The New Mexico State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry recently added a new assistant professor to their faculty, bringing experience, expertise and more $2.2 million in various grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
Chris Baker was born in the United Kingdom but his family moved to Canada when he was young. When he was in middle school, they relocated across the U.S./Canadian border to Detroit, which Baker considers his true “hometown.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree at Wayne State University, Baker moved south to continue his studies at Florida State University where he found his passion – bioanalytical chemistry.
“There were so many things that captured my attention and enthusiasm about this field. I have always been a ‘maker,’ and analytical chemistry, which is the field involving the measurement of chemicals, is all about making new technologies for observing and interacting with molecules in new ways,” Baker said.
His research focuses on making new instruments and techniques that allow scientists to observe and interact with molecules in ways that help us understand more about the nature of biology.
“We’re interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that make the human brain work the way it does, and we’re also interested in fundamental questions about how biology works on a molecular level and how that information might help detect the existence of biology elsewhere in the solar system.”
After spending the last five years teaching at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Baker considers the move to NMSU, “a lot like coming home.” Baker met his wife Monica in Tucson and although they’ve lived all over the world, they consider the Southwest one of their “favorite places on earth.”
Last year, Baker was awarded the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, which recognizes, “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” The award includes a 5-year research grant of $620,000.
“Our work looks at a common analysis technique called capillary electrophoresis (CE), which is basically the movement of molecules in solution by applying an electric field. CE is really powerful because it allows us to take complex mixtures of things, and nature always produces complex mixtures, and look at the separate components of those mixtures individually.”
Similar measurement techniques, called mass spectrometry and ion mobility spectrometry, are powerful at describing molecular structure, but not always representative of how the molecules exist in biology. Baker’s lab is developing detection methods and data analysis algorithms for CE that he anticipates will enable similar structural analyses while allowing molecules to remain in their native biological conditions.
“We believe this can become a powerful tool for understanding the structures of molecules under the conditions most pertinent to biology, and in the long run this can be helpful in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system.”
Baker was recently awarded a 5-year, $1.6 million Maximizing Investigators' Research Award grant by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the NIH. This grant is intended to fund the broader research program, rather than one specific project, providing more opportunities for the direction of the research. His current NIH-funded work is focused on circadian rhythms and their potential impact on Alzheimer’s disease
“In Alzheimer’s disease, one of the early key symptoms is a disruption of the circadian rhythms, which keep our biological functions operating on a 24-hour cycle. Neuroscientists know that a region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is responsible for keeping our 24 cycles in sync with our visual experience of light and our feeling of the temperature of our environment.”
Baker’s lab hypothesizes that the SCN sends out certain molecular signals, called exosomes, which may be responsible for syncing up the central circadian clock in the SCN and peripheral circadian clocks throughout the body. “This is particularly interesting in the context of Alzheimer’s disease because we expect there to be disruptions of exosome signals based on information we already know about the molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s.”
Baker and his team are developing new tools to overcome the challenges of accurately testing the exosome hypothesis.
“Ultimately, we hope to learn about the basic mechanisms of circadian rhythms in healthy mammals, which will help us gain insight on what might be going wrong in Alzheimer’s disease.”
Along with these grants, Baker brings a talented team of Ph.D. student researchers. Claire Smith, a 4th year Ph.D. student working on the NSF-funded project, and Meagan Moser, a 5th year Ph.D. student working on the NIH-funded work.
Baker is excited to continue his research at NMSU and describes what he’s most looking forward to in one word – community.
“I can see an amazing community at the university and, in particular, in my new department. I have had so many people in chemistry and biochemistry, and quite a few from the wider university community, reach out to offer help, guidance or just a friendly welcome.”
“I’m still learning new names and faces, but one thing I know for sure is that these are good people, and we’re all rowing the boat in the same direction.”
To learn more about Baker’s lab, visit www.bakerscience.com.