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Gregory A. Petsko, D. Phil.

Arthur J. Mahon Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience
Director, Helen and Robert Appel Alzheimer’s Disease Research Institute
Weill Cornell Medical College

What I Learned From Doing and Directing Undergraduate Research, or The Klutz Strikes Back

"When I was a college student, doing undergraduate research—which I originally did simply for the money—changed my life. I’d like to share that story with you, and then tell you a couple of other stories about other undergraduate research that changed my life. But in this case, it was other people’s research that changed my life, because the undergraduates were working in my lab doing the sort of thing I did decades earlier. These stories have a couple of useful morals and are the best kind of stories, because they all end happily."


About Dr. Petsko

The research interests of Dr. Petsko have always centered upon the structural basis of biochemical properties.  His approach is to bring a chemical perspective to bear on problems in biochemistry, structural biology, cell biology, and human health.  His primary research tools are: protein X-ray crystallography, molecular dynamics, site-directed mutagenesis and, more recently, yeast genetics.  These tools are applied to diverse biochemical problems such as: the structural origins of enzyme catalytic power; the functional role of protein flexibility; the biochemistry and genetics of the quiescent state of the eukaryotic cell, using yeast as a model organism, and the causes and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease and Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). 

He has received numerous awards, including the Max Planck Prize, which he shared in 1991 with Professor Roger Goody of Heidelberg for their work on the origins of some human cancers.  In 1995 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.  In 2001 he was awarded the Lynen Medal (shared with Professor Janet Thornton), and was elected to the Institute of Medicine.  In 2002, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2004 he shared an award from the McKnight Endowment for Neuroscience with his Brandeis colleague, Professor Dagmar Ringe.  He and Professor Ringe also shared the Abram Sachar Medallion from the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee in 2006.  Dr. Petsko is the first man ever to receive this award, which he says means he at last may be getting in touch with his feminine side.

In the Fall of 1995, his research activities expanded when he did a year's sabbatical work in yeast genetics in the laboratory of Professor Ira Herskowitz at UCSF.  As a result, Dr. Petsko now has a budding yeast genetics program (pun intended), which is concerned with the biology of  the quiescent state of the eukaryotic cell.   In 2003, he and Professor Ringe expanded the scope of their program yet again, this time in the direction of translational research aimed at curing human disease.  They co-founded the new field of Structural Neurology, in which the tools of structure-based drug discovery are applied to find new treatments for Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases, and Lewy Body Dementia.

From 1988 through 2003, Dr. Petsko was Executive Editor for the journal Protein Engineering, which he co-founded.  For the past twelve years he has written a monthly opinion column in the journal Genome Biology that is widely read and reprinted.  A book of the first ten years of his columns was recently published, and is available on Amazon.com and the iBooks store.  It must be admitted, however, that the columns guest-written by his two dogs, Mink and Clifford, are much more popular than the ones he writes himself.


Written by Phil Gnatowski, Administrative Assistant, Petsko/Ringe Lab



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