BMBB Faculty Focus

Thomas Bobik, professor

Thomas Bobik

On the culture of BBMB

“We have a great culture of cooperation that allows us to solve problems based on our collective interdisciplinary knowledge, which is crucial for modern science.”

On his current research

“We are genetically engineering E. coli for production of renewable chemicals. We also are trying to define the architectural and functional principles of bacterial micro-compartments so they might be developed for  industrial production of chemicals or as drug-delivery vehicles.”

On how his work connects to peoples’ lives

“We are trying to define the functional and design principles of biological systems so we can build purpose-specific systems that are useful in industry or medicine.”

On what’s exciting about his work

“The bacterial micro-compartments we study have unique structural and functional principles. Once we have fully defined these principles, then it will become possible to determine the scope of their importance and implement biotechnology and biomedical applications.”

Desi Gunning, teaching laboratory coordinator and biochemistry undergraduate academic advising coordinator

Desiree Gunning

On the culture of BBMB

“BBMB is large enough to have great faculty and research opportunities and small enough for our students to feel connected and a part of this flourishing community. Students are very focused, dedicated and eager to experience research. When you combine great faculty with highly motivated and talented students, wonderful things happen.”

On undergraduates and research

“Most of our undergraduates want to become involved in research and most do by their sophomore year. We encourage research as a natural extension of their education. Working with faculty mentors and alongside scientists in the lab is very exciting and motivating. Putting all those semesters of math, biology, chemistry and biochemistry to use in research helps them understand just how much they have learned. They transform from students to scientists. The application of their knowledge is what gets them hooked.”

On what’s exciting about working with students

“With such dynamic, capable and motivated students, we need to be on our toes. Our faculty is fantastic and ready to adapt and innovate to provide them with the education, experience and opportunities for excellent outcomes. A strength of our department is the strong sense of community that is greatly valued by students and their families. Our undergraduate program is wonderfully successful at preparing students for a variety of professional careers. Some may start as pre-med, but discover they love research. Our role is very important because we are sending our graduates off to be tomorrow’s leaders as physicians, professors, pharmacists, veterinarians, research scientists and more.”

On the signature BBMB undergraduate research symposium

“It is because of our students that we hold the Stupka Undergraduate Research Symposium each spring. The symposium is dedicated to the memory of Rob Stupka, a biochemistry student who inspired and developed the idea for the event but tragically died in a traffic accident. Now in its eighth year, the symposium is planned and executed by students and grows each year. It features the remarkable accomplishments of our student researchers. It has become a highly regarded professional scientific forum and we refer to it as a jewel in the BBMB crown.”

Scott Nelson, assistant professor


Scott Nelson

On the culture of BBMB

“Everyone isinterested in what different labs areworking on. Faculty are always willing to help their colleagues and students in an area where they may lack expertise. Research is performed in a very collaborative environment, which definitely moves research forward at a faster pace. Having been a student in the department (PhD ’02), I saw what a benefit it is to have easy access to professors with varying expertise. When I left Iowa State, I assumed the tight-knit, supportive atmosphere that I was part of was normal. But I’ve found the BBMB department is extraordinary in this regard.”

On his current research

“My research focuses on discovering how enzymes carry out various activities and how these activities are regulated at the molecular level. We are currently concentrating on an enzyme complex that plays an important role in the repair of damaged DNA.”

On how his work connects to peoples’ lives

“Fundamental information we are collecting on the enzyme complex may prove useful in efforts to control its activity for the purpose of altering the DNA repair capacity of certain organisms. This could mean increasing the efficiency of DNA repair in plants for agricultural purposes or inhibiting DNA repair in tumor cells to increase the effectiveness of cancer treatments.”

On what’s exciting about his work

“We’ve made a great deal of progress towards identifying the routes of communication that occur within the structure of the enzyme complex. These routes are highlighting areas that may be particularly susceptible to inhibition by small druglike molecules, which could be very helpful to rational, computer-aided drug-design efforts.”

Olga Zabotina, assistant professor

Olga Zabotina


On the culture of BBMB

“Open, friendly and intense. Faculty’s doors are always open for students. Faculty are demanding with students because it exposes them to how demanding their future jobs will be. We try to convince them there’s no time to lose: Learn how to be proactive and productive in the lab.”

On her current research

“We want to understand how plants synthesize polysaccharides, which are major components of cell walls, and important for improving plants for biofuels production and industrial uses. We also are working to understand how changes in cell walls reflect interactions with the environment.

This is important because cell walls are a first line of defense against environmental stresses and pathogens.”

On how her work connects to peoples’ lives

“We’re trying to understand how we can modify plants to produce more useful food, fiber, fuel or other resources. How can we do this without affecting the plant’s growth and development? Can we better understand how plants tolerate environmental stresses and use that information to improve them?”

On what’s exciting about her work

“Fundamental questions intrigue me. Step by step, we understand more about diverse, complex and dynamic structures in plants and can begin to put the information into the big picture and, in the future, apply it to practical problems. That excites me and that’s why I tell students plants are much more interesting to study than other organisms because of their flexibility.”