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Biophysicist in Profile

Samantha Harris

Samantha Harris

June 2016 // 4334

Samantha Harris, associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Arizona, grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She was interested in animals and biology from a very young age, and her high school anatomy and physiology class—specifically a cat dis­section—set her on a path toward a scientific career. “I loved learning about the different organ systems and how all the structures seemed so perfectly matched to their functions,” she recalls.

Harris’s father was a businessman and her mother was a stay-at-home mom before attending community college and going on to earn her mas­ter’s degree in social work when Harris went to college. Harris had always thought that she would become a veterinarian, and throughout high school and college worked in vet clinics. “Growing up, no one in my family was in science. I actually suspect my parents had a bit of a hard time understand­ing the attraction of science for me, although they seemed to tolerate well enough the occasional cat dissection,” she says. “As for me, I didn’t initially consider a career in research until I met my future husband, Walt Harris, an aspiring astronomer, when I was a freshman at the University of Illinois. Neither of us had any idea what academic research involved or how hard it would be to be successful, but we somehow forged a mutual partnership that made it happen.”

She was accepted into veterinary school during her junior year of college, but deferred acceptance to complete her bachelor of science degree. Follow­ing graduation, Harris married and moved out of state to attend the Uni­versity of Michigan, where she began PhD studies in physiology. She was accepted to another vet school that year, but opted to continue her graduate work instead. “In retrospect I feel like I’ve come full circle because one of my projects now involves working with cats that have hypertrophic cardio­myopathy (HCM) due to a mutation in the protein I study, cardiac myosin binding protein-C (cMyBP-C), in collaborative work with veterinarians at University of California, Davis,” Harris says. “It is satisfying to make con­tributions to both human and veterinary medicine by understanding how mutations in cMyBP-C can cause disease and by exploring new therapeutic approaches to the treatment of HCM.”

She completed her PhD in physiology in 1995 and began postdoc studies in muscle physiology in Richard Moss’s lab at the University of Wiscon­sin, Madison. “I liked the idea of studying something entirely new, and Rick Moss’s lab offered many exciting opportunities. I especially liked the broad question of understanding the significance of thick filament (myo­sin) based mechanisms of contraction—which typify regulation in smooth and invertebrate muscles—in muscles such as skeletal and cardiac muscles, which are known to be regulated primarily through thin filament (actin) based mechanisms,” Harris explains. “This basic question is what eventually led me to study the regulatory protein cMyBP-C while I was in Rick’s lab because cMyBP-C at that time was considered an exclusively thick filament associated protein, but also one that was important for cardiac contraction, a thin filament regulated muscle.”

Following her postdoc, Harris joined the fac­ulty of the department of bioengineering at the University of Washington as a research assistant professor. “The position was a great start for me because it provided a small start-up allowance that along with a Scientist Development Grant I received from the American Heart Association allowed me to be completely independent,” Har­ris shares. “At the same time, I benefited greatly from the help and mentoring of other established muscle physiology labs, especially from Mike Regnier and his lab group.” She was able to hire Maria Razumova, a good friend, to work with her as a postdoc, and Justin Shaffer, a bioengineering graduate student, joined the lab as well. “It was just the three of us in that small lab doing experi­ments, but we had a great time together and ulti­mately we were very successful,” she says. “It was in that small lab that I received a phone call from the NIH telling me that we were funded!”

Regnier collaborated with Harris during this time on some of her initial studies to determine the binding partners for cMyBP-C and how phos­phorylation of the cardiac specific motif regulates myosin cycling and cardiac muscle contractile properties. “Our collaborations have been pleas­ant, productive, and a scientific learning experi­ence for me,” he says. "Sam is a conscientious and careful scientist and you can trust the quality of her research.”

Harris’s colleagues Marion Siegman and Tom Butler, both of Thomas Jefferson University, agree with Regnier. “She is the type of colleague that you always learn something new from concerning your own research.[...] Sam’s energy and passion for research and teaching are invigorating,” they offer.

After several years Harris moved to the University of California, Davis (UCD), and joined the De­partment of Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior as an assistant professor. “I really enjoyed teaching undergraduates in the exercise biology major at UCD, and I gained a deeper apprecia­tion for the beneficial role of exercise and the detrimental effects of inactivity on human health,” she says. “It was in part because of these experi­ences that I started biking to and from work—a lifestyle change that I still enjoy today.”

Since 2013, Harris has been at the University of Arizona, where she works with a growing group of colleagues, including Henk Granzier, Jil Tardiff, John Konhilas, Carol Gregorio, Tom Doetschman, and Brett Colson. “Collectively we specialize in the study of muscle myofilament proteins and cardiac myopathies using methods from single molecule biophysics to whole animal approaches using mouse models. While I have benefitted enor­mously from having colleagues in different disci­plines such as bioengineering and exercise physi­ology throughout my career, I am thoroughly enjoying being in an environment surrounded by other muscle biophysicists,” she shares. “It actually feels a bit like going to the Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society when I go into the lab each day.” Her lab is now focused on moving many of their discoveries of the function of cMyBP-C made using in vitro experiments, to studies aimed at understanding how cMyBP-C interacts with its binding partners to affect cardiac function in vivo.

The biggest challenge in Harris’s career has been navigating a science career alongside a spouse who is also in science. “Both of us have been the ‘trail­ing spouse’ at least once, and the timing hasn’t always fit our professional development,” she says. “At the same time, I think it has also been an advantage for each of us to have a spouse who understands the lifestyle and unique demands of an academic career.”

When she is not in the lab, Harris spends time with her family and their three pets. Harris is also working toward her private pilot license, learning to fly a Robinson 22 helicopter. “I really enjoy the physical and mental challenge of learning some­thing entirely outside of my range of experience,” she explains.

For young biophysicists, Harris offers this advice: “Respect your data and be willing to revise or abandon your hypothesis. Be critical, run appro­priate control experiments, but also be willing to accept an unanticipated result. For me, it was an unexpected result in control experiments that led to virtually all of the work that’s ever been done in my lab.”