Biophysicist in Profile


Enrique M. De La Cruz, the man behind the seven-inch single “What Shall I Do” by Frankie and the Classicals on Calla Records, could not say when in his life he chose to be a scientist. He’d like to say that his interest sparked in preschool when his parents gave De La Cruz his first chemistry set, or when he realized at six years old that he enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together, but claims that would be “pretentious, dishonest, and misleading,” as these things never actually happened.

Raised by a welder and quality control inspector father and pharmacist mother, both Cuban immigrants to the United States, the De La Cruz children learned young to place a tremendous value on education and learning. “The most pivotal experience that likely directed me towards a science research career was a high school work-study program, which offered the opportunity to carry out research at Hoffmann la Roche Pharmaceuticals,” remembered De La Cruz. Learning about the research process and seeing the excitement of working as part of a scientific team firsthand was fascinating, and ultimately empowered him with the confidence to pursue research opportunities as a college freshman through the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program at Rutgers University-Newark.

While working on his Bachelor of Arts degree in biology as an undergraduate student, De La Cruz found himself dissatisfied with the observatory nature of his cell biology research. “I went to my research advisor, Christian P. Reboulleau, and exclaimed that I wanted to measure something and have confidence in that number—even if it was a meaningless number,” he explained. “I went on to do a three-dimensional phase diagram of lipid-ion mixtures, and the rest is history!”

Entering graduate school at Johns Hopkins University’s Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology program as part of Tom Pollard’s research group reinforced De La Cruz’s determination to make research his career. Working on ligand binding to actin monomers and actin filaments, he focused particularly on how the poison mushroom toxin phalloidin binds to actin filaments. “Enrique is both curious and rigorous, and he carried the project to a much higher level than I expected,” said Pollard. “He eventually worked out a way to stabilize actin monomers without a bound nucleotide, so he could analyze binding of ATP. He also discovered that nucleotide-free actin polymerizes remarkably well.” To cap off his PhD, De La Cruz attempted to convince Pollard to go skydiving together in celebration. “I loved his enthusiasm,” laughed Pollard, “but I have a better sense of self-preservation than he had at the time.”

After spending his final year of graduate school at the Salk Institute, De La Cruz headed to the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), where he joined Michael Ostap and H. Lee Sweeney as a postdoctoral researcher. “I first met Enrique in Dr. Pollard’s laboratory when he was a graduate student and I was a postdoctoral fellow,” said Ostap. “Luckily for me, I was able to convince him to join me at the University of Pennsylvania as a postdoc, just after I accepted a faculty position in the Penn Muscle Institute and Department of Physiology.”

While at Penn, De La Cruz worked on an exciting new collaboration between Ostap’s and Sweeney’s labs. The team determined the biochemical kinetic mechanisms of myosin-V and myosin-VI, seminal work that showed the kinetic diversity within the myosin superfamily, which explained kinetically how myosin-V and myosin-VI could function as processive motors. “Enrique’s enthusiasm for research is infectious,” added Ostap. “With his deep understanding of physical chemistry, he can effectively teach incredibly complicated concepts—his research seminars and lectures are superb.”

Today, De La Cruz is a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. His current research focuses primarily in three areas: identifying the molecular origins of actin filament elasticity and the mechanical basis of filament severing by regulatory proteins; defining how ATP utilization by DEAD-box proteins is coupled to duplex rRNA unwinding; and determining the catalytic pathways, specificities and biological activities of nucleotide pyrophosphatase/phosphodiesterase enzymes.

Over the years, he has faced the challenge of many research scientists—dwindling time to spend at the bench and more time dealing with administrative matters from the desk. “It’s an ongoing process,” De La Cruz said, “but realizing that my research group and I are a team that works best when we each use our strengths, and accepting that my role has changed, has helped me overcome the time challenge.” Overcoming difficulties is made easier by the rewards of a job, in De La Cruz’s case, “the relationships I’ve built with trainees, colleagues, and collaborators—I’ve had the opportunity to make friendships that last a lifetime.”

Without biophysics, De La Cruz claims he would be one thing: “Bored.” He would though, have more time for his other passions. When not in the lab, he likes to spend time with his wife, children and friends, preferably while listening to music on vinyl—as evidenced by his photo choice in the top left of this article. “’What Shall I Do’ is a terrific song that lyrically captures the romantic misfortunes associated with many ‘early 1960s girl groups,’ delivered in a stripped down version of what was to define the heavy upbeat rhythm of the mid-to-late 60s soul movement, a music genre that I love.” It also represents one of the biggest excitements in his life—collecting vinyl records. De La Cruz recommends the classic track, which can be found on YouTube:

“Enrique definitely taught me that there is a lot of good music out there, if you just give it a chance,” explained Ostap. “I suspect there are not too many full professors at prestigious Yale University who have written and recorded their own punk rock album. ”De La Cruz admires Joe Strummer, a musician and co-founder of The Clash, “for encouraging free and independent thinking, remaining endlessly optimistic and hopeful, and demonstrating that caring and unselfish people really can change the world—even if on a small scale.”

Finally, though Ostap refused to go into the “too many hilarious stories to list,” citing career protection, he encourages everyone to ask De La Cruz about the award he shares with Joe Howard from the “Alpbach Motors Conference” that is listed on De La Cruz's CV.

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