Dr. Roger Jacobs

What is the overall goal of your research program?

I am interested in how animal cells and tissues create and maintain their shape- the process of morphogenesis. Understanding these mechanisms reveals possible therapies for common human malformations in the fetus. Examples would include the circulatory system (ductus arteriosus) or in the nervous system (acallosal brains).

For most of my career I’ve studied how nerve cells develop and maintain their shape. Much of my research uses the fruitfly, Drosophila, a genetic model that enables us to rapidly discover and manipulate gene expression. A major discovery I made was the function of the Slit protein, which guides growing axons reach their targets in the nervous system. I now study the mechanism by which Slit guides the formation of the heart.

What would be one of your biggest research highlights?

My biggest research discovery, and my least noticed, is developing and testing the hypothesis that the intracellular distribution of organelles determines the shape of nerve cell processes- which further regulates the flow of electrical signals by the cell. This was my PhD project (many years ago), yet science has yet to reveal the molecular mechanism of the process I discovered.

Most recently, research in my lab demonstrated that the guidance function of Slit is dependent upon the Integrin cell adhesion system – in both the nervous system and the heart. Our current work is revealing how Integrin signals inside heart cells direct which parts of the cell can respond to Slit. We are also examining how Integrin signals allow the muscle cells in the heart to maintain tissue structure during heart growth.

How can we find more information about your research?

To learn more about the power of the Drosophila model.  Some recent work on the heart can be found here and here.

Did you always know you were going to be a scientist? How did you come to be doing the work you are?

My father trained in Europe as a geologist; my mother as a pharmacist. I grew up with Scientific American on the coffee table, so I was inculcated in the scientific method from an early age. In those days kids were told to study what most interested them in University, without deciding in advance what their profession would be. When a family friend went to graduate school, I thought, why can’t I? And I haven’t stopped going to school since.

How does your research relate to your teaching?

I teach Developmental Biology (MolBiol 3M03) and introduce the Drosophila model in class and the lab. I think the scientific method should permeate thinking in the lab, and in the real world. This was the motivation for me to develop Biology’s Lab Course (Biol 2L03) and my teaching in the Arts and Science program (Arts&Sci 4CF3). This course, titled “How science speaks to power” explores how politics molds science, and how science informs (or fails to inform) public policy.

Outside of the lab/office/classroom, what could we find you doing? (ie – how do you enjoy spending your recreational hours?

My daughter accuses me of devoting too much time to watching depressing movies (and not enough to scrabble). I enjoy everything surreal- literature, art and cinema. The stress of academic life is dissipated by swimming and cooking.