Just over a decade after its debut as a first-of-a-kind interdisciplinary hub for biosciences, the BioFrontiers Institute this month appointed its second director, Biochemistry Professor Roy Parker, to help usher in its next phase.
Parker will carry the torch for founding director and Nobel Laureate Tom Cech, who will remain on campus to continue research.
“His research reputation is not just on this campus or in this state. It’s international. He is an intellectual force and a huge catch to lead us into the next five years,” said Cech.
Parker’s appointment comes as BioFrontiers is playing an increasingly vital role on the scientific stage. Its researchers in life science, physical science, computer science and engineering collaborating under one roof to develop new coronavirus testing and tracing methods, novel approaches for treating cancer, new approaches to artificial tissue and more.
With a 30-year career incorporating genetics, chemistry and computational biology, Parker—a pioneer in the study of messenger RNA—sees such boundary blurring as essential for navigating these difficult times.
“To really make progress in science today, you need to incorporate many different ways of thinking and break down the silos that get built up when we all get busy,” said Parker, noting a new “esprit de corps,” or team spirit, that is sweeping the international scientific community in the age of COVID-19. “BioFrontiers’ very existence is based on this idea. I’m eager to see how we can use these creative collisions to challenge the big problems facing society today.”
Hooked on science in college
Growing up in the small, Midwestern town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, Parker had his eye on a medical career when he studied chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
But during a class on genetics his junior year, he began to change his mind.
Scientists had just begun to develop DNA sequencing methods, which made it possible to not only read about genetics in books but actually read the genes of a living organism. The potential to answer the unanswered was tantalizing.
“The job of a scientist is to go to work every day and try to discover something nobody has ever known before,” said Parker. “That appealed to me.”
He earned a PhD in genetics from the University of California San Francisco before throwing himself into a decades-long quest to better understand mRNA—a key conduit between DNA and proteins.
“If you think of a gene as the blueprint for proteins, the mRNA is a temporary Xerox of that blueprint that is sent out to factories within the cell to tell them how to make proteins,” he said.
Parker was instrumental in determining how mRNA degrades over time and what goes wrong when it degrades too fast. His discoveries have led to new targeted approaches for potentially treating a debilitating condition called diskeratosis congenita, in which bone marrow fails to produce sufficient red blood cells.
He is also credited with discovering granules of proteins and RNAs in cells called “P-bodies.” And his recent work has focused on a related granule of proteins and RNAs called a stress granule, which—when mutated—plays a role in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and dementia.
With the arrival of the pandemic, Parker began working on ways to address it as well.
He’s currently working with computer scientists to study how best to track the novel coronavirus in communities and with virologists to develop a test that could differentiate those exposed recently from those who have had it for a long time.
“The people who are early in their infection are the ones who you really need to worry about from a public health perspective,” he said, noting that in the later stages of infection viral loads drop and potential to infect others largely declines.
Parker is one of only seven investigators with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in the Rocky Mountain Region and is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.
He arrived at CU Boulder in 2012 as the Cech-Leinwand Chair of biochemistry, the same year that BioFrontiers (officially founded in 2009) moved into its new state-of-the-art biotechnology building on East Campus.
“Roy is an inspiring leader who understands the research process, the importance of partnership with the private sector, and the vital role of the public scientist in a time when public research has never been more important,” said Russell Moore, provost and executive vice chancellor of academic affairs.
Adds Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation, “Roy Parker is both an incredible scientist and an academic visionary making him uniquely qualified to build on the success the BioFrontiers Institute has enjoyed under Tom Cech’s leadership.”
Going forward, Parker hopes to continue to put BioFrontiers on the map as an international leader in computational biology and regenerative medicine, the study of neurodegenerative diseases and virology.
But he also stressed the importance of basic science—the simple understanding of how things work—which led him to his career to begin with.
“What do we not understand about life yet that we should?” he asked. “To come to work every day with that question in mind is still a real thrill.”