The Colgate Scene
July 2004

The decoder

The first biophysicist on the Colgate faculty, assistant professor Jeffrey Buboltz said his field of science is at the "interface" of chemistry, biology, and physics. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Each and every living cell is defined -- both within and without -- by membranes, structures only two molecules thick made mostly of lipid and protein that form both their external boundaries and the major structures within them. Examining the complex form and function of membranes is the realm of Jeffrey Buboltz, the first biophysicist on the Colgate faculty.

"We have never encountered an example of life that isn't defined by some kind of membrane. Membranes define the boundary between a living system and its environment," said Buboltz, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy since 2002. "Membranes are not just barriers; they are very complicated, functionally dynamic structures. There is no end of questions to ask about them."

Although the term biophysics implies a junction of biology and physics, it's more than that, Buboltz said.

"For the most part, biophysics today is concerned with the study of biomolecules. It is biophysics rather than biochemistry because physics in general has always tried to couch its theories in terms of mathematical formulas or descriptions. We use math to describe reality," said Buboltz, who holds bachelor's degrees in molecular biology and philosophy and a doctorate in biophysics. "As a biophysicist, I am acutely familiar with the sensation that what I'm doing is not really physics, not really biology, and it's not really chemistry. It's at the interface of all three."

Biophysics is an emerging field of science that aims toward a more quantitative understanding of biological systems, said Enrique "Kiko" Galvez, professor of physics and astronomy and interim chair of the department.

"Advances in physical and mathematical techniques dealing with the study of `many-body' systems, plus the emergence of new laboratory techniques, has enabled a new look at biology," said Galvez. "Biophysics is an exciting new field. As the last century has been dubbed the century of physics, the next century is being forecast as the century of biology."

Matt Schutzer '04 and Buboltz discuss the fluorescence resonance energy transfer experiments Schutzer conducted as part of his senior research project.

Unique perspective
The advent of biotechnology that enables the manipulation of DNA at the molecular level, Buboltz explained, has meant that scientists who want to study biology can manipulate living systems at that level.

"Biophysicists are often trying to unravel the relationship between, for example, structure and function of biomolecules, or they are trying to predict the structure, and therefore, the function of some protein, based on its DNA sequence," he said.

Buboltz said the Human Genome Project, which is another result of the biotechnology revolution, is pro-ducing an "avalanche" of information about DNA and molecular genes.

"That information has to be decoded. We have to figure out what it is saying," said Buboltz. "It's like discovering the Rosetta stone and knowing it carries information, but you don't know how to decode it."

In 1999, these rapid advances in biotechnology led faculty members to conclude that biophysics should be taught at Colgate, said Galvez, and a group of science professors met regularly for at least a year to plan its introduction. The establishment of an incremental position in the physics and astronomy department was proposed to the university and approved in 2001.

"It was felt that a biophysicist would expose our students to this new field, and would also bridge the gap between physics, biology, chemistry, and, perhaps, neuroscience, because some research problems in biophysics involve neuroscience," Galvez said. "This faculty member would also teach both in physics and biology."

The whole hiring process was fully interdisciplinary, said Galvez, with four departments (biology, chemistry, neuroscience, and physics and astronomy) represented on the search committee that advised the physics and astronomy department, who had the final say. A proposal to establish a minor in biophysics is being drafted, he said.

"Hiring into an interdisciplinary position requires a change in the way we think about our disciplines," Galvez said. "As a biophysicist, Jeff has a unique perspective on science. We hope that he will introduce our students to this new interdisciplinary way of doing science: resorting to biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics to study biological systems."

A way of knowing
Buboltz's passion for his work is readily apparent when he discusses the myriad of functions that membranes perform.

"Membranes are not just static barriers that only serve to separate one environment from another. They are dynamic. Obviously, since they form a barrier they also have to serve a transport function; things have to move back and forth across them. If you build a wall, you have to put in a door," he said. "Membranes also serve to catalyze and organize lots of biochemical processes on their surfaces. Their surfaces, for that reason, have a lot of catalytic activity. They also serve to transduce energy, convert it from one form to another. Signals sent out from your central nervous system to your peripheral tissues and back again, travel as impulses of voltage along nerve cell membranes. So, membranes also conduct signals or information throughout the body. We can go on and on and on."

Student assistants who worked with Buboltz during the past academic year describe the biophysicist as an enthusiastic and demanding researcher and teacher.

"I've learned a lot about scientific methods from him," said Matt Schutzer '04, a physical sciences major. "Professor Buboltz is very meticulous in his controls and his scientific method, and is a good communicator."

"What I try to get across to my students is that they shouldn't think -- especially at 18, 19, or 20 years old -- that they have to decide what they are going to do with their lives. If you really want to become a scientist, learn how to think," said Buboltz. "Learn how to ask questions and how to design experiments to answer them. Learn to be intellectually honest with yourself about what you really know, and what you are guessing at, and develop that critical faculty for reasoning. That is what being a scientist is. The reason I don't find interdisciplinary science to be so surprising is that what makes a person a scientist is not how much math they know or how much chemistry they know, but their problem-solving skills.

"I like teaching at Colgate because I enjoy sharing my passion for science," said Buboltz. "Science is a process. It's an epistemological strategy, a way of trying to understand something. It's a way of developing knowledge, and knowledge for scientists is predictive power. If a theory of mine has predictive power, then it represents knowledge."

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