Skip to content ↓

Dogged determination pays off for Professor Drennan

"I was an only child, so it was me and the beagle for a long time." - Catherine L. Drennan
"I was an only child, so it was me and the beagle for a long time." - Catherine L. Drennan

Remy is a sort of celebrity around Building 16.

The German shepard mix with curly fur wanders the halls of the fifth floor when he isn't napping in the office of his owner, Catherine L. Drennan, an assistant professor of chemistry, or begging for a piece of sandwich in the lunchroom. He knows he's not allowed in the laboratories, where Drennan, an X-ray crystallographer, hopes to define accurate molecular structures to help cure cancer, clean up the environment and uncover the origins of life on Earth, among other things.

"In biological systems, I wanted to know what's going on," she says. "Through chemistry, I felt I could understand the biological phenomena much better--not just the big picture, but really get to the core of what's going on by understanding which atom is moving."

Remy, now nine years old, was rescued as a pup from an animal shelter when Drennan was a biochemistry graduate student at the University of Michigan. He's been with her for her entire academic career, including the past three years at MIT.

Remy is the latest in a series of dogs Drennan has had as part of a "dog-obsessed" family. After a childhood in metropolitan New York and New Jersey, she spent her teens in rural Brewster, N.Y., living in what used to be her parents' country house, which became their everyday house when Drennan was 12 and her father retired from his medical practice. There were the birding dogs and rabbit-hunting dogs that never actually went hunting, and a beagle that lived to the ripe old age of 18. "I was an only child, so it was me and the beagle for a long time," she says.

In her final semester at Vassar College, Drennan discovered she loved research. It was too late to apply to graduate school, so she decided to explore the world outside the laboratory before settling into research.

Drennan, who each year encourages a handful of students in her freshman chemistry classes to join her laboratory (many continue to work with her for their entire undergraduate careers), tells the graduating seniors to "do something different for a while" before applying to graduate school.

Drennan followed her own advice. She taught science and drama while living in the girls' dorm at a Quaker boarding school and hog farm in Iowa. It was an "intense and exceptional place," she says, where troubled teens were thrown together with high achievers.

The staff warned her she might not make it through the first month. This made Drennan determined to last for a year. She stayed three years. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she says.

The same persistence has helped her reap big rewards in her research. Drennan was determined to figure out how vitamin B12--the most structurally complex vitamin--bound to its working partner, an enzyme. It took years, but she was able to solve the structure of the B12-containing fragment of methionine synthase. Her ensuing work on the vitamin's remarkable change in the binding process attracted international attention.

Even now, she continues to explore B12. "It's my favorite vitamin," she admits.

Crystallography exploits the fact that X-rays are diffracted by crystals. Based on the diffraction pattern obtained from X-rays scattering off the molecules or atoms in a crystal and using a lot of math, a model can be made of a substance's molecular structure. When Drennan describes it, this seems like fun.

Drennan's research groups study enzymes that allow certain strange organisms to live on carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide; ribonucleotide reductases, which catalyze the conversion of nucleotides to deoxynucleotides; biopolymers that may lead to the large-scale production of biodegradable plastics; and enzymes that help cells regulate the amount of metals they take up.

"Studying an enzyme without knowing its structure is like a mechanic trying to fix a car without looking under the hood," Drennan says about using the knowledge gleaned from crystallography.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 5, 2003.

Related Topics

More MIT News