Newswise — The microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans has a story to tell, and Cori Bargmann wants to hear it. But along the way, this geneticist and neurobiologist has been recruited to lead an innovative research organization with amazing potential. Bargmann plans to shine the spotlight on both of these important aspects of her life at the Fred Kavli Keynote Lecture on Saturday, December 2 at 6:00 pm during the 2017 ASCB|EMBO Meeting. Her talk is titled “Building Knowledge by Integrating Levels: Genes, Cells and Behavior.”

Multidisciplinary collaboration and the advancement of science will be one of the themes of the talk by Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann, who in September 2016 was named to lead science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). The science work began with a $3 billion investment by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician and founder and CEO of The Primary School in East Palo Alto, CA. Bargmann will split her presentation between her work at CZI and her own research at Rockefeller University in New York, where she studies C. elegans to unravel the mysteries of nervous system signaling and behavior.

What Could Accelerate the Progress of Science?

Bargmann has high expectations for CZI, which gives researchers a chance to step away from the treadmill of grant submissions and publishing to focus on bigger questions in science. “At CZI, we are being given a special opportunity to look very broadly at the state of science today and ask what could accelerate its progress. We have a long timeframe, and we don’t have to focus on one specific question.”

While one could point to many small-scale efforts that have sought to foster multidisciplinary research either within or across institutions, Bargmann says CZI, which includes members from many research institutions, is taking a more comprehensive approach.

“One theme we’re pursuing is enabling collaboration. The problems that are out there in medicine are complicated, and no one scientist may have all of the tools needed to move them forward,” Bargmann says. “We’re looking at ways of supporting collaborations among physicians, experimental scientists, computational scientists, and engineers to tackle these hard problems.”

Because of its location, Bargmann added, the CZI may have a geographical advantage over many other cross-disciplinary efforts. “We may be in a particularly good position to achieve our desired outcome because we’re in Silicon Valley, and we’re building an in-house software engineering team that can contribute to the research we fund in outside labs, which is not something you find at most universities,” Bargmann explained. 

Advised by an impressive brain trust that includes eight ASCB members, CZI will focus on putting the best tools and technologies in scientists’ hands, and building versions that can be shared and scaled up across the entire scientific community. 

“Every scientist is as good as his or her tools,” Bargmann said. “A tool could be a piece of hardware like a microscope, better software for analyzing the data that comes out of the microscope, a biological resource like a strain collection, or a data resource that people can use as a reference. My own experience in genetics and neuroscience has shown me directly how each of those kinds of tools helped me and other people in my field.” 

Bargmann’s own research achievements have earned her numerous accolades placing her at the pinnacle of her discipline. She’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. In 2012, she received the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, and the following year she earned the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. She co-chaired the National Institutes of Health committee that helped shape the goals of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative. She’s also a former HHMI investigator who earned her PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Molecular Genetics Meets Neuroscience

Growing up in an academic household fostered Bargmann’s scientific curiosity. As a teenager, she said she found herself more likely to be hiding out in her high school’s chemistry lab than at other, more spirited school functions. Bargmann’s interest in genetics was first sparked at the University of Georgia in Athens.  In her autobiography, she wrote, “I worked with the bacterial geneticist Sidney Kushner. I loved the lab and the intensity and the intellectual companionship of my fellow researchers. I went to graduate school at MIT in 1981, as molecular genetics was exploding. Molecular genetics is an incredibly powerful discipline, in neuroscience as in other aspects of biology.” 

During her graduate studies in the laboratory of Robert Weinberg, Bargmann witnessed the discovery of the first oncogenic mutations of the ras genes. She wrote, “I studied an oncogene mutated in an unusual class of rat neuroblastomas and glioblastomas, a receptor called neu/Her2, and found the mutations that activated it in tumors. Later, other groups found that neu/Her2 was amplified in aggressive human breast cancers.” 

But Bargmann is most well known for her work with C. elegans. Using this animal with only 302 neurons, she has devoted her research to building the roadmap that shows how genes and the environment influence behaviors such as the response to attractive odors, temperature, touch, and food. What she learns from this animal can shed light on the neuronal circuitry of humans.

“Human biology, especially human neurobiology, is very complex, and our view of the human brain is fragmentary,” Bargmann wrote. “However, the genomes of humans and worms share more genes than any of us expected, including most classes of genes that are important in the nervous system.”

One day, Bargmann wrote, “[T]hose of us who study worms hope to meet those who study human brains in the middle, using the universality of biology to translate understanding across organisms.”