News Release icon Contact: Media Relations Office (518) 956-8150



At the Intersection 

UAlbany Distinguished Professor Marlene Belfort, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is a firm believer in convergence science.

ALBANY, N.Y. (October 20, 2016) – Great things can happen when scientists from different fields get together. And when they have been married to each other for 49 years, even better.

Many years ago, Distinguished Professor Marlene Belfort, a biologist at the University at Albany, was establishing her lab. Her husband, Georges Belfort, was setting up his own chemical engineering lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he is now Institute Professor. He also is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

“We seemed very divergent in our fields of science,” said Marlene, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. So they started talking. “We spontaneously came up with common areas of interest.”

This started a research collaboration across the disciplines, back before it was fashionable. The couple began to co-mentor RPI students and Georges mentored some UAlbany students and post-docs.

“We believed we needed to stretch together,” said Marlene, whose research focuses on fundamental genetics and biochemistry, to understand regulation of gene expression in microbes. Her basic discoveries have led to applications in biotechnology with Georges, resulting in methods to purify drugs and develop sensors, and in antibiotic development. “This would never have happened if we had not gone out of our disciplines. This collaboration has been about 5 to 10 percent of our research effort for the past 37 years,” she said.

Unheard of years ago, today, “it’s actually got a name – convergence science,” said Marlene. “It’s a built-in luxury – it happens when we go for a walk.” Georges will say, “I have a very good student who is interested in biology.” Or Marlene will mention a student or an idea that would benefit from a chemical engineering approach.

“We find it very beneficial and exciting and we think people should be doing more of it,” said Marlene, who is director of Life Sciences Research and interim director of the RNA Institute.

“Modern chemical engineering involves discovery and doing this with a talented biologist like Marlene is fabulous and very productive,” said Georges. His research comprises separations engineering and surface science. He has developed new technologies for improving membrane filtration for biotechnology, and increased understanding of protein aggregation such as occurs in Alzheimer’s disease. His discoveries have led to significantly improved membrane performance, and increased molecular understanding of amyloid aggregation.

When the couple considered a legacy, although they are both still maximally active in science, they thought, “What could we do between our respective universities to catalyze unconventional collaborations?”

They decided to endow a new lecture series aimed at sparking collaboration across disciplines, just as they have worked together at the crossroads of genetics, biochemistry, chemical engineering and biotechnology. The inaugural lectures of their endowed “Life at the Interface of Science and Engineering Lecture Series” will be Oct. 25 at UAlbany and Oct. 26 at RPI.

The first speaker is Thomas R. Cech, Ph.D., Nobel Prize winner, a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the director of the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute. He is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which he directed for almost a decade.

And he’s been a friend and colleague of Marlene for more than 30 years.

“So of course we’re excited because this is the inaugural event and the person giving the lectures is a Nobel Laureate who works directly in the area in which I work,” Marlene said. “He is a remarkably wonderful guy – both in the way in which he does science and in the way he relates to people and supports young scientists,” she said.

Cech’s talk will be at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Performing Arts Center. Registration is required at www.albany.edu/science-engineering, or call (518) 442-5310. His talk will be on Long Noncoding RNAs and Epigenetic Gene Silencing.

At 1 p.m. the next day at RPI, in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies auditorium, Cech’s topic will be CRISPR Genome Engineering Gives New Insights about Telomerase and its Role in Cancer. Registration is not required.

To support this initiative, please visit www.albany/edu/giving or www.giving.rpi.edu.

comments powered by Disqus

RSS Link For more news, subscribe to UAlbany's RSS headline feeds

About the University at Albany
A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.