By Stephanie Thompson
Name: Brett Barbaro
Courses: Introduction to Biochemistry
Brett Barbaro’s love for science started at age 4, when his father taught him about atoms. After graduating from Harvard University’s biochemistry program, he spent some time teaching English in Japan before returning to complete a Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine, where he studied the molecular mechanisms of Huntington’s Disease. Now a consultant at Scripps Research Institute, he’s currently working on building atomic-resolution computer models of biological systems. His course is meant both for students who haven’t taken a biochemistry course and those who have and want to refresh their knowledge.
What do you most enjoy about your profession?
Biology is fascinating and beautiful, and there’s always more to learn about it. I’ve always loved solving puzzles, brain teasers, logic problems, and so on. Well, biology is the ultimate puzzle. Nothing is more complex and more challenging to figure out.
I have small, short-term goals, learning what I can about a little system, and then that feeds into the grand, long-term goals–tackling the problems of society, like curing diseases or improving energy production. That’s how science works–small achievements help the greater effort. I try to do my part to communicate these ideas to my students, who may in turn contribute their small part to the big picture.
What advice would you give someone looking to enter this career field?
Don’t go into it for the money! It’s challenging–you have to make sure you really love it. If you do choose to become a scientist, make sure you pursue the things that are most exciting to you, because that will carry you through the hard times.
Whether or not biochemistry fits into your career, though, everyone can benefit from some basic knowledge about it, from the role of DNA to the importance of the foods we eat. It helps us to understand who we are and how we fit into the grand scheme of nature.
How is your field changing?
We are acquiring more and more data, and working with larger and larger data sets, from the study of genomics, proteomics and similar methods. One of the biggest challenges now is integrating and interpreting all of that data. The use of computers is pretty much essential to process all of that information. That’s why I’m studying what I am.
That’s not to say that computers are the foundation of modern science. Traditional methods of experimentation and data collection are as valid and important as ever. But to tackle the overwhelming complexity of biology, there is a need for computation to integrate all the data. Individual pieces won’t answer all of our questions–we need to be able to see the big picture.
Would you say that the use of computers is driving the creation of these large data sets, or the other way around?
The use of computers and working with larger data sets drive each other. With genomes, for example, you have billions of base pairs to study–without computers it would be challenging to even write them all down. So computers make that kind of work possible. And there are millions of genomes that need to be studied. We are constantly developing the computational side to deal with larger and larger systems, so it is really co-evolving with our work.
Similarly, my course materials are constantly being developed, because there’s a lot of stuff going on in the biochemistry and scientific worlds. Things are constantly changing. Although the level of this course is pretty fundamental, new things we learn alter aspects of our understanding and give me the opportunity to evolve what I’m teaching. I try to keep up to date.
What do you like most about teaching for Extension?
I like teaching biochemistry in any setting. I’ve worked in several labs and taught in a variety of environments, starting with my first class teaching computers in high school. One great thing about teaching at Extension is that the students are all there voluntarily and are very motivated to learn. They are also generally quite mature; most are college grads and are trying to enter professional programs.
I hope no matter why they are taking the course, the students leave with a better understanding of biochemistry and are inspired to integrate what they’ve learned into their lives. I hope it changes the way they do their jobs and how they think about the world. If I can infect others with these ideas, I’ve done my job.
Interested in learning more about biochemistry and other related courses and programs? Find out more on our website, or contact the department at firstname.lastname@example.org or (858) 534-9353.