Peter (centre) with cup of palm wine during his trip to INBR 2006, Owerri, Nigeria.
Peter W. Baas, PhD.
Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy
Drexel University, College of Medicine
NUMBER TWO – PETER BAAS
Our number two Personality for the Research Profile of the Centre for Scientific Investigations and Training (CSIT), Owerri, Nigeria is Dr. Peter Baas, a distinguished professor of neuroscience, who has given a lot to the development of the discipline in Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world. Since 2006 he has been to Nigeria once, and has traveled to many countries in Africa. He impacts on this forum of the CSIT web site where we discuss personalities that have shaped the careers of many. Peter is also a Chief of the Ogbor Ancient Kingdom in Ahiazu Mbaise, Imo State, Nigeria. Please enjoy a peep into the research life of this great man who fascinates us in many ways.
- Polycarp Nwoha, Editor
1. My life and work.
A few generations ago, my family moved to the USA from the Netherlands, where they had been farmers. Many of the Dutch settled in Western Michigan, where they could buy land to farm, work hard, and prosper. As the economy evolved over the generations, small privately owned farms became less economically sound business models, but it was fortunate for me that my interests tended toward something else. I enjoyed scholarship, especially science and writing. Today, I feel fortunate that I am able to make science my life’s work, and I am able to spend a great deal of my time writing. After growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I then moved to East Lansing, where I did both my undergraduate and graduate work at Michigan State University.
During my undergraduate years, I always liked a structure inside cells called microtubules. Fortunately there was a great laboratory at Michigan State in which I could study microtubules, under the leadership of Dr. Steve Heidemann. We began studying neurons for the simple reason that they were rich in highly organized microtubules. With time, I became dedicated to neurons as my favorite type of cell, but I was still not a trained neuroscientist. Therefore, for my postdoctoral training, I chose to work with Dr. Mark Black, who was both a microtubule expert and a neuroscientist. Dr. Black was located at Temple University, which meant a move across the country for me, to live in Philadelphia for 3.5 years.
I took my first faculty job in 1991 at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. It was a great experience launching my own research program, developing my own ideas, and training my own students. I kept my laboratory continuously funded, and I published a number of papers on issues related to microtubules in neurons. After a decade, I became eager to start a new chapter in my life. I moved to Drexel University, back to the city of Philadelphia, in 2001, where I am today. The move was enormously beneficial both personally and professionally, as the environment and people at Drexel are truly wonderful. I feel fortunate to have been able to accomplish these things over the past three decades, and I look forward to contributing more in years to come.
2. My mentors and students.
My doctoral mentor, Dr. Steve Heidemann, taught me how to think about science. He taught me that science is about framing questions, devising strategies for answering those questions, and then interpreting the data with rigor. My postdoctoral adviser, Mr. Mark Black, helped me in every way to accomplish myself, and to become the scientist that I am today. Dr. Itzhak Fischer, my Departmental Chair at Drexel University, taught me to think beyond immediate goals, to the greater impact of my work and my interactions with others. I am thankful to these gentlemen who have been so influential on my life and my work.
Training my own students and watching them prosper has been my greatest professional reward over the past two decades. I am currently the Director of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience at Drexel University College of Medicine, which enables me to impact students beyond my own laboratory. I am dedicated to training the next generation of scientists, taking inspiration from those who trained me.
3. How my contact with people has shaped my life.
When I was a young Assistant Professor, I started traveling the world, as much as circumstances would allow. Interestingly, this started with a trip to South Africa when I was an Assistant Professor. Since then, I have participated in various scientific forums and meetings and delivered seminars in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Australia. I feel that it is part of my job as a scientist to disseminate my knowledge and share the results of my research with others, and I take this responsibility seriously. Beyond this, I have long felt that it is essential to my own progress to interact with people from various perspectives and backgrounds. This is how new ideas come to light, and how the merits of ideas are put to the test.
4. My beliefs and prejudices.
I believe that most people are inherently spiritual and that it does not advance or behoove the scientific enterprise to put itself in opposition to the heartfelt beliefs that make people who they are. As scientists, I believe we should respect one another’s religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions in order to broaden the participation in science of the incredible minds and talents that exist around the world. Personal faith is not contrary to science, in my opinion.
5. My travels in Africa and their benefits
As noted earlier, I started traveling to Africa when I was a young Assistant Professor in the 1990s. My first trip was to South Africa, and I immediately fell in love with the African Continent and her people. I soon thereafter made a second trip to South Africa, followed years later by a trip to Senegal and then to Nigeria. I was especially honored in 2006 during my visit to Nigeria to have been made a Chief in the home village of my friend and colleague, Dr. Polycarp Nwoha.
Each time I visited Africa, I was impressed with the character and spirit of the people, as well as the history, the culture, and the natural wonders of the continent. Upon my return from my first trip to Africa, my immediate response was “I have to go back,” and I’ve heard that many people have that identical response. Perhaps it is because Africa is the cradle of humanity, where our species originated, or perhaps because it teaches us so much about the history of mankind, both our triumphs and tragedies. Whatever the case, I am dedicated to doing my part to advancing the cause of science and education in Africa.
6. Words of advice for scientists in Africa, particularly neuroscientists
For scientists working in Africa, I would say that scientific research certainly requires resources but it also requires original ideas, dedication, passion, and scholarship. While scientific resources may be thin in African countries, the other elements that are so crucial to the scientific endeavor need not be. New ideas that change the course of a scientific discipline can come from anywhere on the planet, and Africa is no exception. I urge scientists in Africa to pursue their dreams, against adversity, because they truly can have profound impact.
To young scholars wishing to study abroad, I recommend that you focus on a particular field that you have passion for, become as expert and accomplished as you can, and then contact people you admire in that field. It usually does not work well to send mass emails to scientists outside of your field, without any personal appeal or connection. Instead, I recommend that you write each individual personally, and make sure there is a compelling case for contacting that person.
7. What do you think of INBR, JENB and neuroscience activities in Nigeria?
Science is an enormous challenge in Nigeria and other African countries, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge this. It is a long uphill battle for anyone choosing science as a career, and this is why it is so essential that those of us in better environments for science do all that we can to support science and education in Africa. I am impressed and humbled by the efforts of the people in Nigeria who have orchestrated the INBR, JENB and the wonderful scientific meetings.
8. My research laboratory.
The mission of my laboratory is to elucidate the cellular and molecular mechanisms that establish and regulate the microtubule arrays of the neuron, during development, health, and disease.
The goals of our laboratory are to:
1. Elucidate the roles microtubule play in neuronal development, with emphasis on issues including axon development, dendrite development, growth cone turning, neuronal migration, and the branching of axons and dendrites.
2. Elucidate the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which the microtubule arrays of the neuron are established and regulated to carry out their various functional roles, with emphasis on microtubule-based molecular motor proteins and microtubule-severing proteins.
3. Elucidate the contribution of microtubule-based mechanisms to nerve degeneration that accompany disease and injury, with emphasis on spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia.
4. Develop novel microtubule-based therapies for treating injured or diseased axons.
Toward these ends, we use a variety of contemporary techniques, including microscopic, biochemical, and molecular assays.
More Information on my laboratory can be found here: http://neurobio.drexelmed.edu/baasweb/