Visit the research laboratory of developmental biologist Bruce Blumberg and the number of students working there is striking. What’s even more remarkable is that many of the students are undergraduates, highly unusual in the competitive atmosphere of modern research laboratories.
Blumberg, assistant professor of developmental and cell biology, fondly remembers his undergraduate days at Rutgers University and how one of his instructors, Professor Hsin-Yi Lee, let him witness firsthand the work being done in the lab.
“Being there with Professor Lee, actually seeing how research was done, that really made a difference for me. It sparked my career and I’m trying to provide students that same kind of experience,” Blumberg says.
“Bruce is the kind of person that always has his door open for students to ask for advice or just chat,” says Tanaz Korami, an 18-year-old biology major who helps manage the lab. “He provides an atmosphere where students not only learn about science, but are also taught to be independent learners.”
Blumberg is one of the field’s most promising and sought after researchers, and turned down a lucrative offer from a private pharmaceutical company to join the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology in the UCI School of Biological Sciences in 1998.
The campus offers Blumberg the intellectual freedom to research whatever it is that excites him, he says. In a school that’s already one of the leaders on campus for generating research grants, Blumberg in less than three years already has won major funding from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Research Resources.
Blumberg’s lab research has generally focused on studying the human endocrine system. More specifically, Blumberg is interested in a family of regulatory proteins called nuclear hormone receptors, which control important events during the development of embryos and adult physiology.
Before coming to UCI, Blumberg worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, carving a name for himself alongside UCI biologists David Gardiner and Susan Bryant studying deformed frogs found in Minnesota.
The frog studies so far show that wildlife and domestic animals suffer adverse consequences from exposure to environmental chemicals that interact with parts of the endocrine system. Jumps in the incidents of certain cancers may be related to endocrine disruption.
The team’s continuing work has broad implications for human and animal health, and may aid in understanding the worldwide decline of amphibian species, especially those whose habitat is primarily aquatic.
“Humans have put lots of things into the environment our bodies have never seen before. We are trying to find out how the body’s defense system works against these,” says Blumberg as he proudly showed a visitor a $750,000 molecular interaction screening system – a robot designed to explore the interactions among proteins in the cell.
Blumberg has always been inquisitive. There wasn’t an old radio or television in his childhood home in New Jersey that was safe from his prying mind. “I was always one of those kids who wanted to know why? My parents didn’t mind me taking apart lots of radios and TVs.”
That passion for discovery and knowledge is what he looks for in a colleague, and certainly in a student working in his laboratory.
“It’s important that they don’t treat this as just a job,“ ”Blumberg says. “If they do, then that’s all it’s ever going to be to them.”