Young Sleuths Of Science

April 24, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

For Jeremy M. Berg, it all started with the gift of a book.

For W. Mark Saltzman, it was tangled up in his admiration for the world's original thinkers.

For both, the decision to become a scientist was a matter of applying their energies and talents, and indulging their passion for understanding the physical world.

Both are being honored this week: Dr. Berg, 37, chairman of biophysics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has been named Maryland's Outstanding Young Scientist for 1995. Dr. Saltzman, 35, a professor of chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins, is this year's Outstanding Young Engineer.

The awards are part of Maryland Science Week, which runs through Saturday. Carol Gilliss, executive director of Maryland Science Week, said they are intended, in part, to help steer students to careers in science, mathematics and technology by showing that "you don't have to be 60 or 70 years old to do good work in science."

For Dr. Berg, it was a short stroll from his front door to the pursuit of a scientific career. His father was a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, his mother was a physician conducting research, and he grew up roaming the campus of the prominent research university.

"Science was the standard form of conversation," he said. "There were books everywhere. It wasn't much of a reach for me."

But the chemist figures he found his calling one day in 1970, when he was 12. That's when his father brought him a book titled "The Architecture of Molecules," written by Linus Pauling, a brilliant chemist and two-time Nobel Prize winner who died last ,, August.

Jeremy pored over the book's illustrations of atoms locked into intricate molecular arrays and read the brief descriptions. He was fascinated by the hidden structure of the world. That fascination stuck with him as he attended Stanford as an undergraduate, earned a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Hopkins in the 1980s.

"My office is still cluttered with molecular models," Dr. Berg said. And, every few years, he re-reads his copy of "The Architecture of Molecules" -- which now bears Dr. Pauling's autograph, obtained when Dr. Berg was a student at Stanford.

"I still learn things from the book," he said.

Today, Dr. Berg is a leader in the field of structural biology, the study of how the molecular shape of biological chemicals helps determine their function.

He studies a group of proteins that turns genes on and off.

Proteins are organic compounds found in all living things. They are are essential for the growth, repair and regulation of cells. They are chains of smaller molecules, called amino acids, and generally range from about 50 amino acids to thousands of amino acids in length.

Each protein folds up into a precise shape, like a collapsible lawn chair. A whole class of gene-regulating proteins are locked into their characteristic shape by the atoms of zinc, and have been dubbed "zinc-finger" proteins.

One such zinc-finger protein, called WT-1, controls the growth of kidney cells by switching certain genes off. Some children produce faulty WT-1 proteins that don't bind with DNA in the right place, and can't turn off the growth of the child's kidney cells when the cells reach the appropriate stage of development.

Rather than developing into normal kidney cells, the uncontrolled cells develop into a tumor, called Wilms Tumor. The disorder, which strikes from 300 to 400 children annually in the United States, was one of the first linked with tumor-suppressing genes like WT-1.

Other illnesses result when zinc-finger proteins lack the proper binding site for zinc, and therefore can't fold properly.

Role of zinc

"We've been most involved in understanding the role of zinc, and why natural proteins have zinc in them and not some other metal and whether that matters," Dr. Berg said. "And we're trying to understand the mechanism by which these proteins bind to one sequence of DNA and not another."

Dr. Berg lives in Lutherville with his wife, Dr. Wendie Berg, a radiologist, and two sons: Alexander, 9, and Corey, 4.

Dr. Saltzman grew up in Iowa and Illinois, the son of an insurance salesman and a homemaker. Neither parent encouraged his early interest in science. But Dr. Saltzman said that didn't matter much: He can't remember a time when he wasn't intrigued by the way nature worked.

When he dissected a frog, he saw "the most impressive machine you could imagine."

"I've always looked at things that way, like I was an engineer," he said. Science classes "were very easy for me. As I got older it was much easier to think about physics and biology than about really hard things, like the social sciences."

No particular book or teacher inspired him. But he said he always has been fascinated by original thinkers, particularly Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein.

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