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Biophysicist in Profile

Catherine A. Royer

Catherine A. Royer

February 2020 // 5195

Incoming Biophysical Society President Catherine Ann Royer is a professor of biological sciences and chemistry and chem­ical biology and chaired Constellation Professor in Biocompu­tation and Bioinformatics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She grew up in Illinois — first on the South Side of Chicago and later in a working class neighborhood in Peoria. Her mother was an analytical chemist with the Chicago School Board and then a high school chemistry teacher. “I think the fact that my mother worked as a chemist, and a teacher, ended up making me consider the possibility of a career in science later on,” she shares. “Being a scientist would never have occurred to any of my friends in my rather low-income neighborhood.”

Her preschool had French initiation, so she was interested in the French language from an early age. She wanted to be a French teacher when she grew up, and she began her college career studying French literature. During her first year she changed her major to chemistry. “I went on a year abroad program to France in my second year, but instead of studying French I studied natural sciences in French.” Then, she says, “instead of coming back after a year, I defected and ended up getting a natural sciences bachelor’s degree and a chemistry/ biochemistry master’s 1 degree — licence, it was called at the time — from the University of Pierre and Marie Curie - Paris 6.”

After graduation, Royer and her future husband spent a year traveling in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala before returning to Illinois. She worked waiting tables at a French restaurant, where she had a fortuitous encounter. One of her customers was impressed with her ability to pronounce the names of the dishes on the menu, and she explained that she had gone to college in France. “Politely, this person asked what I had studied, and when I answered biochemistry he asked who my professors were. It turned out that the customer was I. C. Gunsalus, a famous BPS member and former chair of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Biochemistry De­partment,” she explains. “He had collaborated with most of my French professors. He suggested that I apply to graduate school, rather than continue to wait tables. I did, miraculous­ly the department accepted my application, and the rest is history.”

Once she started at the University of Illinois, she was drawn to biological fluorescence and the lab of Gregorio Weber. Past BPS President Suzanne Scarlata was in the same lab, and Royer also overlapped with another Past President, Dorothy Beckett. Working in Weber’s lab sent Royer down the path to her current research. “I am still interested in the biophysical mechanisms of transcriptional regulation. During my PhD I also applied pressure-perturbation to characterize biophysical properties of allosteric proteins,” she says, “and still today I pursue the use of pressure to obtain biophysical information, as well as how organisms adapt to high-pressure environ­ments.”

She names her thesis adviser as a scientist she admires, saying of Weber, “He was a fantastic visionary scientist and a true gentleman. Even in an age where sexism was still acceptable, he was not sexist at all. I learned a lot from him about science and how to do it.”

After graduating with her PhD, she received a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation and Cen­tre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) to work on allosteric binding and dynamics at the CNRS in Gif-sur-Yvette and the Universit√© of Paris 7 in France. She then returned to the University of Illinois Physics Department to become the first user coordinator of the Laboratory for Fluorescence Dynamics directed by Enrico Gratton. “After three years, during which I got a National Institutes of Health starter grant to study bio­physics of a transcriptional repressor and was named adjunct professor of biochemistry at University of Illinois,” she says, “I got a tenure-track assistant professor position in the School of Pharmacy University of Wisconsin-Madison.” She was promoted to associate professor five years later, in 1995.

In 1997 Royer accepted a position with the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) as direc­tor of research in the Center for Structural Biochemistry in Montpellier, France. In 2002 she became associate director of the institute and in 2007, director. She moved to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 2013 as a professor of biological sciences and chaired Constellation Professor in Biocomputation and Bioinformatics, posts she still holds.

She is currently building a new collaborative effort focused on systematically applying biophysical approaches to molecules and organisms from extreme environments, “particularly the deep biosphere, which is home to more than 90 per­cent of the Earth’s microbial biomass about which very little is known,” she shares. “How the biomolecules from these organisms are adapted to function under extremes of pres­sure and temperature can teach us a lot about genotype to phenotype at the molecular level.”

Royer and family members at their annual reunion in Normandy.

The most challenging aspect of her career has been grappling with the systemic problems within the world of research. “I have always been somewhat of a non-conformist, always questioning authority. So I have a hard time accepting some of what I consider unfair aspects of scientific endeavor,” she explains. “These include various gender-based as well as elitist biases in grant and manuscript review, in promotion and tenure decisions, and generally what I consider to be unreasonable bean-counting. I don’t just say this for myself or my own experience, as I have to admit I have gotten along pretty well in the system. It is just a situation that annoys me generally — as well as on occasion, personally.”

Royer advises early career scientists: “Don’t get too involved in worrying about process — like I said, there are injustices and annoyances associated with that. Just keep focused on doing the best science, even when you feel impacted by the system. And, find someone who you can talk to and who can help you get through rocky spots. Finally, we all suffer set-backs. That is just the way it is. So enjoy it fully when you get a cool result. Celebrate!”

As she steps into the role of BPS President, Royer reflects on how her career has been supported by the Society. “I think all of my mentors — official and unofficial — have been active members of BPS. Clearly, many of my most exciting and pro­ductive collaborations have come from meeting people at BPS. Early on, prominent female Society members — Clare Wood­ward and Mary Barkley in particular — really supported me and my work,” she says. “And it is always a pleasure to spend time with old friends discussing science and many other things. I hope that I can give a leg up to young Society members in the same way as was done for me. I try in any case.”