Research & Innovation

Study published as cover of prestigious Cell journal

The cover of Cell, December 5, 2013, features a study co-authored by Assistant Professor Joseph Glavy and collaborator Martin Beck, group leader at European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany.

Cell, “a publication of exceptional research,” boasts an impact factor of 32, comparable to Nature, Science, and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Glavy and Beck’s study, “Integrated Structural Analysis of the Human Nuclear Pore Complex Scaffold,” focuses on the Nuclear Pore Complex (NPC), a fundamental component of cells that facilitates nucleocytoplasmic transport of macromolecules. The work details a novel and highly integrative approach to the study this huge cellular machine that combines crosslinking mass spectrometry, single particle electron microscopy, electron tomography and other techniques in order to learn more about NPC structure, organization and its functional capacity. The researchers from Stevens and EMBL present a blueprint that finally describes the organization of NPC scaffold components, a long debated topic in this field of research.

“Once you know the structure of the nuclear pore, we can better understand the processes that it undertakes related to normal function and disease,” says Glavy.

“That’s a bit more than half of the nuclear pore that we still have to fit into this intricate three-dimensional, 1000-piece puzzle,” says Beck. “But having that complete picture will allow us to really probe how molecules are transported into and out of the nucleus.”

“The more we understand about its normal state,” explains Glavy, “the more we can know about potential drug delivery and viral infections, such as HIV, which use this system to infect the nucleus of cells.”

One key aspect leading to the success of this study was Stevens undergraduate, Amanda DiGuilio, who pursued her Ph.D. under the guidance of Drs Glavy and Beck. DiGuilio traveled to Heidelberg after receiving an undergraduate summer fellowship from the Summer Scholars Program. In this program, undergraduate students engage in research, innovative design, and/or business projects, working directly with faculty and researchers. As a summer scholar, DiGiulio received credit towards her masters degree and then progressed to her PhD. Continuing her work with Glavy and Beck, she received the Robert Crooks Stanley fellowship that allowed her to work on the research full time.

“It is so rewarding to see your work come together as part of such a great story and inspires you to continue to push forward,” says DiGuilio, co-author of the paper. She credits Charles Suffel, Dean of Graduate Academics, for ensuring the success of her collaborative Ph.D. experience.

However, completion of the study and publication in Cell did not come without struggle. Late on October 29 Superstorm Sandy struck the northeast, becoming the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season.  Amidst that destruction, Glavy lost some of his lab equipment and supplies, nearly ruining precious years of work.  

“The lab freezers didn’t work and we lost our supplies,” says Glavy. “Our machines were damaged by the power outages.”

After almost three months of down time, Glavy had to face the uncertainties of future funding. “We couldn’t progress competitively,” he says. “We had to work harder to restore everything, our data and equipment.”

However, Glavy explains, because of the time and support given by Stevens’ administration, he was able to complete the study. In particular, the Stanley fellowship committee granted a third year of funding for DiGiulio’s Ph.D. work that enabled her return to the EMBL and continued work on the project.

According to Michael Bruno, Feiler Chair Professor and Dean, School of Engineering and Science, “Joe has come back very strongly, and this paper is a testament to his resolve and to the high quality of his work.”