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Featured Faculty Interview: Dr. Craig Vierra

Crossing Boundaries for Academic Excellence, the theme of Pacific's Academic Plan, seen in Faculty successes in scholarship

Dr. Craig Vierra, Co-Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences and Professor of Biology was awarded in August a three-year, National Science Foundation grant of $579,000.
He joined Pacific in 1994 and became department co-chair in 2005. He teaches Genetics, Principles of Biology, Immunology, Principles of Immunology, Biochemistry and Molecular Techniques. With this grant, Dr. Vierra's total support from the NSF exceeds $2.3 million dollars.

In the first of a series of interviews featuring faculty members from across the University, we sat down with Dr. Vierra to learn more about his experience at Pacific and what he plans to do with this grant.  

When did you join Pacific?
Craig Vierra: I started in 1994 on a visiting position for one year, and then a tenure-track position opened up in 1995.  

What brought you to Pacific?
CV: Well, I'm originally from around this area. I went to Ceres High School and spent a year or two at Modesto Junior College. My family lives in Ceres; my wife's family lives in Modesto. So this area, during that time frame, was much like coming home. It was still close (to home). That was important to me, to stay around my family.   

When did you become Department Co-Chair? 
CV: That's an interesting story; it's not what a lot of people think, I suppose. I was officially hired in 1995 by Paul Richmond, who was acting Chair and then [in 2005] he passed away unexpectedly (he had a heart attack). The department was kind of in shock, because Paul had steered the department and was working on the plans for this building (the Biological Sciences Building) and the whole thing kind of collapsed. We found ourselves in a very odd position because he had so much knowledge; he was a very hands-on Chair. He knew where everything was located. And so we had a small kind-of crisis.   At that point I was an associate professor. The department had hired quite a few faculty members behind me who were assistant professors. We needed more senior personnel to take over the department. So this is where I stepped in. Dr. Gregg Jongeward and I decided to split the position because it was just so much work and there were so many duties and so many things going on that we would step up and split the position.   We worked very closely together. He would work on certain things, and I took over other aspects of the Chair. We always ran things back and forth between one another, we always went to meetings together. And so that was the beginning of what has been a 10-year run.  About three or so years ago, (Gregg) moved into (his current) position and that left me; and so that's when Joan Lin-Cereghino became my Co-Chair. That's when I learned a lot about what Gregg was doing on his part. Then I got to see the whole thing, and learn some new things.   The department has grown tremendously in strength, and certainly in scholarship as well as teaching. So the whole program has taken on a new complexion, I think, over the last 20 years. It's being driven by a lot of excellent new professors who are very productive, and have very high expectations, so the program's strength has grown at both the undergraduate level and the graduate level.  

What is your research at Pacific focused on?
CV: Our lab works on spider silk, and we're interested in reverse-engineering (it). Spider silk is stronger than steel, it's stronger than Kevlar. Spiders spin more than one silk type. Most people will look at a web and think it's one material but we know that there are at least seven different materials and they have different mechanical properties. And the silk is made out of protein...it's not toxic; so it has a lot of properties that make it nice if we could produce it on a large scale.   Our lab has worked many year on trying to take the fibers apart and looking at the mechanical properties as well as the identities of the proteins in the fibers to try to identify as much information as possible as to why the fibers have different mechanical properties and what are the different proteins involved. And then we've also spent a lot of time on studying how spiders produce the silk, so we've done a lot of micro-dissections to look at the seven different "bio-factories" in their abdomen. The silk is initially made as a liquid, and then extruded into a solid, and there's some really interesting chemical processes that take place when the liquid is converted into solid. And (we're studying) how (we) can we use that information, and mimic it through bio-mimicry, to produce synthetic silk fibers.   

Did you bring this field of research to Pacific?
CV: The answer is no. I worked on the immune system in graduate school...in particular, I looked at how antibody genes are regulated in human cells. And then, in the late 1990s, one of my colleagues who was here at the time, Anne Moore, a biophysicist, approached me and we wrote a grant together. She needed a lot of molecular and biochemistry work done, and that was in my area, so I joined up with her and we wrote a proposal together and we got it funded for about $800,000. And then my lab continued to work both projects: the immune system project and the spider silk project and we were split about half and half. As time went on, it got to be very difficult to manage both projects, and so we put more energy into the spider silk project and that gained a lot of momentum: we published a lot a papers, we got a lot of funding, we got a lot of visibility.   The odd thing is that we've now come full circle. An ancient history of cobwebs that, if you look in Shakespeare's work, and back in Rome and ancient Greece (is that), when individuals would have some kind of an open wound, they'd wrap it in cobweb, and they would notice that the wound would heal faster, but nobody really figured out what was going on at the molecular level. Recently we've found some really small molecules that are in the fibers that we think have a structural role, but also we think are responsible for this accelerated wound healing that was seen in ancient times. So we are now taking these proteins and doing studies to see if we can understand why that is. So I find myself going full circle going back to looking at the immune system; an entirely different arena from the structural arena.   

What does this grant pay for?
CV: The grant pays for the instrument and for an individual to run the instrument.  

What is the instrument and what will it allow you to do?
CV: The general name for this instrument is 'mass spectrometer.' It can break open a cell and identify all the proteins inside... Proteins do all the work for that particular cell. With this instrument you can, within a day or so, sequence all the proteins, and look at modifications to the proteins; you can quantitate with this instrument. So these are some very powerful tools for a scientist. My lab plans on using the instrument to go back and micro-dissect the silk-producing glands - these little "bio-factories" - and identify all the proteins that are in these "bio-factories" because we think there are enzymes that are present in low concentrations that are helping in the silk-assembly process...and we want to identify those. We want to dig deep into these glands.   There were several other people on the grant: William Chan (Pharmaceutics and Medicinal Chemistry); Doug Weiser (Biology); Geoff Lin-Cheregino (Biology); and Jianhua Ren (Chemistry). The impact is going to be huge on both scholarship for the faculty and student learning opportunities because we embedded the instrument into a couple of different courses; the student use and experience are going to be extremely high in the area of proteomics because they really haven't had hands-on applications with such an instrument because we don't have one.   And the one we're after is such high-caliber that you might find, maybe one at Stanford, maybe one at Berkeley; but the one that we're after, there may be a window where they don't even have one of this caliber. So we'll have some really excellent opportunities for scholarship and also research for training students as well as students in the classroom.  

Will this instrument benefit undergraduate as well as graduate, and other departments?
CV: In our department, it will be used in one of the courses that's required within the major, so every Biology student who's getting their Bachelor's degree will have the opportunity to use the instrument. It is integrated into a first-semester Master's program course on molecular techniques, so those students will be able to use the instrument. In other programs, the School of Pharmacy and Chemistry have a joint PhD program; those PhD students, as well as their faculty, will have access to the instrument.    I had four other co-Principle Investigators listed on the grant and layers of other faculty in the proposal for different types of applications for their own projects, which is going to advance and accelerate much of their scholarship.  

When do you anticipate getting this instrument? When will it go to work?
CV: We're optimistic that we'll finalize the selection in November. We'll probably purchase it and they'll build it by early spring. So, I would say middle to end of Spring semester; certainly by Summer.  

How did you learn of and apply for this grant?
CV: I have known of the NSF-MRI (Major Research Instrumentation) grant proposal for many, many years.  We have been through a few cycles and have been close over the years to securing funding, but it has alluded us in the past.  I can't remember exactly how I learned of this proposal, it goes way, way back to when I first arrived in the 1990s.  My awareness was certainly heightened when Andreas Franz, in the department of Chemistry, received funding for their NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] instrument.  

What else would you like the University community to know about you and your work at Pacific?
CV: I've always been fascinated by technology, but I don't worship it. The instrument is going to be used by us to help us understand nature at a higher level. From a technological standpoint, we're never going to outperform nature; nature is so far ahead of us. I wanted to get the instrument so that we can understand more about nature. I wanted to be able to help colleagues with their research and students better understand how proteins work inside cells and all the complexities that go with that. I'm grateful for my colleagues who are on the grant, I'm grateful to NSF for such a great piece of instrumentation.   It's going to advance my own research, but I really see it more as a transformative instrument for other faculty members to help them in their careers, to help their students, to help them with a better understanding of how nature works. It keeps us at the frontier as a university of being current, of being relevant, of being competitive with other institutions. It keeps us right there, at the forefront. And that's important, because you want to offer students that excitement, because there's nothing more that can affect learning than excitement about working and being able to answer questions that other individuals might not be able to get to. So knowing that you're the first one looking at something, that's something that's exciting for you and for your students and that facilitates learning a great deal.   In the end, what it comes down to is, 'What can we learn from nature to advance society? Can we use the instrument to understand how to protect our precious biological resources?' That's all integrated into the research into the biological questions that many of my colleagues work on in all these different areas, ranging from ecology to evolution, to molecular biology, to biochemistry, to pharmaceutics, to chemistry...all these different areas; engineering, physics...which really all converge together. At institutions we separate them, but nature doesn't separate the disciplines; they're all integrated. We separate them because it's easier to learn, but nature doesn't; they're all one.  

Are you familiar with the "One Word" project?  What is your one word?
CV: Ooh, that's a good question! I probably have a lot of one-word statements, but one of the words is certainly going to be 'transformative.' That, in itself, describes what that instrument is going to do, in many different directions: faculty, students. So, that's what I would say, if I had one word to say: that it's going to be 'transformative.' And you're going to see that in the number of scientific publications that are going to be generated. You're going to see that in our advancements in our knowledge in how processes work. I think you're going to see that, I hope, in the way that people view the environment, and how precious those resources are that we have out there. But that's what I'd put on there - that's the one word that comes to my mind first.    

There are many funding opportunities available right now!
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