A Scientist in Combat

    When biology Professor Raffi Aroian returned from a late-morning workout to his office atop Bonner Hall, he was hungry. Before applying a thick coat of peanut butter to a multigrain tortilla for his own lunch, he generously offered the entire contents of his small pantry. Savoring the initial bites of this makeshift burrito, he then launched into a monologue about the innovative lab to which he owes his name and the research that fuels his passion for “”discovering things that no one has ever seen.””

    Photos by Carina Weber/Guardian
    Biology professor Raffi Aroian researches crystal toxins derived from a strain of bacteria with the purpose of providing a safe alternative to current pesticides used in crops.

    In 1998, an academic partnership between the professor and former Revelle College undergraduate Dino Elyassnia provided the catalyst for a project that has since proven groundbreaking on the research of bacterial pathogenesis amongst nematodes, commonly known as worms. The lab today has grown to 13 members, including the professor and staff from the undergraduate to postdoctoral levels.

    Its scientists study several projects related to a naturally occurring bacteria named Bacilus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a crystal protein used avidly amongst agriculturalists as both an environmentally conscious alternative to chemically derived insecticides and a fatal toxin in plant-eating pests.

    “[Crystal proteins] look almost like diamonds; they’re very, very small, but they’re beautiful,” Aroian said of these bacterial gems.

    The proteins encoded in these crystals, when configured in the genetic makeup of crops, effectively eliminate the scourge of caterpillars and other insects while delivering a product safe for humans and animals alike to consume. Anticipating that Bt would display equal toxicity in nematodes as it had with insects, the Aroian lab has unleashed a subset of crystal proteins on a particular species of harmless nematodes called C. elegans in the hope of one day using this model for a more insidious group of parasitic nematodes.

    However, the Aroian lab operates with great caution. They forecast that C. elegans, like any nematode, would assert biological defenses in much the same manner that bacteria develop immunity toward antibiotics. “[Researchers] want to understand how resistance develops before it becomes a problem because we can understand the molecular mechanisms, the chemical mechanisms [and] the genetic mechanisms that underlie resistance,” Aroian said. “We can try to develop countermeasures against it.”

    Undergraduate researcher Chih Hsu noted that Aroian’s lab has pioneered much of the research in comprehending resistance pathways specific to C. elegans against the crystal protein of Bt. Aroian affirmed that a major pathway discovered by the team has provided promising insights to overcoming resistance, although Hsu estimated that the development for a preventative treatment against parasitic forms is “very far” down on the projected chronology.

    Parasitic nematodes, unlike C. elegans, do not languish innocuously in the soil. Rather, they comprise 10 percent of the estimated 100,000 to 1 million worms that affect both animals and plants. Aroian’s animated voice grew urgent as he considered the one-third of the world population that presently suffers from some form of intestinal roundworm. “It’s really an underappreciated health problem, and most of these people live in developing countries, so it’s not on our radar,” he said.

    Stanford biologist Joel Griffitts, who once worked as a UCSD graduate student under Aroian’s watch, asserted that his former teacher’s goal to understand crystal toxins thrives under the impetus to improve human conditions.

    “He is always driven to make use of basic scientific discoveries to better society,” Griffitts said. “[He] has engaged in fruitful collaborations that could lead to breakthroughs in human health and agricultural productivity.”

    This same concern for the global community found its way into the classroom. At 8 a.m. early in the week, Aroian, dressed in a bright red sweater, spoke to a lecture hall filled with sleepy cell biologists in the making.

    As though addressing a quickly fading undergraduate in the center of the room, whose chin threatened to firmly attach itself to his chest, Aroian quipped with equal parts mischief and sincerity, “What can we do to spice this up for you? I can dance the salsa, I can indeed.”

    True to his promise, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and UC San Francisco graduate began to dance to an invisible band. Little do his students know that this esteemed biologist has also mastered the fox trot, the tango and the rumba.

    Hsu encountered the energetic professor as a plate pourer last spring. He recollected his first impression of Aroian in the lab setup as easy-going and then added, “The lab is really friendly [and] everyone is really nice.”

    Griffitts, who conducted major experiments in Aroian’s lab and co-authored several articles with the professor, characterized Aroian as a mentor who encourages academic independence in the laboratory with a particularly taxing technique of withholding answers to students’ queries “in the hope that they might be able to think it through and come up with the answers themselves.”

    “It was not unusual for him to sit down with a student or staff member and say, ‘I have a great idea for how to test this hypothesis. Let’s see if you can come up with what I’m thinking about, and we’ll talk tomorrow,’” Griffitts said.

    Aroian’s desire to create an environment of inquiry extends to his undergraduate cell biology class. He constructs his lecture around the questions that students pose and re-spins them, asking, “Can anyone synthesize this?”

    He also uses a unique method of questioning: maneuvering his eyebrows up and down while waiting for a response. After a concentrated manipulation of his brow, he admitted to students, “I got my eyebrows trimmed so I can do that so well.”

    His technique has not only drawn laughter from pupils but has thrust figures like Elyassnia and Griffitts onto successful career trajectories — the former of whom Aroian believes now attends medical school.

    Griffitts plans to set up a research laboratory at Brigham Young University in Utah. The Aroian Lab veteran lauded Aroian as a critical springboard in his career and “part of a lineage of great scientists, having been trained by some of the best minds in the biomedical sciences,” Griffitts concluded.

    “I have enjoyed watching him rise to his great potential, and hope that I can do my part to carry on the legacy,” Griffitts said.

    Aroian appears undaunted by the prospect of a legacy, however. Grateful for what he termed “the opportunity just to live and breathe and grow everyday,” you will find him amongst the gleaming glass lab apparatus listening to some internal rhythm and dancing.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    Our Goal

    Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    Our Goal