Biophysicist in Profile

Carol Beck

Carol Beck, Assistant Dean of Jeff erson College of Graduate Studies and Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Thomas Jeff erson University, was almost always a “university brat.” She grew up in university towns in the Midwest and the South where her father, with an Agricultural Economics PhD, worked in academia.

She took all the science and math courses she could during high school, “because that’s what people who went to  college did.” Getting BS and PharmD degrees in pharmacy seemed a good way to apply all that science and math. With the pharmacy residency that she did at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, she could teach in a college of  pharmacy.

Beck says that she learned a lot in her three years as a pharmacy practice faculty member at North Dakota State  University College of Pharmacy, but “at age 25, I began to worry about what I would do for the rest of my career.” She wanted to learn more about the effects drugs had on the body and at the cellular level. She decided to go back to school to learn how to be a basic scientist.

Her PhD research at Vanderbilt University was in the “pre-micro-array” era studying the baroreflex arc in the brainstem. It was classic physiology and pharmacology; however, it did not incorporate molecular biology techniques. Department  Chair Lee Limbird suggested that Beck do a short postdoc to pick up these techniques, then switch to something  longer-term later. Al George offered just such an opportunityin his lab, working with myotonic goats, also known as  “Tennessee fainting goats.” When startled, these goats stiff en and are temporarily unable to move, a condition that  occurs due to a mutation in the voltage-gated skeletal muscle chloride channel.

“Carol was offered the chance to clone, sequence, and functionally study the goat muscle chloride channel from the  fainting goat,” says George, who is now Chief of Genetic Medicine and Director of the Institute for Integrative Genomics at Vanderbilt. “Within a year, Carol had succeeded, and we published a very nice paper in PNAS that described her findings: a mutation in the chloride channel that caused abnormal voltage-dependence leading to impaired channel activity at physiological voltages—a perfect explanation for the disease.”

The subject of Beck’s “short-term” postdoc captured her attention. “I never thought that I would stay in the lab for six  years, get totally involved in the world of chloride channels, and still be studying them now. It was exciting and fun. The  goats made it easy—and visual—to explain the symptom of myotonia.”

She also liked the learning environment. “Al is an excellent and talented scientist and a good manager of people. Calm, clear, creative, organized, fair, and thorough—what one would hope to be on a good day!”

Today, possible good days are challenged by Beck’s wearing multiple hats: she is a medical school pharmacology  coordinator teacher, an assistant dean in the graduate school working with Masters students, and she manages her own lab. With more distractions, different challenges, and less time to write grants, she juggles budgets, protects against  losing lab space, and reorganizes priorities to spend time in the lab. “On the plus side, I might still have a position if the  next grant does not get funded.”

Stella Evans, Beck’s first PhD student and currently Laboratory Manager at Bryn Athyn College, says that it was a  pleasure to work in Beck’s lab. “She inspired me to get excited about ion channel research through her immense  enthusiasm for science, attention to detail , and her clips of the famous fainting goats.”

Looking toward future research, Beck notes that the pharmacological tools used to study the voltage-gated chloride  channels that are affected in myotonic disorders are still very nonspecific and not suitable for treating human or animal disorders. She hopes that the research on myotonic goats could someday provide a useful tool for studying the  effectiveness of drugs that might be developed to treat such conditions.

Three main factors that help Beck keep balance in her life are her husband, the train schedule, and greyhounds. The train schedule forces her to prioritize and to be efficient; if she doesn’t catch the train on time, she waits at least an hour for the next one, sometimes longer.

“My husband, Mark [Turner], is very supportive and accepts a lot of things about my job in academia without complaining or asking for repeated explanations,” says Beck. Formerly an environmental consultant, Turner is now an artist. Beck travels with him to regional summer art shows. Th is time together is very different from lab and university time, and “a valuable break for my brain” she says.

“Our three adopted retired racing greyhounds are the largest non-human force contributing to any balance that I have in my life,” says Beck. “Helping them discover and acclimate to their new lifestyle as pets has been a wonderful experience.” In turn, the solace that the dogs provide their owners make “even the most horrific day” not seem so bad, she says. Two of the greyhounds are also certified Therapy Dogs.

Biophysical Society meetings provide essential  professional and personal connections for Beck. One of those connections is with Peying Fong, assistant professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. During their postdoc days, they worked for competing labs, but Fong’s group took note of Beck’s  “beautiful” work. When they met, Fong says, “She struck me as a very grounded person, in addition to being a scientist of the highest caliber and standards.” Now close friends who usually room together at national and international meetings, Fong says that Beck is also a talented cook and a natural hostess.

Beck has served as Secretary-Treasurer for the Membrane Biophysics subgroup. “It was one thing that I figured that I  could do to give back to the Biophysical Society community at large.”

Right: Beck with her adopted greyhound dogs, Murray and Tina.

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April 2010 Table of Contents