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New Interdisciplinary Science Chair Champions Collaboration

Jeff Urbach

"I wanted to branch out, in part because I was interested in learning how to apply the tools and techniques that I had to biological problems,” says Jeff Urbach, who began collaborating with researchers in other fields after arriving at Georgetown in the late 1990s.

October 23, 2012 Jeff Urbach, a professor of physics who was recently named Georgetown’s first Interdisciplinary Chair in Science, has been collaborating with scientists from other fields since he arrived on campus more than 15 years ago.

Also inaugural director of the Institute for Soft Matter Synthesis and Metrology at the university’s new science building, Regents Hall, Urbach says he is combining physics with other disciplines to solve real-world problems.

In keeping with that goal, he has formed working relationships with associate professor of biology Heidi Elmendorf, professor of chemistry Paul Roepe, and has also collaborated with researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), including Susette Mueller at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“My lab and office in Regents Hall are now on the same floor as Heidi and Paul’s labs,” Urbach says. “Regents’ open design ensures continual interaction among us and our research groups, as well as between many other researchers from different groups and different departments.” 

Urbach also collaborates with Geoff Goodhill, a former neuroscience department professor now at the University of Queensland and NIH investigator Herb Geller. He hopes to soon start a neuroscience project with associate professor of biology Maria Donoghue

Branching Out

“I wanted to branch out, in part because I was interested in learning how to apply the tools and techniques that I had to biological problems,” Urbach says of his collaborations.

In the last two decades interdisciplinary research has become more common for physicists at research institutions, he says.

“There’s a lot about what’s going on in the biological environment that a physicist is not going to know,” Urbach explains. “But in many situations, acquiring an understanding of the underlying physical phenomena requires a physicist’s perspective.”

Researching Parasite

He says physicists typically make idealized models.

“The trick is to do an idealization that is simple enough that you can solve the problem but is not so simple that it’s irrelevant to the real world,” he says “That requires a lot of back and forth [between departments], and that’s kind of the fun part."

For the past five years, Urbach has been working closely with Elmendorf in an effort to better understand the parasite known as Giardia, an infection in the small intestine common in underdeveloped countries with poor health care and nutrition.

The scientists are investigating how the parasite adheres to the intestinal lining of its hosts.

Suction Cups and Vacuums

Through their collaboration, Elmendorf and Urbach discovered that the parasite clings to the intestine using the microscopic equivalent of a suction cup and a vacuum cleaner.

While suction cups easily stick to impermeable surfaces such as glass, the wall of the intestine is permeable, meaning liquids can flow through it as the Giardia parasite hangs on.

Simulating an Organ

To maintain the pressure needed for suction beneath its ‘cups,’ the parasite uses its tail-like flagella to “act like a pump,” Urbach said, to rhythmically “beat” and “wave” out the fluid that leaks in.

“Now that we’ve got this figured out… we would like to do to build on what we’ve learned,” Urbach said.

His next goal will be to simulate Giardia’s environment, the intestine. Just like other soft matter materials, the intestine has both solid and liquid properties, making it an good project for the physicist.

Other Collaborations

Several years ago, Urbach began working with Roepe to bring advanced microscopy tools to Georgetown College and apply those tools to the study of drug-resistant malarial parasites.

Urbach and his research team helped the Roepe group acquire precise three-dimensional images of living malarial-infected red blood cells, which were used to measure differences between drug-resistant and drug-sensitive strains.

“The mechanism of drug resistance is not yet fully understood,” Urbach says, “but we are hopeful that the tools and insights from physics will help solve this critical mystery.”

Critical Problems

Urbach received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1993, began teaching at Georgetown in the late 1990s, and has since served as chair of the physics department – in 2001-2002 and also between 2003 and 2007.

He has received a Sloan Foundation fellowship and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers as well as research funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, NIST, the Petroleum Research Foundation, the Research Corporation, and the Whitaker Foundation.

After Regents Hall opened this past August, Urbach noted how well that facility is well-suited to the interdisciplinary work.

“My research team is already benefiting from the shared core facilities,” he says, “including infrastructure for cell culturing and biochemical analysis, and we’re looking forward to finding more ways to use these shared tools and techniques to help solve some of the critical problems my colleagues are working on.”

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