More Than Meets the Eye

Science and Tech
January 22, 2013
Biological Sciences Professor Colette Daubner has a doctorate in biological chemistry and spends hours squinting at spectrophotometer readings to find clues about how enzymes influence ways the human brain works. But Daubner cautions people not to jump to conclusions about what that says about her or science.

StMU Faculty Colette Daubner“Some non-scientists believe that scientists are dry, dull people who only relate to numbers and equations. I want students to know that scientists are like overgrown children, still in awe of butterflies and bubbles and stars and fossils,” Daubner said.

Passing that perspective along to her students is not just a part of her calling as a scientist; it’s a part of her calling as a professor at St. Mary’s. “The Catholic tradition of searching for answers to fundamental questions gives us the validation to be scientists; it is not a selfish activity. The Marianist view of the world tells us that we will be most blessed if we can find ways to apply our new knowledge to helping the world we’re learning about.”

Elegant science

Daubner’s research has focused on enzyme reactions involving the vitamins folic acid, flavin, or biopterin. “Every enzyme I have worked on has had some crucial role in vertebrate animal health. The vitamin folic acid is critical for growing cells, flavin for basic energy metabolism, and biopterin for the synthesis of neurotransmitters. My amazement with these enzymes is centered on how molecules subject to stringent physical and chemical rules can achieve such elegant structures and complex functions in living animals.”

Specifically, for the past 20 years Daubner has focused on the enzyme responsible for the synthesis of dopamine in human brains and adrenal glands. “Dopamine has been getting a lot of press lately as the neurotransmitter of risky behavior, pleasure and reward-seeking behavior, and also cognition, attention, learning, and voluntary movement. Parkinson’s Disease, characterized by involuntary movements, is a disease of dopamine depletion,” she explained. “Because of heightened interest in dopamine, a recent paper of mine in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics has been one of the top 10 downloaded papers of the journal for several months.”

Passing it on

Daubner works with undergraduates not just in the classroom but also in the laboratory, helping exceptional students feed their interest in graduate-level research. She knows first-hand the power that a mentor can have on a student, noting that her first intentions were to work in developmental biology until one of her own professors sparked her interest in biochemistry and influenced the direction of her life’s work toward molecular development. Daubner hopes she can influence her own students in a similar way.

“I want students to understand and love the beautiful logic and symmetry that physics and chemistry bring to biology; the wonder that it all comes together so exquisitely.”

More About Daubner

Areas of Expertise: Biochemistry; Neurochemistry; Dopamine metabolism; Enzymology; Folate metabolism; Purine metabolism; Protein modification

Education: University of Wisconsin, B.S. in Zoology; University of Michigan, Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry

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