43rd Annual Alfred E. Mirsky Holiday Lectures on Science
The Making of Skin and Hair: A Geneticist's Perspective
Monday, December 23, 2002
Professor and Head, Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
We cleanse, manipulate, moisturize and adorn them. But skin and hair are more than just objects for the senses. Together, they constitute our largest organ, a vital barrier that protects us from, among other things, the dangerous rays of the sun and harmful microbes from our environment. But how do skin and hair perform these vital functions, and how do they arise out of a sperm and egg?
Elaine Fuchs, one of the world’s leading molecular geneticists and cell biologists, will take students on a journey through the cellular meshwork that is skin, from the “glue” proteins that hold our skin surface together, to the “stem” cells that allow our hairs to go through spurts of growth and our skin surface to be constantly “renewed.” Moreover, students will learn about the various diseases of skin including skin cancers — and how Fuchs and her research team have begun to home in on what causes these disorders at the most basic, molecular level.
Place a nerve cell in a petri dish, and nothing will happen. Place a skin cell in a petri dish, and several days later a healthy patch of skin will have formed. This unique property of skin is one of the reasons Dr. Fuchs selected to improve scientific understanding of the biology of normal — and abnormal — human cells. It also is one of the reasons this seemingly simple organ continues to provide scientists with a wealth of information about what goes wrong at the molecular level when diseases arise. Fuchs will explain how she and her team began by studying the fascinating way skin proteins normally work, and inadvertently ended with the discovery of the genetic causes of a dozen diseases — including one unexpected disease of the nervous system.
An internationally recognized leader in cell biology and molecular genetics, Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D., heads The Rockefeller University's Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development.
Fuchs, also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, came to Rockefeller in June from the University of Chicago. The university's intellectually rich environment, collaborations with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Medical College of Cornell University, as well as New York City's cultural richness and diversity, attracted Fuchs to Rockefeller.
Committed to educating her students not just about science, but also about the ethics of research, Fuchs says, "You have to teach students effectively. They are the future of science, and we need to convey to them what makes us so passionate about our own science."
After completing her undergraduate degree in chemistry with honors in 1972 at the University of Illinois, Fuchs earned the Ph.D. in biochemistry five years later at Princeton University. Postdoctoral training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology followed.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Fuchs was the president of the American Society of Cell Biology in 2001.
The Alfred E. Mirsky Holiday Lectures on Science were established in 1959 by Dr. Mirsky, a biochemist and Rockefeller University librarian. Dr. Mirsky modeled these lectures on a popular series of science lectures for children, pioneered in London in 1827 by Michael Faraday — known as the greatest experimenter in the history of science.
Founded by John D. Rockefeller, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was incorporated on June 14, 1901. It was the first institution in the United States devoted solely to biomedical research--to understanding the underlying causes of disease.
Today, renamed Rockefeller University, it is one of the foremost research centers in the world, contributing to 21 Nobel Prizes as well as numerous other awards.
More about the university.