Inside Rensselaer
Susan Gilbert To Lead  Biology Department
* Susan P. Gilbert

Susan P. Gilbert explains that she has been drawn to Rensselaer since she was a graduate student at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), the world-class research center in Woods Hole, Mass. Gilbert performed much of her early research at the MBL with her Ph.D. adviser, Roger Sloboda ’74 of Dartmouth College, who is a Rensselaer alumnus. At MBL, Gilbert also met a key player in her field — Rensselaer Provost Robert Palazzo. At the time, Palazzo was a postdoctoral research associate working on cell division in clam eggs.

Now, the renowned cell biologist has joined the Rensselaer faculty as the new head of the Department of Biology, continuing a more-than-20-year career in higher education. An experienced educator and researcher, Gilbert’s discoveries in cellular function could hold the key to targeting chemotherapy and improving the comfort and health of cancer patients undergoing treatment. She also has an ambitious plan in place to increase the department’s national ranking, heighten undergraduate and graduate success, foster junior faulty development, and support research.

Gilbert has spent a lifetime in top-ranking biology departments. “I grew up in biology departments,” she says. “I have witnessed what the best bio-logy departments do really well, and I would like to use this experience and our key strengths here at Rensselaer to increase the national ranking of the department.”

Gilbert arrived at Rensselaer on Sept. 1, joined by her husband, an environmental consultant specializing in wetlands science, and her daughter. She comes to Rensselaer from the University of Pittsburgh where she served on the faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences for the past 12 years. During her time with Pittsburgh, she was a member of the Molecular Biophysics and Structural Biology Graduate Program and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Gilbert was an active teacher of undergraduate and graduate courses, a top experimentalist studying cellular movements, a mentor for undergraduate and graduate student research, and an active member of a number of committees at the university.

In addition to her National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 research funding, Gilbert received an NIH Career Development Award through the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). She is a fellow and member of the Board of Directors for the American Academy of Nanomedicine as well as a member of Council and chair of the Membership
Committee for the Biophysical Society.

The Future of Biology at Rensselaer
Many of Gilbert’s goals for the biology department focus on students and improving their experience and success for “their next steps.”

“The rapid modernization of Rensselaer’s research facilities and the increase in research-active faculty enable the department to redefine its undergraduate mission in the context of biologists of the future,” Gilbert says. “We need to get students excited from day one and provide them many opportunities for exploration, including undergraduate research.”

Gilbert also recognizes the talented student body at Rensselaer and plans to provide them with the tools needed for success in a highly interdisciplinary world. Gone are the days of the traditional biology major. The successful biologists of today work alongside chemists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, and clinicians to solve some of the greatest problems facing modern medicine and the environment in the global community.

“We need to ensure our graduates’ success by teaching them a more universal language through leveraging the interdisciplinary environment at Rensselaer. This approach will enable the Rensselaer students to try on different hats to find their personal career paths.”

She explains that this interdisciplinary approach can also increase research success and funding. “The NIH and other federal agencies view interdisciplinary research teams as a mechanism to accelerate basic research to application. I plan to support the development of relationships with our faculty and other disciplines to accelerate research success.”

Gilbert also has an ambitious strategy to mentor junior faculty and draw quality and diverse graduate students to support the growing research needs of the department. “Graduate students and junior faculty are the heart and soul of a research-oriented department because of their creativity and energy, their research potential, and their dedication to the department’s success,” she says.

Miniature Motors and Cancer Drugs
Gilbert’s research crosses disciplines as well. Her lab uses biophysical approaches to study the nanoscale molecular motors that drive movements in cells. These miniature motors convert chemical energy into motion. Gilbert’s research investigates a family of motors known as kinesins that interact with microtubules, the interstate highways of the cell.

Different kinesins perform different jobs within the cell. Some kinesins are drivers that move materials along the microtubule highways. Other kinesins are the construction workers of the nanoscale streets, where they break down and rebuild the microtubule tracks. Others orchestrate complex assemblies and movements for cell division.

Gilbert’s current research is focused on this last group of kinesins — the kinesins that drive mitosis or cell division. Like a nanoscale auto mechanic, Gilbert is working to understand how each of these individual nanomachines operates. The role of mitotic kinesins is particularly important in stopping the spread of cancer because cancer spreads through cell division. If scientists can specifically target the kinesins responsible for the division of cancerous cells, they can halt the progress of the disease. Current chemotherapy drugs disrupt microtubules, but these drugs are not targeted specifically to cancer cells and cause disruptions in microtubules in normal cells. This leads to a variety of painful and uncomfortable side effects for cancer patients.

Gilbert’s research strives to develop nanomedicines that target specific kinesin pathways to make the future of cancer treatment highly effective, efficient, and more comfortable for patients to improve their quality of living.

She received a bachelor’s in chemistry from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and a doctorate in cell biology from Dartmouth College. She performed much of her early research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. She completed her post-doctoral research at Pennsylvania State University. In addition to the societies noted, Gilbert is also a member of the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She is on the editorial boards for the Biophysical Journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Nanomedicine, and Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 1, Number 3, September 13, 2007
©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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