Rising stars: MSU assistant professors doing stellar research

Published March 7, 2016


Kristin N. Parent (seated) and Jian Hu, BMB assistant professors since 2013, are already making significant contributions to MSU.

Kristin N. Parent and Jian Hu joined Michigan State University’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) as assistant professors in 2013, and they are already doing a stellar job of making significant contributions to MSU—as well as in their respective fields.

Parent studies the structure and biology of viruses—focusing on viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophage, or phage)—using cryo-electron microscopy. In recognition of this method, she was one of four women scientists recently honored with the inaugural AAAS Marion Milligan Mason Award, selected out of a field of 500 applicants.

Hu, a structural biologist primarily using crystallography to solve critical problems in biology, was instrumental in the discovery of a novel nickel-containing cofactor in a collaborative project led by BMB professor Robert Hausinger. Results were published in Science last summer.

Before coming to MSU, Parent was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego. She came to MSU because of its well-known biochemistry program.

“BMB is one of the most collegial departments I have ever seen,” Parent said. “The group of scientists working here—that’s what made me want to come here.”

“Professor Parent has made excellent progress in getting her research program established,” said Thomas D. Sharkey, University Distinguished Professor and chair of the BMB department in MSU’s College of Natural Science. “She oversaw the installation of the cryo-electron microscope at MSU and has begun training students and publishing.”

Parent’s research could potentially lead to antimicrobial applications.

“There is  a driving need for new antibiotics, as more bacteria become resistant,” she said. “There is also the idea of using viral architecture to drive the design of nanoparticles—figuring out their building block structures and their blueprints to build vaccines or drug delivery devices.”

Hu was an associate research scientist at Yale University School of Medicine before joining the MSU faculty.

“MSU is really focused on research. That’s also my interest,” Hu said. “Of course, teaching is very important as well,” noted Hu, who is teaching his first undergraduate-level course this semester.

“Professor Hu has already been awarded a major grant from the National Institutes of Health (an R01) and has several other external grants,” Sharkey said. “He has a very strong core program and great collaborative projects underway in a very short time.”

Of the four projects Hu is currently involved with, two of them are collaborations—both inside and outside of MSU.

“There are so many different faculty, and so many different research directions; this is a very good resource for collaborative work,” said Hu, who also has a 25 percent appointment in MSU’s chemistry department in the College of Natural Science.

“We’ve made substantial progress in our research,” Hu said. “In the field of zinc biology, for the zinc transporters, people knew these proteins were important, but we had no idea how they worked. Knowing the structure will be the first and crucial step toward a thorough understanding of how these tiny machineries work at the atomic level.”

The discovery of this structure could be beneficial for human health, as many diseases are associated with disturbed zinc homeostasis, such as diabetes and some cancers.

No doubt, these already successful scientists will continue to reach for the stars.