Harms selected as Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences

EUGENE, Ore. — June 11, 2015 — Michael Harms, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Oregon, is among 22 promising early-career researchers named as Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Harms joins the ranks of more than 600 outstanding scientists who have been selected as Pew scholars in the 30 years since the program’s inception. Scientists are nominated for their dedication to pursing high-risk, high-reward research that can lead to extraordinary findings in bioscience.

Harms’ research is focused on the relationship between the biophysical properties of proteins and their evolution. He is seeking to trace the evolution of calprotectin, a multifaceted protein that plays multiple roles in the human immune response, in order to illuminate the evolution of immunity and provide new strategies for designing anti-inflammatory drugs.

“This funding will jumpstart some really cool science,” Harms said. “The immune system is amazingly complicated, but arose from simple, ancient components — we use an evolutionary approach to study the stepwise acquisition of this complexity.”

In addition to promoting inflammation, Harms says, calprotectin thwarts infections by promoting movement of white blood cells and by sopping up the metals microbes need to thrive. To determine how this one protein evolved to perform such different roles, he will use an approach based in biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular evolution to resurrect and study calprotectin’s molecular ancestors. Harms will synthesize these extinct proteins in the laboratory and examine their properties to determine when, during the course of its evolution, calprotectin acquired its diverse capabilities.

“By peeling back the layers of history one by one,” Harms said. “We can better understand the logic of this complicated system, hopefully revealing avenues to treat disease.”

“This well-deserved award speaks to the boldness of Dr. Harms’ research,” said Brad Shelton, the UO’s interim vice president for research and innovation. “By elucidating the evolution of this key protein, Dr. Harms is furthering our understanding of health and disease and advancing biomedical science.”

Harms received a doctorate in molecular biophysics from Johns Hopkins University in 2009, working with Bertrand García-Moreno. He joined the UO in 2013 after conducting his postdoctoral work with Joseph Thornton, now at the University of Chicago. In February Harms, along with fellow UO chemists Shannon Boettcher and Michael Pluth, was named as a Sloan Foundation Fellow.

The Pew scholars program provides four years of flexible funding to scholars at the assistant professor level. As a scholar, Harms gains entry into a robust community of researchers, including Pew’s Latin American Fellows and Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research. Scholars and fellows gather annually to share their findings and spur new lines of inquiry that lead to new partnerships and collaborations.

“Pew scholars and alumni are a fantastic group of scientists,” Harms said. “I'm looking forward to learning from them.”

Harms’ fellow Pew scholars from the 2015 class will investigate a range of topics — everything from the role of the microbiome, the naturally occurring microorganisms in the human body, plays in combating autoimmune disease to exploring the molecules and neural circuits that dictate a mosquito’s preference for humans over other animals, which has implications in preventing the spread of dengue fever.

“The importance of encouraging scientific creativity and curiosity has never been clearer,” said Craig C. Mello, Ph.D., a 1995 Pew scholar, 2006 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, and chair of the national advisory committee for the scholars program. “Pew scholars have harnessed the potential of this program for three decades, coming together to inspire and engage each other while advancing the biomedical research landscape. This year’s class will no doubt continue that tradition.”

Harms is the third UO faculty member to be named a Pew scholar in recent years. Brad Nolen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, was named a Pew scholar in 2011. Hui Zong, formerly a UO professor of biology and now a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, was named a Pew scholar in 2008.