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Scientist studies 'third amino acid from left'

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Photo by Reed Hutchinson UCLA Photographic Services
H. Ronald Kaback, professor of physiology, microbiology and molecular genetics, will deliver the prestigious Faculty Research Lecture on Oct. 14.

97th Faculty Research Lecturer

With less than two weeks remaining before he would deliver UCLA’s 97th Faculty Research Lecture, H. Ronald Kaback was a little worried.

His research field is the molecular biology of membrane transport. To explain to someone what that means requires “two hours and a chalkboard,” he said. At cocktail parties, he tells people he works on “the third amino acid from the left” and leaves it at that.

But Kaback will have something working in his favor. “I love to talk,” he said. In an interview in his office in the MacDonald Medical Research Labs, he talked for more than 90 minutes, nearly without letup and with little academic pretentiousness.

He prefaces remarks with phrases like, “I’ll tell you how crazy I really am.” He insists that he is not unusually smart, but driven. He has a tendency to call the material that has consumed his attention for decades “that stupid protein.”

Though he can no longer swing a racket because of sports injuries, Kaback wears tennis shorts to work most days over the objections of Teenchy, his wife of 47 years, whom he met in high school. “In my head, I’m still a jock,” said Kaback, who played high school and college football.
Kaback, a professor of physiology, and his UCLA research team collaborated with So Iwata and Jeff Abramson of Imperial College London to determine the three-dimensional structure of a protein known as lactose permease (LacY). The protein is important as a model for a huge family of membrane transport proteins.

Published in August 2003 in the journal Science, the breakthrough catapulted Kaback into the limelight and led to a series of international speaking engagements that were so physically taxing he ended up in surgery after aggravating a shoulder injury. “I should have turned down half of them,” he said. “How come I didn’t? Are you insane? There’s a lot of ego in this.”

Kaback was born in Philadelphia, the eldest of three siblings. His pharmacist father expected the two boys to become physicians, so Kaback enrolled in premed at Haverford College. By fortuitous coincidence, Haverford at that time was the only college anywhere at which undergraduates could study what would become molecular biology. Kaback started doing experiments and “got incredibly turned on.”

“Good science is like art. It’s like composing music or painting. It’s just that the tools are different,” he explained.

Kaback went on to study medicine at New York’s Albert Einstein College, where he got the idea to use bacterial membrane vesicles to study membrane transport. His first experiment a success, Kaback threw himself into the field with manic zeal.

“I remember one night I was trying to reproduce an experiment, but I couldn’t. I said, ‘I’m staying here until it works.’ I watched the dawn rise, at which point I threw the test tubes against the wall and went home.”

These days, Kaback spends most of his time writing, coming up with ideas and “cheerleading” his researchers. His lecture, “The Passion of the Permease: From Membrane to Molecule to a Mechanism of Active Transport,” is slated for Oct. 14 at 3 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall.

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