Conversations with Avanti Award Winners: Dr. Richard Pastor

Posted on March 27, 2021


Richard Pastor

Avanti established the Avanti Award in Lipids as part of the annual Biophysical Society meeting to recognize an outstanding investigator who has made a significant contribution to the understanding of lipid biophysics. The 2021 Biophysical Society Avanti Award in Lipids has been awarded to Dr. Richard Pastor.

Dr. Pastor has received this award for his pioneering Molecular Dynamics (MD) Simulations of lipids and the development of widely used lipid forcefield. His work over the past forty years has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of lipids.

Tell us a little bit about yourself (current role, background, family, etc.)

I’m a Principal Investigator at the National Institutes of Health and my specialty is molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. I’m married (40 years in June), with two children and two grandchildren. My father was Italian American. My mother was born in Chile, and told me that my grandmother was 100% Spanish and my grandfather was half German and half Polish. I had my DNA tested recently and learned that I’m 8% Indigenous American (South and Central American Indian). My grandmother was clearly not 100% Spanish!

What do you consider the largest breakthrough in lipid research in recent years?

The general acceptance of computer simulations by experimentalists. We’ll get a lot more accomplished by working with each other. In particular, advances in lipidomics and high resolution microscopy inform simulation, and simulations can provide details that help interpret the experiments.

What do you consider your largest breakthrough in lipid research in recent years?

The Avanti Award was in part for my role in developing the CHARMM 36 (C36) lipid force field, which was published in 2010. While I have had breakthroughs in basic research before and since this paper, a good force field is essential for MD simulations, and C36 is especially good. It’s been cited nearly 2700 times (as of this interview) which means that almost 2700 published papers have reported simulations using this force field. It’s nice to be part of an overall scientific effort so this contribution is especially satisfying.

Did you always envision yourself becoming a scientist? If not, what did you want to be when you grew up? Who influenced you to become a scientist?

I liked science as a child, was a premed when I started college, and then got back to science by the time I graduated. Phil Pearle, one of my physics professors at Hamilton College, was a big influence. His way of capturing the beauty and rigor of physics in the electricity and magnetism course he taught was very influential.

What motivated you to get involved in statistical mechanics and computer simulations as a means to understanding cell membranes?

My first introduction to statistical mechanics was in undergraduate physical chemistry. Statistical mechanics provides a formalism, or structure, to bridge quantum mechanics (the subatomic) with thermodynamics (the macroscopic world). However, only a limited set of problems (like ideal gases) can be solved simply within the formalism, and one needs computer simulations to understand liquids and complex assemblies like cell membranes. Hence, the combination of statistical mechanics and computer simulation is a way to bring the rigor of physics to biology.

What are the implications of being able to fully simulate a cell membrane?

Let’s just start with a reasonable sized patch of cell membrane for now, or lipoprotein particles like HDL, LDL, and VLDL. The immediate implication is that we can design drugs on the computer, or at least give leads to drug designers. We did that recently with simulations of ApoC-II on a model of VLDL. Our simulations indicated that the C-terminal ApoC-II was buried more deeply than the rest of the protein, and our experimental collaborators used this information to design a peptide drug that successfully lowered triglycerides in mice. This was published in Science Translational Medicine (vol 15, page 228, 2020). As computers become faster we will simulate larger systems, and I’m certain that we will have many more successes. It’s an exciting time.

As computational technology advances and computing power becomes greater and greater, will your simulations need to be restructured or will they be able to immediately take advantage of these advances as they are available?

No significant restructuring is necessary. MD simulations are based on solving Newton’s Equations of Motion for a specific number of particles. Faster computers allow us to simulate larger systems for longer times, but the equations remain the same.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do outside of the lab?

I enjoy cooking, and drinking good wine (red Bordeaux from Paulliac is my favorite). I look forward to hanging out with my grandchildren who live in Canada and whom I have not held since March 2020.

What was your favorite and least favorite course in school? What was the hardest course for you while you were in school?

Physical chemistry (favorite) and organic chemistry (least favorite). Both were equally hard, but I enjoyed physical chemistry and I use it essentially every day for my work.

What does winning the Biophysical Society’s Avanti Award in Lipids mean to you?

Many things. It’s a validation of my work, and provides a motivation to keep pushing. It’s good for my students because it will help them get jobs. It’s good for the simulation field because it’s a recognition that simulations have become an equal partner with experiments in membrane biophysics. I’m very grateful to Avanti Polar Lipids for sponsoring this Award.

Click HERE to view his award talk at the virtual Biophysical Society Meeting!

He told us the presentation is based on a great 4 minute video of Kurt Vonnegut recounting his theory on the shapes of stories, which you can check out HERE!

We would like to congratulate Richard Pastor for his incredible achievements and thank him for taking time to catch up with us!

Dr. Pastor works with the Membrane Biophysics Section of the NIH as a Senior Investigator. He received an Excellence in Science by a Group award from the FDA in 1996 and the Center Director's Public Health Achievement Award from the CBER in 1997. He has authored or coauthored over 150 papers and book chapters. Learn More