The Colgate Scene
January 2005

Rowlett's reinventions
Biochemist pursues new discoveries in — and out — of his classroom

Carissa Nickel '08 and Professor of Chemistry Roger Rowlett "sweep" during a curling lesson at the Utica Curling Club. Rowlett, an avid curler, recently brought a handful of students to the club to try the sport. After the practice, Nickel said she planned to start a club at Colgate. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Career-wise, Roger Rowlett has reinvented himself twice. So far.

Originally trained as an enzymologist, the professor and current chair of Colgate's chemistry department has also become a molecular biologist and a biophysicist in the 40 or so semesters that he's been with the university.

He did so not out of boredom, mind you, but to keep up with advances in his area of research. And he knows he'll probably do it again.

"This may make me sound old, but molecular biology as we now know it didn't even exist when I was getting my doctorate," he said with a laugh. "Science changes so quickly that I've constantly had to pick up new skills."

"Picking up new skills" should be Rowlett's personal motto. Over the years, he has cultivated a passion for amateur photography and the sport of curling, and even earned his pilot's license -- in addition to carrying a regular courseload each semester, writing two manuals on new lab techniques, serving on the national Council on Undergraduate Research, coordinating numerous scientific grants, and continuing his work in the lab.

It is Rowlett's personal thirst for knowledge and quest to be on the cutting edge of his field, current and former students say, that keeps undergraduates flocking to his classes and office term after term.

Supporting undergraduate research
Rowlett came to Colgate in 1982 after earning his bachelor of science and doctoral degrees at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Florida's College of Medicine in Gainesville. His experiences at both institutions helped him to discover what would become the focus of his academic career: carbonic anhydrase enzymes. They also showed him the value of providing undergraduates with yearlong experiences in the lab.

Rowlett's work with students since then has only reinforced his commitment to undergraduate research, and he makes a point to take on several students each semester and summer. During the 2004-2005 academic year, for example, a sophomore and three seniors are helping him on a full- or part-time basis with his studies of the beta class of carbonic anhydrase enzymes.

Enzymes, he explained, are proteins that speed up the rate of biochemical reactions in the body. The enzyme that he examines is present in almost every organism, and is so important that it has been -- as he said, without a trace of irony -- "reinvented by Mother Nature" four times. By studying the protein, Rowlett hopes to paint a clearer picture of how enzymes function and how they are designed.

The project can sometimes be challenging for his students, Rowlett said, because it requires them to think more broadly and to use the skills they've acquired in all of their science courses, not just chemistry. "We're what I like to call a `soup to nuts' lab; my undergraduates need knowledge of biology to be able to manipulate DNA, microbiology to turn genes into proteins, physics to determine protein crystal structures, and analytical chemistry and mathematics to analyze the data," he explained. "But it's good for them in the long run because if they want to do any kind of graduate work, they need to be familiar with more than just one narrow area of science."

Shalini Shah, a senior from Iselin, N.J. majoring in biochemistry and one of Rowlett's current collaborators, said that she and her fellow undergraduates appreciate that interdisciplinary approach to working in the lab. "Students really respect him because he is not only fair on his exams and grading, but also very organized in his lectures and even in his research," she said. "And he definitely keeps up with the latest goings-on in his field, which I think shows his dedication to his work."

Rowlett works with a student in his Wynn Hall lab.

Lifelong learning
To stay as current as possible on advances in his field, Rowlett periodically leaves campus to bone up on his lab skills. After heading the National Institutes of Health Study Group (see page 8) during the fall of 1997, he arranged a sabbatical there the following term so that he could study new techniques in protein engineering. Repeating the NIH study group/sabbatical routine during 2002-2003, he learned a brand-new procedure called protein x-ray crystallography. In both instances, Rowlett documented his newfound knowledge for Colgate in the form of two in-house laboratory guides titled "Protein Engineering Protocols" (2000) and "Protein X-ray Crystallography Methods" (2004).

"Interesting science problems are tough nuts to crack," he explained. "I just want to be armed with the best tools possible to be able to solve them myself."

After Rowlett's second turn at the helm of the NIH Study Group, Joe Amato, director of Colgate's natural sciences and mathematics division and professor of physics, said that Rowlett also came back with several new ideas for the university -- including one for a supercomputing facility that would help with the processing of crystallography data -- and a renewed commitment to his students. "In administration and scholarship, he steadfastly promotes the department's mission of high-quality undergraduate chemistry education, and has continually championed the `cause' of undergraduate research," said Amato. "I have never known him to brush aside any task that would improve his students' access to on-campus research."

Creating 'real' opportunities
Rowlett's efforts appear to be paying off. Of approximately 100 students that Rowlett has supervised at Colgate, about one-quarter of them were listed as co-authors on published scientific papers, some of them multiple times. In addition, a large percentage of his apprentices, he said, have gone on to earn graduate degrees or become medical doctors.

One former student, Anita Corbett '88, co-authored a paper with Rowlett that appeared in the Journal of Biological Chemistry after she had graduated. "It's the first publication on my CV [curriculum vitae], and I think fondly of my time in Dr. Rowlett's lab every time I see it there," she said. "I am also reminded of how Dr. Rowlett sparked my interest in doing research to understand a biological question." Corbett is now associate professor of biochemistry and the director of graduate studies for the Biochemistry, Cell, and Developmental Biology Graduate Program at the Emory University School of Medicine.

Another veteran of Rowlett's lab, Rich Steet '94, a post-doctoral fellow at the Washington University School of Medicine with a Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder, wasn't published while working with Rowlett, but said the insight he gained during their collaboration meant more to him than a byline. "[Rowlett] has a way of encouraging his students to learn from their mistakes and gain confidence in their ability as researchers," he said. "He showed me that life as a scientist can be greatly fulfilling for its intellectual freedom and perpetual challenges." He added that Rowlett's perspective has been so valuable to him over the years that he returned to campus recently to discuss possible career paths with his former professor. "Here I was, ten years out of Colgate, still learning from the master!"

Although Rowlett clearly enjoys such visits with alumni, don't count on him reinventing himself as a career counselor any time soon. There's just too much work to be done in the lab, he explained. "Science is fun -- it's not for dweebs," he said. "There is an old saying that if a shark stops swimming it will die. Learning new methods and techniques is to the scientist what swimming is to a shark. Discovering or figuring out something that no one else has, and having that discovery stand up to the scrutiny of your scientific peers is one of the most satisfying experiences a faculty member or student can have in the academic world."

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