Robert Palazzo grew up in Dearborn, Mich., in the shadow of the Ford Motor Company, once the largest industrial complex in the world. He assumed, like most of his peers, he would work in the factory or study some facet of engineering in college.
“I grew up in an atmosphere of technology and innovation and those were the opportunities. We were motivated by the auto industry,” says Palazzo, who was appointed acting director of the new Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies last spring.
Little did he know that technology and innovation would, instead, take him to the ocean shore at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts where he continues his research collaborations as a world-recognized cell biologist.
Palazzo received his bachelor’s degree in biology and doctorate in biological sciences from Wayne State University in 1979 and 1984, respectively.
Not certain what direction he wanted to pursue when he first entered college, Palazzo was accepted as an undergraduate at Wayne State initially as an undeclared major. There he peered into an electron microscope for the first time and entered the fascinating world of a living cell.
As a doctoral student in the early 1980s, Palazzo was in the midst of a technological revolution. New high-tech light microscopes hooked up to newly available computer-enhanced video allowed biologists to see highly organized subcellular structures in living cells in exquisite detail.
“I saw things myself just as they were being discovered,” he says. “At that point, I stopped thinking about career paths. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
In the mid-1980s, Palazzo conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Virginia and Woods Hole, where he turned his attention to the unfertilized eggs of surf clams as a model system to study centrosomes, little-known cellular structures that play a key role in the separation of chromosomes during cell replication. The research could eventually provide insight into how tumors are formed and ultimately lead to new therapeutic cancer drugs.
“Abnormal chromosome separation is one theory of how cancer cells arise,” Palazzo says.
Palazzo became professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas in 1992. He joined Rensselaer as professor and biology chair in August 2002.
As acting director of the biotechnology center, Palazzo takes on expanded responsibilities in executing the university’s overall priority in biotechnology research. He coordinates and develops the center’s research programs and core facilities during a critical phase of the center’s growth.
One major goal, he says, will be to build a new community of researchers biologists, physicists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians operating in tandem with a main emphasis on quantitative approaches to the study of life sciences.
Under his leadership as chair of the biology department, Rensselaer has recruited seven biology faculty members in the last two years. Palazzo also has been instrumental in significantly enhancing total research awards from the National Institutes of Health, the primary sponsor of research in the life sciences. The university has grown from $400,000 in total awards three years ago to more than $24 million today, with a projected amount approaching $30 million.
“Rensselaer’s significant investments in biotechnology are beginning to pay off,” Palazzo says. “With excellent new faculty and with a focus on interdisciplinary research, we are well-positioned to make major scientific contributions in the future.”
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