Biophysicist in Profile

DAUMANTAS MATULIS

When Daumantas Matulis was a high school student in Lithuania, an intimidating teacher taught him the basics of chemistry. With this knowledge, he won third place in the Lithuanian National High School Olympiad. Now, many years later, he says, “I still consider this probably my greatest achievement.

After high school, Matulis enrolled in Vilnius University, studying biochemistry. It was there that he met Rex E. Lovrien, a professor from the University of Minnesota who would become his PhD advisor. In 1990, Lovrien had decided that potential scientists in the Baltics could benefit from training in the US, so he traveled to Vilnius to instruct the science majors there on how to do so. Lovrien explained how to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), and taught the students how to apply to graduate schools in the US. Matulis traveled to Moscow to take the necessary tests, and after he passed, Lovrien paid for Matulis’s flight to the US.

Matulis entered the University of Minnesota and undertook rotations in a protein x-ray crystallography lab and an NMR lab. “I was happy withthe help frommy PhD committee. I am really indebted to them,” says Matulis, “DouglasOhlendorf and Leonard Banaszak taught me crystallography; Kevin Mayo and Clare Woodward taught me protein NMR and the use of hydrogen exchange to follow the protein folding.”

Matulis eventually landed in Lovrien’s lab, studying protein ligand interactions with the emphasis of using ligands to protect, selectively precipitate, isolate, and purify proteins. Here he learned the method most important in his career—isothermal titration calorimetry—as well as the fundamentals of biothermodynamics. “I remember Rex ringing a bell in a corridor trying to attract graduate students and postdocs to listen to weekly presentations of departmental journal club and research reviews,” Matulis recalls. Following these presentations were “interesting discussions with students who are now prominent scientists, such as Vincent J. LiCata and Hiroki Morizono,” he says.

 After finishing his PhD with Lovrien, Matulis obtained a postdoctoral position in the field of DNA biophysics with Victor Bloomfield. Bloomfield’slab was home to a diverse group of postdocs who introduced Matulis to a variety of new fields: single molecule biophysics with Mark C. Williams; dynamic light scattering with Christoph G. Baumann, Jeffrey J. Schwinefus, Jay R. Wenner, and Siddhartha Jena; ultrasound velocity and densitometry with Besik Kankia; and computational biophysics with Ioulia Rouzina and Karen Tang. Being exposed to this assortment of fields served as a great learning experience for Matulis, who himself began to focus on lipid, ion, and protein binding to DNA.

Following his postdoc position, Matulis found work as a research scientist with 3-Dimensional Pharmaceuticals (3-DP), a mid-sized company later acquired by Johnson & Johnson. Matulis says, “I am grateful for my years in industry, where I got not only significant experience in drug design, but also the vision that all research is for the better understanding and better application to practice.” His experience working in industry served to enrich his scientific viewpoint and repertoire, but upon returning to Lithuania, he also returned to academia.

In his current position as Head of the Department of Biothermodynamics and Drug Design at the Institute of Biotechnology, Vilnius University, Matulis oversees about 40 researchers and students. The goal in assembling this team was to bring together
scientists from a variety of fields: organic synthesis, target protein recombinant production in bacterial and human cells, computational molecular modeling to benefit synthesis efforts, proteinligand binding biophysics, x-ray crystallography, pharmacy, and immunology. As Matulis had experienced in his previous positions, this variety of viewpoints and foci has led to stimulating science. He explains, “I believe that most new and exciting science is born at the interface between these fields. We have designed over 550 ligands that specifically bind carbonic anhydrase (CA), a well-studied enzyme that has twelve isoforms in humans and has been implicated in various diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, and obesity, to mention a few.” The laboratory hopes eventually to publish a database of the x-ray crystal structures that are correlated to the measurements of intrinsic binding thermodynamics to all twelve CA isoforms.In addition to his science, Matulis offers the lab his talent at bringing out the best in those around him. Joana Gylytė, his student of four
years, says, “Dr. Matulis is a true leader who takes care of every group member and inspires others to do their best. He is eager to share his
experience and encourages everybody to realize their ideas.” For his part, Matulis finds seeing his students’ progress to be one of the most rewarding aspects of his work as a biophysicist.

While Matulis’s research and mentoring are fulfilling to him, his career certainly has presented him with challenges as well. His time training and working in the US was valuable, but he explains, “Going to the USA was easier than to return and produce decent science that could be of interest in the USA.” Additionally, maintaining a professional network with scientists in the US has been difficult after returning to Lithuania. “The Biophysical Society takes a very special place in my life,” Matulis says, “It is one of the main remaining connections with the US scientists.” Matulis has been working at establishing connections closer to home, too.

In 2012, he hosted a successful networking event with the help of a Biophysical Society mini-grant. Over thirty biophysicists working in Lithuania met to discuss their research and the future of the biophysics community within the country, and in the context of the larger European community. Matulis’s scientific activities outside of the lab have not gone unnoticed—or unappreciated. Osvaldas Rukšėnas, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Vilnius University, says of Matulis, “What I like in him is that in addition to being a high level scientist, he is very active in science policy activities. He doesn’t close himself in the laboratory.”

When he is not working on his research or on science policy, Matulis enjoys exercise (especially field tennis); reading about politics, history, and geography; and traveling. More important than these pursuits is the time he spends with his family, which includes his four children, and his wife, Jurgita Matulienė, who received her PhD in cell biology from the University of Minnesota in 2003, and returned to Lithuania with Matulis to conduct her research.For those considering careers in biophysics, Matulis would encourage them to continue on their path, wherever they may be coming from: “I believe that there could be very many different paths to biophysics, and therefore there could be no best advice. However, I feel that the overall field of deep molecular understanding of cellular phenomena where weak non-covalent forces are involved will give us great challenges for many years….the choice to be a researcher in biophysics is the right one.