Molecular & Cellular Biology

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The Newest Asset to the MCB Department: Andrew Paek’s Attention to Detail

The Newest Asset to the MCB Department: Andrew Paek’s Attention to Detail

Thursday, November 17, 2016

by Teal Brechtel

“You learn cool things by looking at the details,” Andrew asserted as an explanation for regaling me with the intricacies of how the 2-micron plasmid maintains copy number in yeast – his undergraduate research topic – however, I believe meticulousness epitomizes Andrew Paek’s approach to science and life.

Andrew seems to love the southwestern United States. He grew up in Texas, obtained bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Math from the University of Texas, then completed a PhD in our MCB department at the University of Arizona. For his postdoc, Andrew moved to Boston to work in the lab of Galit Lahav. Although he had a phenomenal research project, environment, and advisor there, Andrew found Boston “cold and difficult.” Luckily the MCB department had an opening so he could return to the “sunshine and mountains” that surround the “magical” city of Tucson.

The Paek lab uses quantitative fluorescence microscopy to explore how individual cancer cells respond to chemotherapy. In a population of cancer cells treated with chemotherapy, some cells die while others survive. Notably, Andrew discovered that cancer cells survive chemotherapy when their p53 levels fail to reach a certain level fast enough to induce apoptosis. He hopes to continue exploring the mechanisms behind this survival by looking at what predisposes cells to survival, and what pathways are involved. But really, students interested in joining the Paek lab only need to know two things: 1) “we make great movies that are really cool to watch” and 2) “[our research is] related to cancer so you’ll get a job later.”

Interestingly, as a graduate student, Andrew lacked enthusiasm for cancer research. He explained that a lot of cancer research is observation based without working towards a model, which initially seemed boring.  However, he sees now that the complexity of cancer necessitates lots of observation. Once you start thinking about this complexity, cancer gets interesting: “In a multi cellular organism, all cells are supposed to behave. But then you have a rogue cell that can grow uncontrollably… And then it has at its disposal 4 billion years of evolution to kind of break down the safeguards that are there, and take advantage of this really nutrient rich environment, that is a human… And there’s many different paths to get there, and all the different control systems that are put into place to kind of prevent that from happening. That’s a really interesting process, right? Really interesting subject.” Now that we have so many observations lying around in the literature, people like Andrew, who pay attention to the details, can integrate these observations into models.

Here’s the thing about Andrew: he spent an exorbitant amount of time walking around Boston looking for a queen ant with which to start a colony. Once he sourced his queen he nurtured the ant colony for years in a huge wooden display case, then painstakingly sifted through the soil to collect hundreds of ants in a jar to move to Tucson. On the drive down the ants got too hot and died, but Andrew hopes to find a new queen in Tucson and start again. He likes to watch the ants build their intricate tunnels.

The small things matter to Andrew.