Life Science

A transformation akin to damaged DNA

How finding molecular modeling changed Suse Broyde’s life

February 7, 2013

Tucked away in the far west corner of the 11th floor of New York University’s Brown Building are two nondescript doors. The door on the left, number 1151, has nothing but a nameplate. The door on the right, 1150, has a black sign that says only “sprinkler pressure tank inside.” It also has a tiny doorbell.

Pressing this doorbell makes Suse Broyde, professor of biology, appear. Broyde, a small woman in her 70s, runs a laboratory of computational structural biology out of room 1150. Her lab uses computer simulations to research how certain chemicals can damage DNA and cause cancer.

“The basic idea is that these substances cause alterations to the DNA that lead to mutations,” said Broyde. “But we would like to understand what those alterations are. Why do some substances cause mutations, and others that may be chemically very similar, even mirror images, do not cause mutations.”

Broyde’s lab studies what happens to DNA when it comes into contact with environmental carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke and automobile exhausts. Broyde’s lab then looks to see how DNA repairs itself.

Broyde’s lab is just the right size for her tiny stature, and full of computers. Inside, the air is chilly, and the walls are lined with bookshelves. Her adjacent office has floor to ceiling cubbies crammed with scientific papers, and between stacks of textbooks are various pieces of Chinese artwork.

Broyde, the only child of Jewish-German immigrants who escaped the Nazi regime, came to New York City in 1940. She had a lonely childhood, so she spent her time reading. She was a curious and inquisitive child: “I used to bother my parents with questions like, ‘Why is the sky blue?’, ‘Why is it raining?’, ‘How do clocks work?’.”

“I used to lie on the floor and scream because I was so curious, and no one could tell me anything,” she said.

She soon found an outlet. She was accepted at Hunter College High School, a school for gifted girls, at the age of 11. There Broyde got a thorough education in liberal arts, like English and Latin, but also in science and math.  She began to realize there was something about science she loved, she said.

Broyde went on to study chemistry at New York’s City College (“The Harvard of the poor,” she said), and then earned a PhD from Brooklyn Polytechnic in physical chemistry. Her thesis was in chemistry – but its focus was highly biological, and concentrated on how chlorophylls, the green pigment in plants, absorb light during photosynthesis. Broyde worked to “try to understand how plants convert sunlight into food,” she said.

After living through the “Complexities of real life” – getting married, having two children, moving around the United States with her husband for work – Broyde spent a year at Princeton University in the early 1970s.  It was then, what she calls the “seminal year,” when Broyde first encountered what is now called molecular modeling, which uses technology to model the structure of different molecules.

“I came in on the ground floor to a field that would…become an ever more increasing passion, because I love structure and trying to understand structure and how it connects to the biological system,” said Broyde.

Molecular modeling also removed her from the traditional lab setting. Broyde, a self-proclaimed “very klutzy” person, was constantly breaking things in her previous lab, she said. Working at a computer seemed to be a much better alternative.

After moving back to New York in the mid 1970s, and armed with funding from the National Institutes of Health, Broyde landed a position at NYU. There, she began her work on carcinogens with the late Dr. Robert Shapiro and Dr. Nick Geacintov, who has been her collaborator for over 20 years. While Bryode’s lab focuses on the structure of molecules, Geacintov’s lab is focused on their function, and their collaboration allows them to publish together, said Broyde.

While he and Broyde they are independently funded, they still depend on each other, said Geacintov.

Broyde is a “caring advisor” whom Geacintov also described as “very involved.”

Although Broyde’s main collaborator is male, all five members of her lab group are women.

“I specialize in supporting women with families,” said Broyde, who had her first child as a graduate student and her second during her post-doctoral work. And the work in her lab is particularly well suited for people with family obligations, be they women or men, because it’s computational, the lab’s work is done mostly by using computers to model different molecular structures, and “it’s not like some gel is waiting for you” to come and read it, said Broyde.

“The people in my lab are extremely talented and no one is more dedicated and devoted to their work than a mother of small children,” said Broyde.

Broyde said she wants her research to include bio-monitoring people’s exposures to carcinogens to improve preventative medicine. She also wants to pinpoint the most harmful carcinogens and encourage people to stay away from them.

Broyde hopes her research on DNA repair will increase the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs, most of which prevent DNA from replicating to stop tumor growth. But intrinsic DNA repair fights against the therapeutic effect of these drugs because it removes the drugs during the repair process, said Broyde.

“So we think perhaps if we just understand the repair mechanism better, we might be able to aid in the design of repair resistant therapeutic agents that might be more efficacious.”

But more than just being a researcher, Broyde is something else: a proud matriarch. Her two children are both professors and she has seven grandchildren, between the ages of 12 and 27.

“One of my grandchildren is now a PhD candidate in computational biology, so I’m proud of that, as well.”

About the Author

Caitlin Q. Davis

Caitlin Davis is a recent graduate of Simmons College, where she received a B.A in English and a minor in biology. Despite her often-hilarious fear of needles, Caitlin has managed to become interested in medicine and reading about its biological properties. She is looking forward to learning more about all aspects of science journalism during her time at SHERP.


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