Meet a Chemical Biologist

Published on August 25th, 2011
Meet a Chemical Biologist

Prof Erick Strauss is the Associate Professor in the Biochemistry Department at Stellenbosch University. We chat to him about his fascinating career…

What exactly does a chemical biologist do?
Chemical biologists study biological systems and related problems (often in health) by using or applying chemical ways of thinking. This usually means thinking about these issues on the level of the molecules involved in them, and how they interact. For example, we are trying to find ways to trick disease-causing bacteria to use molecules that look like natural vitamins, but which we hope will in fact be deadly to them – and not to us humans at all!

What made you decide to choose this field and where did you study?
I’ve always been interested in both biology and chemistry, and really hated the idea of having to choose between them. So I took chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology as subjects for a BSc degree, followed by a BSc(Hons) in Chemistry – both at the University of Pretoria. At that point, Chemical Biology was still a very young field, so I then went to Cornell University in the USA to study for a PhD in a group that specialised in working between these fields.

What subjects did you need to pursue your career?
Natural Science and Maths were the requirements, but taking Biology really helped too.

Things that still baffle my mind…
No matter how smart we think we are, often living systems are still so much smarter. How else can you explain that an ancient bacterium such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, that has been with us since as long as we can remember, still succeeds to stump our best efforts in coming up with an effective, fast way to treat the tuberculosis infections it causes? In fact, it’s just growing more and more resistant to everything we are coming up with – and HIV is not helping either.

Things that drive me crazy…
Bureaucracy, and trying to convince others to fund the interesting stuff that we do.

The best part of my job is…
Being able to be the first person ever to really understand how something works on a fundamental level – and then to share it with others.

The thing that surprised me the most about my field or job once I had qualified…
The amount of writing I had to do: writing grant proposals, reports, publications, evaluations, pieces for HIP2B2…

Tell us about a challenge you overcame using your skills and knowledge.
We recently figured out how a naturally occurring antibiotic molecule (it kills deadly Staphylococcus aureus bacteria but does not affect human cells) discovered about ten years ago, works – i.e. how it manages to kill the bacterium.

Did you enjoy maths and science at school?
Very much! Maybe a bit too much – I actually took part in science fairs, Expo, Olympiads

Your all-time top three favourite gadgets or inventions?
Smart phones, PCR machines (which is used amplify any kind of DNA, whether in a lab experiment or from a sample gathered at a crime scene, like in CSI) and the internet.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring chemical biologists/biochemists
Never stop being curious and finding out about stuff – even if it is not going to be in an exam. If you don’t understand it, try to! Curiosity and persistence are what keeps us going.

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