Welcome new 2013-2014 faculty

10/21/13

The college welcomes three new faculty members to its ranks for the 2013-2014 year, Dr. Walter Leal and John Albeck in Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Dr. Santiago Ramirez in Evolution and Ecology.

Walter Leal, Professor

Walter Leal

Walter Leal
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Dr. Leal, who has been at UC Davis since 2000, is joining MCB from the department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. A longtime collaborator with Professor David Wilson on the molecular basis of insect olfaction, Leal's move to CBS will allow the professors' teamwork to be housed in the same college.

Dr. Leal is a distinguished researcher, a member of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. He says that another motivation for joining MCB is the teaching opportunities in CBS.

"I love teaching. For the last 13 years I taught an upper division course, ENT102 insect physiology, for a small group of students," he said. "I wanted to teach a larger class and do my best to inspire students earlier on. Hope I can accomplish this goal by teaching biochemistry at MCB starting next quarter."

Leal adds that his research program has shifted throughout the years and is now more focus on molecular basis of insect olfaction. He is looking forward to closer collaboration with experts in similar areas here.

Moreover, he says, he is looking forward to bringing value to the department.

"Being MCB faculty, my lab will continue to benefit from the facilities and services, but also contribute to the department with my teaching, grant overhead, and services," Leal says.

John Albeck, Assistant Professor

John Albeck

John Albeck
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Also joining MCB this year is Assistant Professor John Albeck, whose research focuses on the individuality of cells.

"Consider identical twins, who have the same genes but are very different people — cells are like that on a molecular level," Albeck said. "At any given time or day cells' genes are the same but the programs that they are running vary, meaning which proteins are being expressed to conduct different functions.

"And this timing makes a big difference if you are treating them with a drug."

Albeck's research homes in on those behavioral fluctuations in order to better understand the best timing for delivering medications to cells, such as drugs for cancer.

Albeck's lab does single-cell microscropy to look inside cells using a number of different tools, with most of the work is focused on human cancer cell lines, especially mammary cells. Earlier this year, he published research showing that the cells along the ERK pathway actually blink — they are actively pulsing.

"The blinks aren't regular; we just don't know what it is yet," he said.

"Cancer drugs developed over the last 10-15 years targeting these same kinases and signaling networks work okay, but not great. They would work better if we knew how long the cells should see them and how frequently," Albeck said.

Albeck comes to UC Davis via Harvard, and was attracted here by the diverse group of researchers who embrace basic science.

"The number of people and opportunities to collaborate here are very exciting, and I think can lead to interesting new results," he said.

Santiago Ramirez, Assistant Professor

Santiago Ramirez

Santiago Ramirez
Department of Evolution and Ecology

Assistant Professor Santiago Ramirez arrived at UC Davis last spring, after landing what he calls "everyone's dream job" in the Department of Evolution and Ecology.

There, he quickly got to work setting up his lab to continue his research on various species of bees, primarily in Costa Rica.

"Right now most of our research focuses on understanding how mutualisms between bees and orchids assemble and function" Ramirez said. "They have evolved one of these rare cases of specialization where 200 species of bees each have a very unique association with one or two species of orchids."

As Ramirez explained it, the male bees in these species do not produce their own pheromones to attract mates, but instead go around the forest collecting chemical compounds from orchids and other sources. Each male collects a specific "cocktail" of scents that attracts female of its own species.

Moreover, the orchids have a fascinating reciprocal adaptation: They only produce the compounds that attract the bees — no pollen or nectar.

"The orchids don't produce food, just these chemical compounds used by bees for mating," Ramirez said.

At his field site in Costa Rica, Ramirez is studying 24 species of bees, each one completely different from one another. He is using genetic and genomic tools applied to the bees, focusing on olfactory receptor genes to study how each species detects the compounds present in the pheromone-like perfumes.

In terms of the flowers, Ramirez investigates how the orchids are producing these chemical compounds for the right species — each has its own scent bouquet that is tailored to one or two species of bee. His hypothesis is that the orchids maintain species isolation this way.

"There are five different species of orchids that coexist in the same area of Costa Rica and bloom at same time. Theoretically they could cross-breed, but that never occurs in the wild," Ramirez said. "Their mechanism of staying isolated from one another is by producing these very specific odorants to attract exclusive bee pollinators."

In addition, Ramirez is continuing a research project on feral North American honeybee species, which he started as a post-doc at UC Berkeley. He is using population genetics to track how these populations have changed over time, comparing modern specimens to museum samples from 100 years ago.

"We are identifying what parts of the genome segregate along geographic and climatic gradients," Ramirez said. "This could be useful for understanding what subspecies are hardier in different climates, and working toward solving some of the problems with honey bee collapse in North America."