UC Santa Cruz scientist Todd Lowe wins Sloan Research Fellowship

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has selected Todd Lowe, an assistant professor of computer engineering at UC Santa Cruz, to receive a Sloan Research Fellowship in molecular biology. Lowe, whose research combines computational and experimental approaches to uncover new biology, is among 117 young scientists and economists to receive the prestigious fellowships this year. Lowe is investigating, among other things, the exotic biology and uncharted genetics of microorganisms that thrive at boiling temperatures.

The Sloan Research Fellowships are intended to enhance the careers of the very best young faculty members in seven specified fields of science. They include a grant of $40,000 that provides flexible and largely unrestricted support for research.

Lowe joined the UCSC faculty in 2001 as the first hire for a new interdisciplinary Department of Biomolecular Engineering that is being formed in the Baskin School of Engineering. He also holds a courtesy appointment in the campus's Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, and is affiliated with the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering directed by David Haussler, who holds a UC Presidential Chair in computer science and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Haussler, who nominated Lowe for the Sloan fellowship, called him "one of a very small, unique group of researchers today who effectively combines computational biology and serious experimental molecular biology."

"One of the key reasons we were so excited for him to join our faculty is the intellectual and collaborative bridge he provides between his more theoretically oriented peers in the School of Engineering, and the biology and chemistry faculty where his experimental lab is physically located," Haussler said.

A major aim of Lowe's lab is to test the theoretical predictions derived from computational analysis of genome sequences, using experimental techniques to get results that traditional biologists would consider convincing.

"We are swimming in theoretical gene predictions of highly variable quality and reliability," Lowe said. "We need to use high-throughput methods such as DNA microarrays to test and refine theoretical gene function predictions."

Lowe earned a B.A. in biology, with a concentration in computer science, at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, then worked as a computer specialist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information before entering graduate school. He earned a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the University of Washington in St. Louis, where he worked with geneticist Sean Eddy. Lowe was then a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of geneticist David Botstein at Stanford University before coming to UCSC.

Lowe's current research makes use of DNA microarrays ("gene chips"), which can provide a comprehensive view of gene activity in cells, revealing which genes are turned on and off in response to different conditions. Lowe uses microarrays to predict functional roles for unstudied genes, to study how cells respond to stresses, and to understand how gene activity is controlled.

Much of his work has focused on a group of microorganisms called Archaea, which look much like bacteria but are genetically and biochemically quite distinct. Archaea live in some of the most extreme environments on Earth, including hot springs, thermal vents in the deep sea, and highly acidic or alkaline water. Lowe plans to compare gene activity in two distantly related species of "hyperthermophilic" Archaea to identify the genes and biological pathways that enable them to thrive at extremely high temperatures.

Another major focus in Lowe's lab is the investigation of so-called "noncoding RNAs," which are not involved directly in protein synthesis as are most other RNA molecules. Using both computational and experimental approaches, he is developing techniques for rapidly identifying the functions of newly discovered noncoding RNAs.

The Sloan Research Fellowship Program is one of the oldest fellowship programs in the country. It began in 1955 as a means of encouraging research by young scholars at a critical time in their careers when other support is difficult to obtain. More than 500 nominations for the 2003 awards were reviewed by a committee of distinguished scientists.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit institution, was established in 1934 by Alfred P. Sloan Jr., then president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corporation.


Note to reporters: You may contact Lowe at (831) 459-1511 or lowe@soe.ucsc.edu.