Tackling the Complex

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UT researcher uses new technology and collaboration to solve problems

Paul Barbara in the lab

For a researcher whose expertise lies in using tools that break materials down into single molecules, Paul Barbara is a person who likes to bring things – and people – together. Today’s technology and medical problems are more complex than ever before, and Barbara believes that to solve them, researchers must collaborate.  During the summer and fall of 2007, Barbara did just that as part of a Faculty Research Assignment award (FRA) from the Graduate School.

Ju Shan Yeh working in Professor Barbara's lab

Ju Shan Yeh, a second-year graduate student
in chemistry, is doing single molecule
spectroscopy in Professor Barbara's lab.

Barbara is the holder of the R. J. V. Johnson-Welch Endowed Chair in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Director of the Center for Nano and Molecular Science and Technology.  His research focuses on the use of single molecule spectroscopy to investigate the chemical and photophysical dynamics of important chemical and biological systems that are too complex to adequately investigate otherwise.  Single molecule spectroscopy is an incredibly sensitive technique used to take a group of heterogeneous objects and study one group member at a time. 

Barbara’s research groups use these techniques to study poorly understood, but very important, biological processes.  One major process he studies is the reverse transcription mechanisms of the HIV-1, the infectious agent in AIDS.   The biomolecules associated with HIV infections are made of the same atoms, but those in each molecule are shaped differently and therefore work differently.  This requires the study of the structure of each individual molecule.  By understanding how each molecule works, scientists can potentially explain why it works so well and then determine how to target it to make it stop working.

Takuji Adachi creating a solar cell in the lab

Takuji Adachi, a first-year graduate student  in chemistry and
biochemistry,  creates a solar cell in a thermal deposition chamber.

During his FRA leave, Barbara collaborated at The University of California San Francisco Medical School with Alan Frankel, an expert on the “Rev” protein of the HIV-1 Virus.   In a work situation that echoed his days as a graduate student, Barbara worked side-by-side with graduate students in Frankel’s lab.  Barbara says, “As a faculty member, you don’t have time to spend 14-16 hours a day in a lab doing experiments.  This time allowed me the opportunity to immerse myself in their processes and learn how to make and handle this particular protein.”

“The problems that are worth solving today are so difficult that it will take a team of researchers.  We all need to be able to work together. This experience allowed us to build a stronger connection between the labs,” states Barbara.  “Their lab brought the problem and ours brought the tool to try to solve it.  It was a cross-fertilization of knowledge that creates additional expertise for both labs.”

The FRA program through the Graduate School is part of the organized research program of The University of Texas at Austin that encourages this level of research and collaboration with experts in other institutions.  It provides semester-length research leaves for tenured faculty members.  The Graduate School also has a Summer Research Assignment (SRA) program to support summer research for tenure-track assistant professors. 

Barbara believes strongly in the importance of fundamental science and research. He says, “There are two questions to ask when testing if basic science is worth doing.  The first is whether there is a set of outstanding questions that are holding a field back.  The second is:  are there new techniques to address those questions?”  The government decides what basic science to support by funding scientists who can answer these questions.  University research then plays a significant role in the discovery of new knowledge and promotes the free exchange of ideas through publishing.“

Jung Don Suk experiments in the lab

Jung Don Suk,  a second-year graduate student in
chemistry and biochemistry, works with a laser that is
used for single molecule surface enhanced spectroscopy.

Collaboration and cross-fertilization are also important to Barbara.  As Director of the Center for Nano Science and Technology at The University of Texas at Austin, he has been instrumental in bringing together experts in multiple disciplines to create one of the largest and most successful research programs in nanotechnology worldwide.  Over 450 researchers in nine departments and 65 faculty research groups are working at the forefront of such exciting areas as: nanoelectronics, nanobiology and medicine, and nanotechnology for energy needs, among others. Graduate students benefit from this center through the Graduate Portfolio Program in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology - a certification program which provides an opportunity for doctoral students to obtain credentials in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology while they are completing the requirements for a doctoral degree in a particular discipline.

A member of The University of Texas at Austin faculty since 1998, Barbara was previously the 3M-Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota.  He earned his bachelor’s degree at Hofstra University in 1974 and his doctor’s degree at Brown University in 1978.  He was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2006.

By Kathleen Mabley, January 2008
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