On Oct. 7, Joanna Fowler, a senior chemist and Director of the Radiotracer Chemistry, Instrumentation and Biological Imaging Program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and adjunct faculty member in Stony Brook’s Chemistry Department, was awarded the National Medal of Science.
Q: As Director of the Radiotracer Chemistry, Instrumentation and Biological Imaging Program at Brookhaven National Laboratory, what does your work entail?
A: Our group is multi-disciplinary and we cover a lot of different areas including chemistry, physics, pharmacology, psychology and medicine. We combine our individual expertises to solve specific problems. We are quite interested in understanding the relationships between genes, brain chemistry and behavior. Some of the members of our group are developing new imaging instruments. Others are developing rapid methods for incorporating short lived radioactive isotopes like carbon-11 (half life: 20.4 minutes) into organic molecules so that they can be used to track biochemical transformations and the movement of drugs through the body. We are also applying these short lived radiotracers as tools for energy and environmental research using them to map carbon and nitrogen cycling in plants.‘
Q: Did you always want to be a chemist?
A: I got interested in chemistry as an undergraduate and I have always been fascinated by chemistry itself and the breadth of interesting and important problems that can be addressed by chemistry. The field that I am in allows me to work with many different disciplines which is very enriching.‘
Q: With a host of honors to your name, how is the National Medal of Science different from any other awards you have earned?
A: I am honored and humbled by all of these awards as they recognize the impact of the tools we have developed here at Brookhaven on understanding brain chemistry and its impact of brain diseases like addiction. The National Medal of Science was really a surprise for me. There was far more ceremony and publicity involved and meeting the President was quite a thrill. It also gives me the opportunity to communicate the central role that chemistry and knowledge in general make on those things which make a difference to human beings.
Q: More evidence is linking tobacco smoke with diseases of the lungs, heart, kidney and spleen. What might the implications be for science and society?
A: I am fascinated by who smokes and why. Most of the cigarettes smoked in the U.S. are smoked by people in mental health programs or those with a current psychiatric illness (including individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol, individuals with depression and schizophrenia). We need to understand the enhanced vulnerability of these individuals. There is evidence that smokers are self medicating, i.e. that chemical compounds in the tobacco including nicotine and the MAO inhibitors are alleviating symptoms. For example nicotine releases some of the same mood altering chemicals that are enhanced by antidepressant drugs; and the MAO’ inhibitors are effective antidepressants. Also the most toxic component of the cigarette is not the nicotine; they are the tars and the carbon monoxide that come from burning the tobacco. Yet a nicotine patch or gum doesn’t replace the cigarette, likely because the cigarette delivers the nicotine rapidly which is very important in reinforcement. It is all about chemistry and kinetics and how these modulate smoking behavior. Research on smoking behavior is crucial to developing effective prevention and treatment strategies particularly for that subset of people who can’t stop.
Q: Scientists use short-lived isotopes in positron emission tomography (PET) to detect tumors (for which the radiotracer FDG is used), observe plant metabolism, research and develop drugs, and glean information on the brain as it ages. How else might these tracers be used?
A: We are hoping to learn more about the relationship between genes and behavior and about how environment affects gene expression through epigenetic transformations. We are hoping that some of these imaging methods or their combinations will allow us to predict disease earlier before symptoms develop and to use this information to develop interventions and protective therapies especially in degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. Depression is predicted to become a major health burden by 2030, second only to AIDS. There is an urgent need to understand this disease and to develop treatments that work better and more rapidly. This would have a huge impact worldwide and imaging can be expected to play a role in understanding, as well as in drug development.
Q: Brookhaven National Lab is often described as a haven for chemists, physicists and medical authorities to collaborate on research. How has being at Brookhaven for forty years contributed to your scientific work?
A: Brookhaven National Laboratory provides a remarkable opportunity for team science by respecting the need for individuals within a team to have the freedom to be creative and to be recognized for their creativity. This allows us to build a team with the best people and also to maintain the best facilities and instruments. I have enjoyed a very close collaboration with Nora Volkow, who is now director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. We have worked on the development and application of imaging tools to study addiction since 1988. When I came to Brookhaven, I worked with Stanley Seltzer on organic synthesis as a post doctoral fellow and then joined the group of Alfred Wolf, who’ started up a program to develop radiotracers for imaging for medicine. I have work
ed with dozens of different scientists throughout the years, to my great benefit. And our group has enjoyed the support of the entire Brookhaven community over the years.
Q: What is one under-publicized area of research that the public should become familiar with?
A: The most important assets we have as individuals and as a society are our brains. For me, the most crucial area of research is on the factors that contribute to a healthy brain. We work on this indirectly through our focus on brain disorders, but it is important to internalize the fact that the solution to most of the problems that face society (health, energy, poverty) will require our mental capital, an educated cognitively flexible population. Also many of our problems in health are generated by behavior and decision making (overeating, lack of exercise, experimenting with cigarettes, drugs and alcohol). Similarly, a large fraction of the total energy used by society is wasted, again by our collective behavior and decisions. We need to work on this.
Q: Do you think that, as more women enter science, they will ever be able to neutralize the quantity of men in the field?
A: Absolutely! But it is still important to be vigilant to be inclusive of all groups, and to strive to have a work environment that values diversity and provides the opportunity for creativity from every individual.
Q: What is your advice to aspiring scientists at Stony Brook?
A: Work and study very hard and choose a field that fascinates you. I like to encourage people to work on health related problems and I particularly want to encourage the study of all of the problems related to addictive disorders. In my view if we could prevent and treat addiction effectively, we would have a larger impact on public health than anything else we know of. A large fraction of the cancer and heart disease deaths are from smoking; HIV and AIDS comes largely through intravenous drug use and risky sexual behavior secondary to stimulant abuse; violence and accidents are associated with alcohol abuse; obesity from pathological overeating. All of these start with addiction, a disease of the brain.