research-oriented universities, those who choose to teach contribute to the scientific community by training the next generation of scientists.

“At a basic level what Burroughs Wellcome Fund is investing in is human capital and the future of science,” says Dr. Martin Ionescu-Pioggia, senior program officer at BWF. “This is one of the reason we require the fellows to take faculty positions. What we are contributing to with Michael is the training of future generations of scientists.”

Questions for Dr. Michael Black:

Name:  Michael Black, Ph.D.
Title:  Assistant Professor
Recipient:  Hitchings-Elion Fellowship
Affiliation:  California Polytechnic State University
What is the best thing about your job?

In my opinion, the best thing about academic life is the freedom of exploration and the continual intellectual growth that accompanies this provision.

What is your philosophy with respect to your research?

Keep the model in the discussion section, after the results have been obtained.  I have found that vision tends to get blurry and observations can be missed if your mind is set before the experiments are complete.

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

Try not to get too excited with your results early in the game.  Nature has a wonderful way of humbling you before your peers.

What area of science is in most need of new researchers?

Parasitology: in particular, the study of parasites that do not directly affect the United States.

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

What are the signals that induce the sequential secretory events required for host cell invasion by Toxoplasma, and how are these signals transduced?

What do you feel is your greatest failure? Why?

Failing to identify a single mutant gene from the Toxoplasma gondii strains that I had isolated from a genetic screen during my PhD thesis.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment? Why?

Being offered an Assistant Professor position at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo.  My professional goals are to play an active and productive role in education using both the classroom and the research laboratory.

Who do you admire? Why?

Dr. John C. Boothroyd, my Ph.D. advisor and Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine [and chair of BWF’s molecular parasitology advisory committee].  John has taught me the value of patience and pedagogy that extends outside of the research environment.  He is a devoted father, brilliant researcher, and the best teacher I have come across.

What do you do for fun?

Spend time at the beach/parks with my family and read the classic and not-so-classic literature.

What do you plan to do when you retire?

Enjoy my family and the nature around me.

What is your favorite book?

"Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco.  This book has shown me the folly of the human mind and how a strong desire for the existence of certain phenomena can sometimes falsely bring about the semblance of proof: a scientific nightmare.  By far this was not the easiest read, but I could not put the book down.

-- This story was written by Susanna Smith, Communications Intern