Reactions – Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and works on the development of chemical tools for probing biomolecules in living systems, as well as specific projects in the areas of glycobiology, mycobacterial metabolism, and nanotechnology.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I started out majoring in biology in college, which included the obligatory year of organic chemistry. I fell in love with the subject during that year, thanks in large part to excellent professors, and then switched my major to chemistry – one of my life’s best decisions.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

If I had the talent then it is a no-brainer: professional rock musician, preferably electric bass (I bought one in a mid-life crisis moment but I still don’t know how to play it). Otherwise, I would work on the staff of a professional sports team, either as an analyst or scout. Football ideally, but baseball would be fine too.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

We are heavily invested in strategies for imaging glycans in living systems. We worked this out in models of zebrafish development and would like to push the techniques into diagnostic imaging for human disease. We also developed an approach to proteomic analysis of glycosylation that has the potential to reveal disease biomarkers from highly complex bodily fluids. On the nanoscience front, we are working hard on a method for imaging tissues at the nanometer scale using mass spectrometry methods. And a whole lot more…

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

My paternal grandmother – she is not “historical” in the global sense, but she is to me because I did not know her well but she was a legend in our household. She passed on when I was in elementary school and did not speak English well enough for me to communicate with her when I was a kid. Her brief story is this: Grandma fled from Italy to the US during Mussolini’s fascist regime of the 1920s. She was very active in the Italian socialist party and helped build one of the first day care centers in the country to facilitate women’s entry into the work force. Her political alliance put her life at risk, however, so at the age of 19 she posed as an illiterate peasant and escaped on a boat to the US. After landing in Boston, she met her husband, had five children during the depression era (there is a liquor bootlegging story embedded in there somewhere), sent them all to college and post-graduate degree programs on full scholarship (including the girls), and lived to see her youngest, my father, become a professor of physics at MIT. What an experience it would be now to hear her tell her story in person over a big Italian meal.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

Circa 1996, I scaled up starting materials for my graduate students. A few distracted attempts at experimental work thereafter earned such criticism from my students that I have deferred to them ever since.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

The music album: Beatles Revolver

The book: if exiled for a limited time, then War and Peace – otherwise I will never ever finish that tome. If exiled indefinitely, then something X rated would be warranted.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

My colleague Richmond Sarpong, to see if he will admit in a public forum his secret career aspiration of dancing with the stars