Biophysicist in Profile


As a child, incoming Biophysical Society President Dorothy Beckett showed an early interest in the natural world. She collected bugs, performed experiments, and explored the world around her. It was in high school that Beckett really became interested in studying science in a formal setting. During this time, she attended a weekly series at Yale University, where she was able to visit laboratories and see sophisticated scientific equipment. Beckett and the other students also attended lectures on a broad range of scientific topics.

Though she was interested in science, Beckett began her college career at Barnard College studying Chinese. After spending a year abroad in Taiwan, she realized that a career in Sinology would not be as intellectually satisfying for her as a future in science would. She continued studying Chinese after returning to the US, but committed to a major in chemistry. Beckett was able to obtain a work-study job in Cathy Squires’s laboratory in the Columbia University Biology Department. It was during her time there that Beckett first discovered biophysics: “I distinctly recall being asked to present a group meeting on a paper from the literature, and ended up choosing one published by the Cozarrelli laboratory on DNA gyrase. This paper revealed to me that I could apply the quantitative approaches that I was learning in my chemistry courses to understanding biology.” Her focus was further shifted toward the biophysical by Charles Cantor and Jonathan Greer, whotaught Beckett in her undergraduate years.

After receiving her AB in chemistry from Barnard College, Beckett pursued a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Illinois in the lab of Olke Uhlenbeck. As an advisor, Uhlenbeck encouraged Beckett to think quantitatively about biology. In her PhD project, she studied coupled equilibria in virus assembly. While at the University of Illinois, Beckett also took classes with Gregorio Weber, a pioneer in biological fluorescence spectroscopy. Beckett says, “[Weber] thought deeply about thermodynamic coupling in biology. His lectures on this topic were so inspiring for me that I attended his course twice.”

Attending the University of Illinois was quite a change of scenery for Beckett after completing her undergraduate degree in New York City. Catherine Royer, a colleague who met Beckett while they were in graduate school together, recalls a particular occasion when the two lost their way in a cornfield after a Biochemistry Department retreat in the country. “Coming from Barnard, Dorothy was in pretty big culture shock in central Illinois. I don’t think she had ever been lost in a cornfield before! Anyway, we finally found our way back by looking for trees. In central Illinois, about the only place you find trees is in towns—just the opposite of the east coast. I remember she found this really strange,” Royer recalls.

Once she had obtained her PhD, Beckett arranged a postdoc to study with both Bob Sauer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Gary Ackers at Johns Hopkins University. “At the time, I thought that the combined molecular biological and quantitative thermodynamic approaches available in the two laboratories would be ideal for determining the molecular details of coupled equilibria in bacteriophage lambda developmental switch,” she says. This geographically complex arrangement did present its challenges, but worked out well for Beckett in the end. She learned what she calls, “an amazing amount of stuff” and was afforded an opportunity to meet and interact with inspiring scientists like Jim Bowie, Jim Hu, Madeline Shea, and Mike Brenowitz.

Though Beckett has dedicated her career to studying science, she does not come from a family of scientists. Her father worked as a tool designer for United Technologies, while her mother was quite busy caring for fifteen children. Of all the siblings, only Beckett and her twin sister, Joanne, pursued science as a field of study. Joanne now uses her knowledge of chemistry to create pottery in London. For Beckett, working as a biophysicist has had its challenges over the years; the biggest at this time being the scarcity of available research funding, “Given the current slump, I suspect that this is true for many scientists,” Beckett says. Another major challenge was finding a geographical area where both Beckett and her husband, Neal Fedarko, would be gainfully employed. After sending many applications, both were able to find jobs: Fedarko is on the faculty in the Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology, at Johns Hopkins, and Beckett is a professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at the University of Maryland. She describes herself as “a molecular biophysicist with a specific interest in biomolecular regulation. I have a keen interest in coupled equilibria and allostery, both how they work at the molecular level and their biological significance.” Currently, Beckett is working on determining crystal structures of proteins in the hopes that they will provide clues about how signals are communicated through a protein matrix.

Learning new biology and new techniques is one of the most exciting aspects of Beckett’s work today. She says, “I love the surprises that result from research, because they force me to think in ways that I could not have contemplated.” In addition to the rewards of exciting science, Beckett finds fulfillment in teaching students, and watching them develop into mature scientists. Being a prominent member of the Biophysical Society has given Beckett even more opportunities to assist and encourage young scientists in their careers. Certainly, she has many qualities of a good mentor; as a colleague, Royer says, “[She is] enthusiastic, with very high scientific standards. Fun as well.” Another friend since grad school, Suzanne Scarlata, has also been impressed with Beckett’s spiritedness, saying, “If I have to describe Dorothy, I would have to point out her keen sense of justice and the passion she has for everything she is involved with.”

When she is not working, Beckett spends much of her time devoted to a second passion: marathon running. “As an Assistant Professor,” she says, “I started running for stress relief. Once I ran my first road race, I was hooked.” Since that first race, she estimates that she has run twenty-five marathons and hundreds of races of shorter distances. In fact, running is the only career outside of biophysics that she could see herself pursuing—that is, “If I were twenty-five years younger and much faster than I am,” she says. She also enjoys spending her leisure time observing national and world politics, watching her children, Anne and Michael, negotiate early adulthood, gardening, and cooking. Beckett applies her characteristic passion to science policy, as well, and to consideration of the future of the field. “Many of the tools that biophysicists have developed, including computation, single molecule and imaging techniques, and structural analysis are maturing,” Beckett says. “In the future, interdisciplinary approaches involving application of a range of these technologies will be applied to understanding increasingly complex systems.” In this new and complex landscape, she says, “I hope that biophysicists do not abandon their quests to understand the seemingly simple phenomena, such as the role of water in biomolecular interactions and folding.”

For the young scientists who will be shaping the future of biophysics, Beckett has one simple piece of advice: “Keep the fire in your belly, and your head on straight.”

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