A Breakthrough for Soka Life Science Faculty: Q&A With National Science Foundation Grant Winner Prof. Robert Levenson

April 26, 2023
Prof Robert Levenson poses with three Soka Undergraduates

The National Science Foundation recently announced it will award Soka faculty member Robert Levenson, assistant professor of biochemistry, $292,310 to support his research on “BRC-BIO: Harnessing sequence features to understand and manipulate the function of reflectin proteins in iridescence.” This is the first National Science Foundation grant won by a SUA faculty member. We spoke to Prof. Levenson about the grant, his research, and his hopes for SUA students, among other things.

Congratulations on being the first SUA faculty member to win a National Science Foundation grant! Tell us about the research this grant will fund.

The research funded by this grant explores the molecular basis of the tunable assembly of reflectin proteins, which are a unique family of proteins found in squid and other cephalopods such as octopus and cuttlefish. The reflectins play a central role in creating dynamic iridescent structures within squid skin, which the squid use to communicate with others within their species and as camouflage from predators.

The reflectin proteins are found within a series of densely filled, parallel plates called lamellae. Some squid can control the extent of reflectin assembly within these lamellae, which results in changes to the amount and color of the light that bounces from the reflective structures. Bioengineering and material scientists have been interested in reflectins as a model biomaterial for application in bioelectronics or biophotonics ever since their discovery in 2004.

That sounds fascinating. How will your research build on previous studies?

Many questions remain about what physical forces drive reflectin proteins to change their assembly because of cell signals. The behavior of any protein is determined by its amino acid sequence, which is the unique order of amino acid building blocks that make up a protein.

This NSF-funded work seeks to better understand how reflectins are able to undergo dynamic and tunable assembly within squid and to leverage this understanding to produce new reflectin proteins with improved biomaterial utility. Working together with Soka students, we will use genetic engineering methods to create new reflectins that will enable us to untangle the role of particular amino acid sequences found in reflectins with the protein’s behavior.

We will characterize the activity of these proteins using biophysical instruments here at Soka and at other research institutions. In deep collaboration with Prof. Susan Walsh, we are already producing reflectin proteins with human HeLa cancer cells to investigate their behavior in complex cellular environments.

How do you think it might benefit students at SUA?

This support from the NSF will provide critical support to greatly expand my lab’s capacity to conduct impactful research on the molecular basis of reflectin assembly in squid. It will enable us to purchase critical cutting-edge laboratory equipment and to fund additional student researcher positions in the lab, providing increased opportunities for students to engage in the high-impact practice of undergraduate research. Some of these students will be able to attend scientific conferences nationwide.

The grant will also support the creation of a new course-based undergraduate research experience focused on the research goals of the grant, which will join the diverse collection of project-based labs already offered at Soka in disciplines such as chemistry, cell biology, and genetics.

How did you discover your passion for science in general and your field in particular?

I discovered my passion for science in general in high school when I read the writings of the astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan. Sagan talked about science as a way of logical thinking that appealed to me. I have always wanted to understand more of the how and why of the world. While I think there is insight and beauty in many modes of understanding, the particular approach of the sciences, based on logical and systematic thinking grounded in evidence, fits my natural mindset best.

I fell into my specific field somewhat by chance. I considered several potential majors as an undergraduate. In the end, biochemistry won out mainly because I was fascinated by proteins, those “work horses” of the cell. Without proteins, there is no life, at least in its modern form. As a student, I felt that by learning about proteins and, more broadly, the varied molecules of life, I was gaining true insight into the fundamental basis of life. I still believe this!

I went to graduate school to learn more about the structures of proteins and how they work, and my fascination with them in all their varied forms continues to this day. Borrowing the line from Charles Darwin, proteins have a wondrous diversity that gives them “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Medicinal and biotechnological applications of what scientists are learning about proteins are already improving the world and will continue to do so long into the future.

What role do you think the Life Sciences plays in actualizing SUA’s mission of educating global citizens who lead contributive lives?

Science—both its practice and its products in the form of theories and technologies—holds an inescapable central role in modern society. I believe contributive citizens must understand how science works and have some amount of foundational knowledge of key concepts within the scientific fields. The Life Sciences concentration provides this form of teaching of science knowledge and practice through its classrooms and laboratories, including a future course-based undergraduate research experience central to my research supported by this NSF grant.

It is also vital that students develop an understanding of how science connects with the broader aspects of our lives outside of the textbook and lab. Effective communication of science to the general public is a critical need as the world seeks evidence-based solutions to global problems. The type of communication that speaks to scientists and nonscientists requires diverse skills that pull from multiple knowledge domains, so I am pleased that our students have access to the wide range of expertise that SUA’s faculty provides outside of the Life Sciences. Understanding science and its broader connections will enable our students to solve problems and build solutions that improve the well-being of their local communities and the wider world.

What strikes you most about working with SUA students?

The strength of our students played a significant role in my choice to join SUA. I’m grateful to work so closely with our undergraduates, who are a wonderfully engaged, diligent, and creative group in the classroom and the lab. Completing a research project in the lab is a never-ending process of problem-solving and working through failures. It can be very challenging for novices to accept that failure—often a lot of failures—is a standard part of the research process. I’ve found that most of the SUA students I’ve worked with have the sort of determined, growth-centered mindset that enables learning and growing from experiences of failure. These are essential attributes for our students’ development as they start their careers and their growth as future leaders and positive contributors to society.

What hopes do you have for the students you’ve taught at SUA as they make their way into the world?

I hope the scientific and technical knowledge they learn in my courses and lab will give them the foundation to begin a career after SUA or pursue further education at the graduate level. More broadly, I hope overall that their time at SUA, and to some small extent their time with me, will provide them with a solid basis for whichever direction in life they choose to avidly pursue.

I hope our students will succeed in their careers and future endeavors, in whatever reasoned and intentional form they choose to define that success. I hope our students’ decisions will be shaped by their core beliefs and passions rather than superficial or transient factors. And I hope that they will remain responsible to themselves and those with whom they share the Earth and will seek to better the world through their actions.