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Biophysicist in Profile

Gabriela K. Popescu

Gabriela K. Popescu

February 2024 // 406

Gabriela K. Popsecu is a Romanian-born American biophysicist with expertise in the molecular phys­iology of glutamate-gated channels. She is professor of biochemistry and clinical professor of an­esthesiology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo. She is best known for her quantitative work on the biophysical properties of NMDA receptors. She begins her term as Biophysical Society President in February 2024.

The oldest of three children with two economics professors for parents, Gabriela K. Popescu took for granted that she too would become an academic and teach Marxian economics to generations of Romanian undergraduate students. Her parents encouraged their children to pursue diverse interests, however. As a child, she loved literature and was an avid read­er; enjoyed languages, especially English and Russian; and excelled in math. She shares, “Physics, chemistry, and biology were not in my field of view, not part of my envisioned future." That changed in her senior year of high school when a lecture in genetic engineering inspired her to consider a profession for herself that felt more meaningful. She envisioned how genetically modified crops could feed the entire world to end hunger on the planet and wanted to be part of that transfor­mation. “I absolutely loved the challenge. One may say I found my calling," she recalls. "I bought every textbook and problem set I could find and spent many late nights answering my own questions. I still love to do that, although now I have the internet and PubMed at my fingertips.”

She attended the University of Bucharest, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1984, and earning a mas­ter’s degree in biochemistry the following year. She then was recruited to do biomedical research at the Oncologic Institute of Bucharest, where she worked testing anticancer drugs with enzymatic assays, while at the same time she started a family. In 1989, she joined the faculty of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Bucharest as a lecturer. Two years later, Popescu enrolled in the Biochemistry Graduate Program at the University at Buffalo. "Flying from Bucharest to Buffalo in 1991, I had a return ticket just in case," she re­veals. "My children, who were four and six at the time, joined me the following year, and the rest—as they say—is histo­ry.” She still thinks that graduate school in a foreign country, with two elementary-school-aged children, was the hardest thing she has ever done. Years later, she uses that experience to guide, coach, and mentor students, postdocs, and junior faculty, with the knowledge that encouragement and sup­port from a more experienced scientist can often make a real difference in a person’s life and can go a long way to attract and retain passionate and talented individuals in scientific research.

During this challenging time, the Counseling Center at the University at Buffalo, which offered free counseling sessions, was an unanticipated lifeline for her. Aside from invaluable psychological growth, the experience connected her with peers within the university, and stimulated her to begin con­sidering the human mind from a scientific perspective. Rather than feeding the planet with genetically modified crops, she shifted her professional efforts toward understanding how the brain works.

“I developed a passion for understanding how our brains serve and fail us, more specifically for understanding the molecular basis of neuropsychiatric phenomena,” Popescu ex­plains. Her first postdoctoral position was in the lab of Michael Stachowiak, studying cellular neurobiology; she investigated signaling through Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptors. Her second postdoc was in ion channel biophysics with Tony Auer­bach, investigating signaling through neurotransmitter-gated channels. “I will be forever grateful to Tony Auerbach, who en­trusted me, a biochemist, with solving the kinetic mechanism of NMDA receptors, the principal calcium-passing synaptic receptors in brain and spinal cord. Gratitude also goes to a NIDA-supported F32 fellowship that supported my research, and an AHA Scientist Development Grant, which represented the ‘foot-in-the-door’ for a tenure-track academic position,” she remembers. “My postdoctoral work represented a solid springboard to asking both fundamental and translational questions about synaptic transmission and brain plasticity.”

Following her postdoctoral training, she accepted a ten­ure-track assistant professor position in the Department of Biochemistry at the University at Buffalo. Popescu had chosen to stay in Buffalo to avoid uprooting her children, both of whom were in middle school during the time she was completing postdoctoral training and embarking on her career as an independent researcher. “For my entire scientific training and academic career, I was at the same institution. For this reason, my support network, information channels, and sources of inspiration were initially limited. In this regard, in-person meetings, such as the Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Soci­ety, have been critical in helping me to make the connections necessary to advance in my career.”

Four years later, she was promoted to asso­ciate professor with tenure, and four more years later to full professor. She says, "I keep telling my trainees that there is not one career path. We each have distinct constellations of talents, motivations, and opportunities which will shape our own career trajectory. My expe­rience speaks very clearly to that.”

Now Popescu directs an NINDS-R35-spon­sored program investigating the molecular physiology of NMDA receptors. “Specifically, we investigate how changes in the energy landscape of the NMDA receptors, produced by genetic modifications or by interactions with diffusible ligands, change the electro­chemical output of NMDA receptors,” she explains. “This information can be instrumen­tal in developing new or better therapeutic interventions for a variety of neuropsychiatric conditions, including GRIN disorders, neuro­degenerative conditions, and more recently, depression.”

She shares, “I love biophysics for its rigor and impact! No frills, no flutter: just the facts, ma’am! One can say that physics is similarly rigorous in how it describes its concepts, methods, and results. However, in my opinion, one cannot overcome the impact of under­standing life, biological processes, and even the human mind with the rigor and precision of physics, which is exactly what biophysics is all about.”

Popescu previously served as chair of the Bio­physical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women and as a member of Council, and will be stepping into the role of Society President this month. “The Biophysi­cal Society, through its programs, committee events, and meetings has been successful in creating and nurturing a community, a loyal following of people and a sense of camarade­rie, and ‘we’re in this together!’” she declares. “Over the past more than 20 years I have been a member I have seen the Society evolve to adapt to new realities while maintaining a sense of community. I think this is special!”

Popescu credits much of her life and career success to the unwavering support of her hus­band of 20+ years, Daniel J. Kosman, who is an American biochemist and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry at the University at Buffalo. They enjoy ballroom dancing, cooking, and gardening, as well as their four children and increasing number of grandchildren on the two North American coasts.