Conversations with Avanti Award Winners: Dr. Jeremy Baskin

Posted on April 14, 2021

Jeremy Baskin

Avanti established the Walter A. Shaw Young Investigator Award in Lipid Research as part of the annual ASBMB/Experimental Biology meeting to recognize an outstanding young investigator who is an assistant professor or equivalent and with no more than 10 years of experience since receiving a Ph.D. and/or M.D.

The 2020/2021 ASBMB Walter A. Shaw Young Investigator Award in Lipid Research has been awarded to Dr. Jeremy Baskin. Dr. Baskin received this award for his unique blend of chemical biology, biochemistry, and cell biology approaches to develop innovative methods for imaging and probing various classes of lipids in vivo.

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

I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada and I come from a family of artists – my parents are classical musicians and my sister is an actress. I was pretty serious about classical piano for a time, but I was drawn to science subjects in high school. Chemistry, and later, cell biology, have become my passions, but the piano has stayed with me as, hopefully, a lifelong friend. My current position at Cornell Univeristy is joint between the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology and the Weill Institute for Cell & Molecular Biology, and it enables me to mentor students in the research lab and teach them in the classroom on topics spanning the chemical and biological sciences. My lab’s research interests lie in understanding functions of signaling lipids, and to address these questions, we operate at the interface of chemical biology and cell biology.

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

It’s really tough to focus on just one. I would say that so much has been driven by tools development coming from worlds pretty distant from lipid biology — physical sciences, engineering, as well as other areas of the life sciences. There have been amazing analytical advances in mass spectrometry-based lipidomics to enable deeper probing of the lipidome and imaging of its constituents in situ. Single-particle cryo-electron microscopy, which has transformed the structural biology community, has led to some amazingly impressive 3D structures of multicomponent complexes that control lipid biosynthesis, revealing how these processes are regulated at a precise, mechanistic level. The CRISPR revolution has also completely changed how lipid biologists can approach elucidation of structure–function relationships from the cellular to organism level.

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?

For a time when I was young, I thought about being a professional pianist, and, for a brief time, a sports lawyer (as was probably the case for many kids who were sports fans but self-aware enough to know that successful and famous professional athlete was not a likely outcome). But by the end of high school, chemistry was my passion, and there was no looking back. I have had an abundance of outstanding science mentors, right from high school and continuing through every stage of my training.

What motivated you to study and elucidate the signaling functions of phosphatidic acid and phosphoinositides specifically?

These are storied, famous lipids, and key discoveries over the years have been made by a who’s-who of notable scientists and laboratories. It was during my postdoctoral years that I first really dug into the phosphoinositide world, and only when my independent lab started that we took on phosphatidic acids. I recall a particular FASEB conference in 2014 on phospholipid signaling as being a formative event for me. Seeing the state of the field, I was incredibly excited about the biological discoveries that were emerging related to these lipids. I also appreciated that a chemical biologist with a training like mine in bioorthogonal chemistry, fluorescent labeling, and live-cell imaging could bring a new perspective. The sheer complexity and interconnectness of these lipid metabolic pathways and the challenges associated with teasing apart different functions using traditional approaches left an opening for tools to visualize and perturb these lipids within their native cellular context. So, when we started the lab the following year, that is what we set out to do.

Your research group uses a technique called IMPACT to image phosphatidic acid production by phospholipase D enzymes. Can you explain this technique to us?

The goal of IMPACT is to visualize membrane locations within a cell, and cells within a population where phospholipase D (PLD) enzymes are actively producing phosphatidic acid via phosphatidylcholine hydrolysis. The method takes advantage of a longstanding quirk of PLDs, namely that they can accept certain primary alcohols in lieu of water, in a transphosphatidylation reaction, to generate unnatural lipid products called phosphatidyl alcohols, which are typically detected by a bulk biochemical measurement like HPLC or thin-layer chromatography. Our key insight was developing tailored alcohol probes that would enable visualization of these phosphatidyl alcohol probes in situ, i.e., in the cell. To accomplish this, we use clickable alcohols, which are functionalized with a group such as an azide, which can be subsequently tagged, after transphosphatidylation, with a click chemistry reaction partner connected to a fluorescent tag.

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

I love classical music. I play the piano and love listening to many types of music. There is a beauty to a carefully constructed scientific manuscript not unlike a work of art like a piece of music. Composing and performing music, like designing and conducting experiments, is an intensely creative process, though I think it’s fair to say they are both more perspiration than inspiration, as the saying goes. Certainly, the act of practicing pieces and working through the difficult spots as a child and young adult prepares one well for the process of scientific research.

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

I had a lot of favorite courses: chemistry, biology, math, music, history. I don’t think that I had a least favorite course in school, but I would say that the subject matter that came least naturally to me was poetry; though I loved literature and analysis and even creative prose writing, poetry was always a challenge. Maybe it’s because it is usually a lot more word-economical than I am normally inclined to be.

What does winning the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Walter A. Shaw Young Investigator Award in Lipid Research mean to you?

It is an incredible honor and really a recognition of the fantastic work of the students and postdoctoral scholars in my laboratory. Mentoring a group of diverse, talented, and motivated young people and doing science together as a team are the most rewarding parts of my job. This award is a recognition, above all, of these relationships and the scientific advances that emerge from our discussions and collaborations.

Again, we would like to congratulate Jeremy Baskin on his incredible achievements and thank him for taking time to catch up with us!

Click HERE to learn even more about his exciting research!