Meet Schwenk Chair Dan Fabris
Professor Dan Fabris joined the UConn Department of Chemistry in January 2020 as the Harold S. Schwenk, Sr. Distinguished Chair. Below, Professor Fabris reflects upon his first year at UConn and his plans for the future.
Please describe your academic training and career before UConn.
Growing up near Venice (Italy), I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a scientist. My high school was a “liceo scientifico” with wonderful teachers who nurtured my love for the natural sciences. After completing my studies at University of Padova (Italy), I sought a postdoctoral position abroad to gain more experience and further prepare for a career in academia. My plans were to return to Italy after a couple of years and to parlay this experience into a faculty position in a research institution. Almost thirty years later, only the latter was realized, whereas the former faded away. I was first accepted as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. C. Fenselau’s laboratory at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), where I later became part of the research staff. After my mentor moved to a different institution, I was given the opportunity to become a faculty member and to establish my laboratory at UMBC, where I rose through the ranks. I was later recruited by University at Albany (SUNY) to become one of the founding members of the RNA Institute, before moving to UConn in January of last year.
What attracted you to the UConn Department of Chemistry?
What attracted me was the outstanding reputation for excellence in teaching and research and the opportunity to be part of something awesome. I am not a big believer in rankings, but I believe in word of mouth and reputation among peers. Through my entire career, I have always heard very good things about UConn Chemistry from colleagues and friends. I was always very impressed by the creativity, breadth, and impact of the research pursued in this Department. Then, I had the opportunity to see it first-hand when my dear friend Prof. X. Yao invited me to give a seminar a few years ago. After meeting many faculty members one-on-one, I came away even more impressed. In addition to their dedication to excellence across the board, what really struck me was their strong sense of community and the belief that the whole should always be greater than the mere sum of its parts. That day, I made a mental note that, given the opportunity, this would be a wonderful environment to be part of.
As the Harold S. Schwenk, Sr. Distinguished Chair, please describe your research focus and your plans for research at UConn.
My research program is dedicated to the investigation of the structure-function relationships in RNA involved in infectious diseases and cancer. The interface between Chemistry and Biology offers a wealth of opportunities for extraordinary breakthroughs. In this direction, we have been developing new cutting-edge approaches to investigate essential process in the lifecycle of RNA viruses, such as HIV-1, Zika, Hepatitis C, and now SARS-CoV-2, which pose dire biomedical challenges with enormous socioeconomic impact. We are currently exploring the interactions between drugs of abuse and HIV-1 morbidity and evaluating the potential of essential RNA structures present on the genome of SARS-CoV-2 as effective targets for the development of new antiviral therapies.
What are you most looking forward to in the upcoming year at UConn?
In the upcoming year, I am looking forward to regaining the momentum lost during the transition period. Under normal circumstances, moving a laboratory takes enormous amounts of time and energy. During a lockdown, even simple tasks can become unsurmountable hurdles. After spending the better part of last year preparing the labs to obtain necessary certifications, securing instrumentation, and recruiting new personnel, the group is now ready to fly. I am looking forward to seeing all of us hitting our strides and achieving all the personal and professional goals that drive us.
Explain to the non-specialist the instruments that were recently installed and how they will aid in the advancement of your research goals?
The generous institutional startup was invested in purchasing three high-end mass spectrometers. A mass spectrometer is a very accurate “scale” used to determine the “weight” (mass) of atoms and molecules. This concept is deceptively simple and surprisingly powerful. Indeed, proper instrumentation affords the ability to observe species that can be as small as protons (H+), as large as intact viruses, and everything in between. Molecular mass determinations can tell us the composition of natural and synthetic samples, reveal the identity of unknown compounds, expose the outcome of catalysis and binding interactions, and more. Ancillary fragmentation techniques enable the structural characterization of analytes and the sequencing of biopolymers, such as proteins and nucleic acids. This type of instrumentation has given us a unique set of eyes to look at things with an unprecedented level of detail. We are currently taking advantage of these capabilities to look, for example, at the specific interactions between different small-molecule ligands and selected structures of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, which may induce the disruption of essential viral functions and lead to the development of a new class of potent antivirals. With the goal of identifying new targets for therapeutic intervention, we are also looking at how the genomes of RNA viruses are modified by host enzymes to hijack normal cellular processes into supporting viral replication. These and other projects are supported by a Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FTICR) and a trapped ion mobility spectrometer (TIMS) time-of-flight located in my lab on the 2nd floor of the Chemistry Building, as well as an Orbitrap mass spectrometer that was placed in the departmental Mass Spectrometry Facility on the 4th floor to promote access by other faculty and the broader UConn community.
Only a few months after coming to UConn, we entered a pandemic. How has your group adapted its practices and philosophies during this time?
The pandemic has made working from home highly desirable and, at times, absolutely required. There is only so much reading and writing that one can do at home. Like most experimentalists, we need to be physically present in the lab to carry out our research. The fact that time spent in the lab is now more precious than ever has prompted us to look for any possible way to maximize the returns. We have thus renewed our efforts towards becoming more strategic in selecting the hypotheses we want to test, more efficient in designing the most informative possible experiments, more thoughtful in considering all types of outcomes, and more creative in planning the subsequent steps. The hurdles placed by social distancing have underscored the fundamental importance of expanding the opportunities for mutual communications to preserve our cooperative environment, in which students work together and learn from one another. The participation in impromptu text exchanges, group chats, and video calls has become an accepted necessity even for the most reserved among us. A combination of all these avenues has been working very well for us. However, the lab veterans are still longing for our old-style group meetings, during which everybody huddled in the same room, staring at slides projected on a big screen, sharing ideas fueled by plenty of coffee and donuts.
What courses do you plan to teach in the upcoming semesters? If you were able to dream up your own course, what would it be?
In the upcoming semesters, I will be teaching traditional courses included in the Analytical Chemistry curriculum sanctioned by the American Chemical Society, as well as established special topics courses offered at UConn, like the one dedicated to Advanced Mass Spectrometry. Barring duplication of courses offered elsewhere on campus, I would love to introduce a course titled “Electronics for Scientists,” which was always well received by students of all levels and backgrounds at my previous institutions. I developed this course years ago to provide non-engineering students with a basic knowledge and a fundamental understanding of electronics as applied to modern lab instrumentation. The course served as an introduction to basic components and electronics circuits, which benefitted those interested in instrument development and troubleshooting, or those just curious to learn how “that box” really works. Students particularly enjoyed the practical part of the course, which involved completing a small project in the lab.
Are you currently accepting postdocs and/or students into your research group? If so, do you have a message for them about what you are looking for, projects they will get involved in, and how best to contact you?
All projects in the lab combine chemistry with biology, biophysics, and bioinformatics in a cross-disciplinary environment that offers different learning opportunities to people with very diverse backgrounds, interests, and aspirations. I am always looking for fast-learners, self-starters, hard-workers, self-driven, creative individuals, who are not afraid of venturing out of their comfort zone to set foot where nobody has gone before. If you think you check these boxes, contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I might be slow to answer, but I always do!
When not in the lab or classroom, do you have any interesting hobbies?
I love skiing, hiking, and mountain biking. With the Adirondacks a little farther away than they used to be, biking is now my most frequent extracurricular activity. I am looking forward to exploring Connecticut and neighboring Rhode Island on a bike. I would love to receive tips on your favorite trail, or go for a ride together, if you promise to not leave me in the dust (or mud…).
What advice do you have for students?
The pandemic has made it very difficult for students and faculty to bump into each other in the hallways, the elevators, the Chem Main Office, or the coffee shop on the 1st floor. Take advantage of any possible opportunity to talk with them after an online class or seminar. Don’t be afraid of sending them an email out of the blue to start a conversation. Professors were you a few years ago, and you will be them a few years from now. We are the same people at different stages of our lives. There must be ways to talk more with one another!