Biophysical Society Bulletin | October 2020
Biophysicist in Profile
Bree Grillo-Hill , a postdoc coworker of Webb’s in Barber’s lab, shares, “Brad’s innate curiosity makes him stand out as a sci- entist. His broad interests across different fields of cell biology have led him to a really unique set of research objectives. He is always open to new ideas, and excited to use innovative techniques to address important problems. He challenges everyone around him by asking really tough, deep questions in the most friendly manner to really encourage conversations about science.” Webb’s lab at West Virginia University studies how metabolic enzymes are organized in the cell, how they are spatially and temporally regulated, and how they can be dysregulated in diseases. “We work on multiple scales — from structure and function analysis to obtain atomic level understanding of how these molecular machines work, to characterization of meta- bolic enzymes in vitro, and to determine their organization and regulation in cells. We are currently focusing on enzymes in the glycolytic pathway and are generating tools to determine the spatiotemporal regulation of glycolysis in the cells and how metabolic reprogramming contributes to diseases such as cancer,” he shares.
research,” he shares. “My postdoc mentor, Diane Barber, was an outstanding advocate and supported me significantly throughout the ordeal. I would not be where I am today without her financial, professional, and emotional support.” After the initial operation to insert his implant, he was essen- tially deaf for about four weeks until the implant was activated. Upon activation, he had to relearn how to hear. “It took me about six months before I was able to understand voices clear- ly, two years until I felt comfortable in seminar type situations, and about five years before I started to enjoy music again. My hearing is still an obstacle as I do not hear ‘normally.’ Loud noises and background noise, such as a busy restaurant, make it almost impossible for me to listen effectively,” he explains. “In my teaching, my first slide always describes my hearing loss so I can let students know how best to communicate with me. Wearing masks to slow the transmission of COVID-19 is also a challenge as it prevents speech reading, making communica- tion more difficult for those of us with hearing loss. One thing I have noticed is that there are not a lot of disabled people in leadership positions in academia. Looking back on my under- graduate and graduate training, I cannot remember taking a class from a single professor with a physical disability.” Like many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, Webb and his wife have lost childcare for their two-year-old. “It has been ex- traordinarily difficult to find a work-life balance and to maintain productivity,” he shares. “West Virginia University in general and my department specifically have been very supportive of junior faculty, which I am deeply appreciative of.” Rather than traveling farther afield, Webb and his family have been exploring West Virginia during this period of social dis- tancing. “We recently took my daughter, who is two, camping for the first time and she loved it!” he says. “We are looking forward to getting a chance to see more of this beautiful state. My daughter also makes sure that we take the opportunity to visit as many playgrounds as possible.” Webb offers three pieces of advice for early career biophysi- cists: “First is to ‘run your line,’” he says, offering a North Amer- ican football metaphor. “You need to run where you need to be to tackle the ball carrier, not to where the ball carrier is when you start. The line you need to take constantly changes, so you will always need to take in the new information and adapt.[…] Don’t fret if it takes you longer to get there than other peo- ple, due to personal choices, extenuating circumstances, or a personal setback. Just run your line and you will be successful. The second is to surround yourself with good people. No one is successful alone, having a good support network of people who will raise you up, fight for you, and challenge you to succeed is essential. The third is to be experimentally fearless. Fall in love with a question and then use whatever techniques you need to learn to answer it.”
Webb hiking with his family.
The biggest challenge of Webb’s career has been finding success in the face of his disability. After being diagnosed with high-frequency hearing loss in his third year of undergraduate studies, his grades improved—he was now receiving the help he needed. “If you think of how much of science is transmitted orally— lab meetings, seminars, classes — it was a major barrier to my ability to fully participate,” he says. By the time he was a postdoc, he had lost enough of his remaining hear- ing that he needed a cochlear implant. “Coming from Canada, where healthcare is universally celebrated as a human right, I had a very rude introduction to the American medical insurance system. As a postdoc I needed to fight to obtain insurance coverage to pay for the operation. I was denied coverage three times and was very close to leaving my postdoc to move back to Canada so I could get the help I needed. Without help from a lot of great people I am certain I would no longer be in
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