Biophysical Society Newsletter - September 2016





Biophysicist in Profile RANDY WADKINS


Officers President Suzanne Scarlata President-Elect Lukas Tamm Past-President Edward Egelman Secretary Frances Separovic Treasurer Paul Axelsen

Randy Wadkins , professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Mississippi, grew up in Iuka, Mississippi, a small town in the northeast corner of the state, where Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee meet. His father owned a grocery store and his mother was an elementary school teacher. He became fascinated with science through watching Star Trek reruns as a child in the 1970s. “I had no idea a career in science was even a possibility,” Wadkins shares. “I did well in math and science when I was in high school, and like a lot of kids, I started college in the pre-med program. It wasn’t until I took organic chemistry that I realized how much I liked it and switched to the chemistry program. My pre-med advisor thought I had lost my mind. Then I took physical chemistry and it became clear what I wanted to do with my life.” Wadkins received his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1986 from the University of Mississippi. As a graduate student at the school the fol- lowing year, he had a defining moment at the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting. “My very first meeting was in 1987 in New Orleans. I was a first- year grad student, a kid from Mississippi. I was doing a combination of experiments on drugs binding to DNA, which involved quantum chemical calculations of DNA bases stacking with drugs,” he remembers. “I had a poster with my results at the BPS meeting that year. The late Bernard Pull- man , the world’s expert at the time on quantum biochemistry, came to my poster—specifically to see MY POSTER—and asked questions about what I was doing. I talked to him for half an hour, and as he was leaving he said, ‘Nice work.’ That’s when I said to myself, ‘I can do this. I can have a career in biophysics.’ And I did.”

Council Olga Boudker Jane Clarke Bertrand Garcia-Moreno Ruth Heidelberger Kalina Hristova Robert Nakamoto Arthur Palmer

Randy Wadkins

Gabriela Popescu Joseph D. Puglisi Michael Pusch Erin Sheets Joanna Swain

Biophysical Journal Leslie Loew Editor-in-Chief

Society Office Ro Kampman Executive Officer Newsletter Catie Curry Beth Staehle Ray Wolfe Production Laura Phelan Profile Ellen Weiss Public Affairs Beth Staehle Publisher's Forum

He earned his PhD in chemistry in 1990, and then took a postdoc position in Tom Jovin’s lab at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry where he worked for a year. It was here that he became enamored with biophysics. “I made a weird discovery. That era was when DNA synthesis first became possible, and we could work with individual strands for the first time, and not just double strands like calf thymus DNA that has been around for decades,” he says. “I found that single-stranded DNA could be a high-affinity target for antitumor drugs. That led to a 25-year obsession with unusual DNA conformations.” Paul Roepe , Georgetown University, met Wadkins in the

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Wadkins in a DeLorean from the Back to the Future movie, at a Motion Picture Association of America reception on Capitol Hill.

early 1990s at a Biophysical Society meeting. “We had adjacent posters. We struck up a great conversation on the biophysics of drug diffusion,” he shares. “He is a scientist that takes nothing for granted and nothing at face value. Meaning that for Randy, hypotheses are of course very useful and enlightening, but they are just hypotheses; the data, and rigorous critical evaluation of the data, are really all that matter.”

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