05/08/2001 07:00:00

Caltech Professor Receives Young Investigator Award for Insights into the Brain

For Immediate Release May 8, 2001

PASADENA, Ca.— How does a brief moment in time become etched forever as a memory? How does the brain manipulate the body's biomechanical ability to allow us—well, most of us—to walk and chew gum at the same time? Understanding the chemical basis of such brain processes is the goal of Linda C. Hsieh-Wilson, an assistant professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. In support of her research, Hsieh-Wilson has been named a Beckman Young Investigator by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, and will receive $240,000 in support over the next two years.

In her laboratory, Hsieh-Wilson and her graduate students apply a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the molecular mechanisms that enable nerve cells to interact and communicate with one another. "We know that complex processes, such as learning and memory, are the result of many molecules—proteins, carbohydrates, and neurotransmitters—working together in the brain to transmit, process, and store information," Hsieh-Wilson notes. "However, we do not yet know the identity of many of these molecules, or understand how their structures relate to their biological function." By combining chemistry, molecular biology, and neurobiology, Hsieh-Wilson and her students can make molecules that test their hypotheses about the molecular mechanisms that allow neuronal communication.

The group explores chemical changes at a cell's synapse, the point between two nerve cells where an electrical nerve impulse is converted to a chemical signal for transmission from one cell to the next. They are also focusing on gaining a better understanding of the chemical modifications that occur to intracellular proteins when nerve cells are stimulated. By understanding these processes, they hope to elucidate the chemical changes that are important for brain function, as well as dysfunction.

Achieving these goals would not only provide insight into how we learn and remember, but would allow researchers to develop strategies for intervention when these processes break down.

Prior to joining the chemistry faculty last summer, Hsieh-Wilson obtained her PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1996, and completed her postdoctoral studies in neurobiology at the Rockefeller University. "I sincerely appreciate the generosity and support of the Beckman Foundation—this award enables us to build an interdisciplinary research program, and to pursue new avenues of research at the interface of chemistry and neurobiology."

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation is an independent, nonprofit foundation located in Irvine, California, and originally established in September 1977. Its mission is to support research in the fields of chemistry and the life sciences, and to foster the invention of methods, instruments, and materials that will open new avenues of research and applications in these disciplines and related sciences. Through their Beckman Foundation, Dr. and Mrs. Beckman contributed more than $350 million to the advancement of scientific research and education. Mabel Beckman died in 1989; Dr. Beckman celebrated his 101st birthday in April 2001.