Biophysical Society Bulletin | November 2021
Biophysicist in Profile
Officers President Frances Separovic President-Elect Gail Robertson Past-President Catherine A. Royer Secretary Erin Sheets Treasurer Samantha Harris Council Henry Colecraft Michelle A. Digman Erin C. Dueber Marta Filizola Gilad Haran Kumiko Hayashi Francesca Marassi
Cliff Brangwynne Areas of Research
Institution Princeton University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Biophysical principles of intracellular organization
Cliff Brangwynne describes himself as a late bloomer in science, not developing a strong interest in the subject until his later teen years. Once he learned about the unsolved mysteries inherent to the field, he couldn’t wait to learn more—and he has spent his career as a biophysical engineer doing just that.
Susan Marqusee Joseph A. Mindell Carolyn A. Moores Kandice Tanner Biophysical Journal Jane Dyson Editor-in-Chief The Biophysicist Sam Safran Editor-in-Chief Biophysical Reports
Cliff Brangwynne was raised in the Boston area in the same house in which his mother grew up. “As a kid I went to a Catholic school that was basically across the street from my house in Boston—if you’re picturing some of those Ben Affleck - Matt Damon movies of working class Irish-Catholic Boston, that’s not too far off,” he jokes. His big family did not include any scientists when he was a child, but there are several in his generation. “I have a large extended family full of electricians, plumbers, painters, and nurses—a wonderful, loving, and high-energy (read: loud) bunch. None of that generation graduated from college, but my mom in particular had this strong appreciation for the value of education. And for some rea- son my sister and I, and several of our cousins, became scientists,” he shares. Brangwynne had no particular interest in science as a child, but dove in during his later high school years. “I was a bit of a ‘late bloom- er’—no chemistry sets in the basement or math team Olympiads,” he remembers, “but sometime in the middle of high school I started reading pop-science books about quantum mechanics and became aware of these myste- rious and unsolved problems at the root of our physical world. I enjoyed thinking about this and wanted to learn more.” He attended Carnegie Mellon University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, minoring in physics. “Probably the biggest struggle of my career was getting started during the college years. I was pretty resource-challenged in college and led a sort of threadbare bohemian existence. I was also not really sure how to
combine my different interests, and where that would lead,” he recalls. “I knew I liked physics and engineering, but I also was fascinated by biology. In the beginning, it wasn’t at all clear to me how to combine these, because at the time I couldn’t find many people working at this interface. But I think I was able to manage this uncertainty with the help of some terrific mentors—if you’re a young aspiring scientist unsure of how to get started, step one is to find a good mentor who can give you advice. Many people have themselves had great men- tors and are eager to pay it forward.” He con- tinues, “I was able to overcome some of this uncertainty by letting my curiosity about the natural world guide me—I pursued research because it seemed interesting, not because I thought it might be a good career or impress anybody or something. Slowly I started to see how to bring my different interests together in a fruitful way.” Following his graduation, he earned his PhD from Harvard University in applied physics. Brangwynne then undertook a postdoctor- al position in Dresden, Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Cell Biology and Genetics, spending some of his time at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems. “There I began studying this interesting class of intracellular organelles that don’t have an enclosing membrane. During this time, I was fortunate to make an important discovery about these structures, showing that they rep- resent condensed liquid states of biomolecular matter, that form through a kind of intracellular phase transition known as liquid-liquid phase separation,” he explains. Continued on next page
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