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   from the issue of April 6, 2006

Learning, research continue to inspire Banerjee


Ruma Banerjee knew from the time she was 9 or 10 years old that she wanted to be a scientist.

ORCA RECIPIENT - Ruma Banerjee, George Holmes professor in biochemistry, sits at her desk in the Beadle Center. Banerjee received the...
ORCA RECIPIENT - Ruma Banerjee, George Holmes professor in biochemistry, sits at her desk in the Beadle Center. Banerjee received the Outstanding Research and Creative Activity award for research she guides as director of the Redox Biology Center. Photo by Kelly Bartling/University Communications.

Her motivation is the thrill she finds in learning, and for the desire to have an impact with her research.

"I really enjoy being a scientist," Banerjee said in her Beadle Center office, small stacks of research papers lying on her desk, with biochemistry books and scientific journals lined up on her shelves, small frames of smiling children and greeting cards from students on her window sill. "I like being a researcher. I want to have an impact, to express myself scientifically and to train the next generation of researchers."

Banerjee is indeed having an impact on the scientific world and the university already in a relatively young career. Her most recent honor is a universitywide research award, the Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award, of which only two are given annually to University of Nebraska's most outstanding researchers.

Her ORCA award at this stage of her career came as a pleasant surprise, she said, although her nomination file is thick with honors and recognition, as well as recommendations from colleagues; scores of published papers, presentations and findings. She's earned international acclaim for research in biomedical redox biology and for the Nebraska Redox Biology Center, which she directs.

Still, she's humbled by the attention, but talks easily about her passion for research.

"It's like a drug..." Banerjee said, and laughs. "Science is extremely intense. One continues to be a student one's whole life and learn from one's students and postdocs, and be engaged in debate.

"It's very fun... it's very much of an intellectual indulgence."

As a child in India she liked asking questions and looking for answers. She earned two degrees at Delhi University before moving to the United States. to study for her doctorate in organic chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. During postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan, she met future husband Stephen Ragsdale. The two came to Nebraska in 1991 after exploring several offers that would allow them to work together and start a family - and let their research interests flourish.

"We feel very well-supported here," Banerjee said. "We've been able to work at the level we've wanted to. When you're trying to balance a lot of things, the ability to juggle in an environment that is conducive to the things you're trying to accomplish is important. We have that here."

Ragsdale also is an ORCA winner, earning the honor in 2004.

Banerjee was promoted to associate professor in 1997 and professor in 2000, then director of the Nebraska Redox Biology Center in 2002. She also earned a Willa Cather Professorship in 2002, and a year later, a George Holmes Distinguished University Professorship. Her honors have included a Pfizer Award from the American Chemical Society in 2001, and she is the single investigator on three National Institutes of Health grants and two others totaling about $4.2 million. The Redox Biology Center in 2002 was established with her $10.5 million five-year grant from NIH.

"During this 'meteoric' period of roughly 14 years at UNL, Ruma has amassed a simply amazing record of achievements in research and discovery," her chief nominator, Raymond Chollet, said. "She has indeed become one of the most widely and highly recognized experts in the world in the biochemistry of vitamin B12 and homocysteine."

Banerjee has become accustomed to explaining intricate details of basic research and in discussing the necessity of studying cellular processes and how those processes may give way to discoveries for cures.

Never knowing what she is going to discover, but continuing to find amazing questions to ask and challenging theories to test is what keeps her excitement about scientific discovery alive.

"At the center we're connected by a shared interest in redox problems... all the activities that are very fundamental to normal processes in biology, which also have important disease connection. Our research brings that all together." She also has become accustomed to the administrative side that comes with directing a major research center, which has economic development potential for Nebraska.

"I am honored to be on a very distinguished list of outstanding researchers at the University of Nebraska."

Research Dossier

Ruma V. Banerjee

George Holmes Professor, Biochemistry

Area of focus: Homocysteine

Banerjee's research interests focus on how the interplay between genes and the environment, particularly one's B-vitamin status, modulate the expression of simple and complex diseases.

Elevated levels of the rogue amino acid homocysteine are associated with complex diseases like heart disease, neural tube defects and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Banerjee's lab was the first to identify a genetic defect in the human gene encoding methionine synthase, which resulted in the familial form of hyperhomocysteinemia.

Her work on B-vitamins and homosysteine management in health and disease has extended to mapping the metabolic pathway in different regions of the brain and cells of the immune system and connecting it to the important function of antioxidant defense.

Her lab is also looking at fundamental questions on how nature deploys reactive chemical species disguised as vitamins to catalyze essential reactions, and discovered that a vitamin B12-dependent enzyme uses quantum mechanical tunneling.

Discover more online

UNL Today is featuring a University Communications video on Banerjee's research and award. See the video here.



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