Q&A with Robert Murphy: Humboldt Winner Reflects on Experience-Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, September 15, 2008

Q&A with Robert Murphy: Humboldt Winner Reflects on Experience

From The Piper, September 2008

Robert Murphy, the Ray and Stephanie Lane Professor in Computational Biology and director of the Lane Center for Computational Biology, has received a prestigious Humboldt Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The award provides senior researchers 60,000 Euros to complete a research project in Germany. Murphy has been working at the University of Freiburg in Germany since late May, expanding his work in subcellular location proteomics, and will return to Carnegie Mellon in October.

The Humboldt is a prestigious award, but one that takes you away from Carnegie Mellon for months. What was your initial reaction to receiving the award?
I was very excited. The University of Freiburg is an exciting place where they’ve made some great investments in research infrastructure, and the chance to work with the colleagues who sponsored me was exciting. Additionally, I was interested in spending a significant amount of time in Germany. I’ve visited Europe a number of times, but it’s a completely different experience to live there. I learned German in high school, and this was a great opportunity to practice and improve my language skills.

You’re working with Klaus Palme, who nominated you for this award. Palme is a noted botanist, and most of your work is with animal cells. How have you been integrating your work with what is being done at the University of Freiburg?
At the university they have just started a Systems Biology Institute and they were interested in applying some of our machine learning methods for analyzing subcellular protein patterns to a plant cell system. Doing this will allow me to extend the methods we have developed for animal cells to other cell types — and I don’t mean we’ll just be doing the same thing over again in a different cell type. Rather, we hope to be able to generalize across all cell types to get a notion of what it means to have a specific cellular pattern of proteins.

Plants are specifically interesting because they present an extreme case. Plant cells are organized quite differently than animal cells, yet they’re all eukaryotic cells. They have some fundamental principles in common, and learning about those similarities seemed like the natural direction to go.

Is there anything you hope to learn over the course of this fellowship that you will bring back and apply to your research at Carnegie Mellon?
The first thing would be to bring back an improved set of tools for analyzing cellular patterns enabling us to see how subcellular patterns correlate with cellular morphology. I’m excited about being able to leave these tools in Germany for my collaborators to use.

The University of Freiburg recently has invested in some cutting-edge microscopy equipment. One of my interests is in automated microscopy where you use the microscope to image exactly what you need to answer the question you are asking. We’re going to be testing some of these methods while in Germany.

While the work you’re doing will enhance your research here, did you have concerns about leaving the Lane Center for five months?
I did, but my solution is that I’ve been taking advantage of the time difference. I work during the day in Freiburg, have dinner, then get on Skype and I spend four or five hours talking to my group here and other colleagues on conference calls. In reality I’m still very active running my program here. I get to work two days in one!

The Humboldt Foundation is largely funded through the German government. In your experience how does the German government view scientific research?
I went to a ceremony held at the German president’s residence, Bellevue Palace, for the people who received awards from the Humboldt Foundation. The president himself addressed the awardees at a reception in the garden. It was very nice to see how seriously the German government takes science in general — that the president of the country would take time to show up at a reception for a bunch of scientists. It was also nice to see the emphasis placed on international collaboration in science.

To view the complete September 2008 issue of The Piper

Jocelyn Duffy