Biochemistry, Structural Biology
For Joseph Jez, science is a multidisciplinary endeavor. In his lab at Washington University in St. Louis, he combines structural biology, protein chemistry, and molecular and cellular biology to understand biochemical networks in plants and microbes. His aim is to engineer those systems to address agricultural and environmental problems. He shares that approach with his students, encouraging them to explore all available tools to find solutions to real-world problems.
Cross-disciplinary work has allowed Jez to open new insights across scientific fields. Among his most significant achievements is carrying out the first structural, mechanistic, and engineering studies of the enzymes and pathways plants use to synthesize polyketides, a diverse class of compounds that includes many clinically useful molecules, as well as toxins and virulence factors. In other studies, he demonstrated that plants need regulatory systems that monitor and maintain the balance of oxidative and reductive chemical reactions to regulate their metabolism and respond to climate change properly. Further, he has found that these redox controls have changed as plants and microbes have evolved new pathways for taking up sulfur from their environments and processing it into a usable form. He has also engineered plants to improve their ability to detoxify heavy metals, creating a new tool for eliminating environmental pollutants.
To date, his scientific achievements and leadership have been recognized with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), a Neish Young Investigator Award from the Phytochemical Society of North America, a Fulbright Senior Specialist Fellowship, acting as an International Scholar at the National Key Laboratory for Crop Genetic Improvement in China.
Jez wants to provide opportunities for students to experience the same spark of discovery that helps propel his own research forward. Undergraduate students in his research group are immersed in projects that enable them to master new methods, write proposals, guide their own research, communicate their results, learn the culture of science, and join the lab family. Students not only learn how science is done, but also have the opportunity to contribute new knowledge to the scientific community. Undergraduate researchers have contributed to many of the key discoveries made in his lab, Jez says.
Jez takes a similar approach to the laboratory course that he teaches at Washington University, which comprises a semester-long exploratory project that the class undertakes as a team. Students solve problems and interpret real results, reinforcing scientific principles and developing critical thinking, analysis, and communication skills.
Jez also teaches a lecture course focused on molecular machines and how they fit into interconnected and dynamic systems. Many of the class examples draw on his academic and biotechnology industry experiences and highlight how new technologies alter the way science is done and change the questions we can ask about nature.