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Jacquelyn S. Fetrow

Building Bridges

Wake Forest's newest Reynolds Professor is a paragon of cross-disciplinary teaching and research

This article appeared in the June 2004 edition of the Wake Forest Magazine.

At every turn, Jacquelyn Fetrow eludes being tucked into tidy disciplinary pigeonholes. Her very title — Reynolds Professor of Computational Biophysics — seems to encompass three fields. She divides her time between the physics and computer science departments (“100 percent in both,” she quips), but she is neither a physicist nor a computer scientist by training. Her doctorate is in biochemistry, but her research is not really biochemical in nature.

The best way to classify Wake Forest's sixth and newest Reynolds Professor is as a paragon of the proliferation of cross-disciplinary and interdepartmental teaching and research at the University. In her multiple collaborations, and in every facet of her work in the laboratory and classroom — from her study of the molecular binding properties of proteins to accelerate and enhance the drug discovery process, to teaching software engineers and biochemists to communicate better — she builds bridges.

“Jacque is one of the most significant additions to the faculty in the history of the University,” says Rick Matthews, professor and chair of physics. “I knew that she was going to be fantastic when we hired her, but I did not expect her to be as transforming as she has been, and in so many ways. She has forged new relationships and extended existing relationships with colleagues at the medical school, has pulled the computer science and physics departments closer together, and has provided the perfect complement to the four biophysicists we already had in the department. We are blessed to have her.”

A Pennsylvania native, Fetrow came to Wake Forest last August from San Diego, where she had spent six years — first, as a research scientist at the Scripps Research Institute, and then, as the chief scientific officer of a startup company that developed drug target identification and analysis software for pharmaceutical companies before morphing into a drug R&D company itself. When her company, GeneFormatics, merged with another firm last year, she began looking for new opportunities — and found an ideal one a continent away.

“Wake Forest has a viewpoint I really appreciate,” says Fetrow, who spent seven years at SUNY-Albany before taking a sabbatical year that extended into two at Scripps. “It's not stolidly entrenched in the old disciplinary mold. It is very much interdisciplinary, which is the way industry, at least in my field, is heading.”

Although her research is in drug discovery — seemingly suited best for chemistry — Fetrow says physics and computer science are the most appropriate departments for her. At base, she studies the motions of proteins, and molecular motion is part of what physics is all about. To do so, she deploys sophisticated computational tools, including molecular mechanics simulations and surveys of protein structures, which of course falls under the purview of computer science. One of the primary reasons she chose Wake Forest over other opportunities, she says, was its “superb” information technology infrastructure, particularly its fast and powerful Linux computing cluster downtown.

The locus of Fetrow's research can be characterized simply as proteins in pharmaceuticals. “Drugs modify protein function, and I want to better understand the relationship between protein structure, function, and dynamics so that we can discover drugs with more efficacy and specificity and fewer side effects, and discover them more quickly,” she explains.

True to her own instincts and the nature of her inquiries, the vivacious and entrepreneurial Fetrow is collaborating with a host of Wake Forest scientists and students. She and Freddie Salsbury, an assistant professor of physics, are developing a tool for identification of active sites in proteins and will jointly teach a course and lab this fall on the physics of biological macromolecules.

Together with biochemists Leslie Poole and Todd Lowther, Fetrow will apply the tool she and Salsbury develop to the analysis of redoxin proteins, a super family of proteins involved in many different cellular functions. In collaboration with Poole, Larry Daniel of biochemistry and Z. Smith Reynolds Faculty Fellow in Chemistry S. Bruce King, she is developing tools and reagents that will allow analysis of redox signaling and the effect of oxidants and antioxidants on cells.

Among her other collaborations, research scientist Stacy Knutson worked with Fetrow at her San Diego company, where she helped develop the original active-site profiling technology. Following her mentor to Wake Forest, Knutson now conducts various research projects and manages Fetrow's laboratory.

Mike Murray, a graduate student in biochemistry, is using molecular dynamics simulations to understand and observe protein unfolding. Ryan Huff, a graduate student in computer science, is developing several tools for Fetrow and Knutson to use in their research. And Michael Hicks, an undergraduate biology major, is conducting research in collaboration with a group at UNC-Chapel Hill on the motions and dynamics of a protein called cholinesterase.

One collaboration Fetrow is especially enthused about is a course in “bioinformatics” she team-taught last semester with Jennifer Burg, chair of computer science, and Tim Miller, an adjunct faculty member in computer science and physics and administrator of the University's Linux cluster. “In biochemical research today, you have people with backgrounds in software engineering and people with backgrounds in biochemistry or biophysics, but very few people who can talk with both sides,” she notes. “The scientists need to state their projects and convey their testing sets in ways that computer scientists can understand. We don't need people who know everything about science and computing, but we do need people who can communicate in both languages.” She envisions the course, in which science and computing students work on projects in teams, possibly evolving into a first-of-its-kind program for training specifically in cross-disciplinary communication.

But first and foremost, the entrepreneurial Fetrow is focused on discovering new ways to develop better pharmaceuticals more quickly. Might there be patent possibilities here? The question elicits an even wider smile on her naturally sunny countenance: “You bet!”

— David Fyten
Office of Creative Services

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