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Baruch’s Peixoto discusses nuances of his mitochondria research

Professor Pablo Peixoto grew up in Brasilia, Brazil; he was one of four kids born to a single mother. With his childhood socioeconomic situation, he never dreamed of going to a university, holding a doctorate or running his own research lab.

Years later, those dreams have become a reality. Peixoto is an assistant professor of Natural Sciences at Baruch College, where he teaches biology and human physiology alongside running a research lab focused on mitochondrial electrophysiology. Before working at Baruch, Peixoto did research at both the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and New York University.

His journey toward such a rewarding career, however, is traced back to his mother and his time in Brazil. Peixoto’s mother used to tell him that, as a child, he was always interested in the way things worked.

During his time at school in Brazil, Peixoto chanced upon an ecology lab, where the main study involved the interactions between an ant, a bug and a plant. The ants in the lab would press the abdomen of the bug, causing the bug to secrete a sort of honeydew, upon which the ants would then feed. Aside from being delicious for the ants, the honeydew also turned out to be an anti-fungal, so it would protect the plants in the environment. Since the ants liked the bug’s secretions, they would also provide it with protection. This interaction became a three-party relationship between the ants, the bug and the plant.

In this ecology lab, Peixoto spent a lot of time studying the behavior of the three parties and the roles each organism had. His research into this topic, which sparked his prolific career, invoked his interest in understanding the molecular behavior behind all these interactions.

Peixoto would go on to receive his master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Federal University of Uberlandia, Brazil. He finished his doctorate in cell biology from the University of Extremadura in Spain. His internship in the city of Caceres helped Peixoto narrow down his field of study.

“I now study mitochondrial electrophysiology. They’re two funny words that I learned in this internship opportunity in the city of Caceres, in the state of Extremadura. You never hear about this city when you think of Spain, and so I thought, ‘three words that people are not going to care about: mitochondria, electrophysiology and Caceres,’ and I applied. I was probably the only person applying to that and I got invited for an internship after for a Ph.D. thesis,” said Peixoto.

Peixoto truly delved into the realm of mitochondrion during his thesis work. He wanted to know more about the exchange of protein between the mitochondria and the rest of the cell. According to Peixoto, proteins are what really make up mitochondria–what really gives them their function.

At his doctoral thesis defense, there was a professor from NYU acting as president of his evaluation committee.

“We know mitochondria as energy. We have a lot where we need it: in our brain, our skeletal muscles. Now we are learning that mitochondria control the fate of a cell. A cancer cell is a cell that forgot how to die and some of the research that we were doing was seeing how a cancer cell becomes resistant to the commands that the mitochondria give to die,” said Peixoto.

The professor was studying an aspect of mitochondria that Peixoto was not familiar with: controlled cell death. After hearing his thesis defense, she offered him a job.

Peixoto began to study apoptosis, or a form of controlled cell death. He explained that apoptosis is Greek for the falling of a leaf from a tree; it is natural and necessary for the tree’s life cycle. This type of cell death happens constantly in human bodies when skin cells die and are replaced by fresh ones. Another example of apoptosis is when the intestinal floor is refreshed to remove dysfunctional cells and replace them with new, healthy cells.

In his lab, he continues to research the network of interactions between mitochondria and other cell parts.

“It seems like the mitochondria might be talking to other parts of the cell,” says Peixoto. “I want to know what language they are talking and what happens when they exchange information.”

There are people who believe that mitochondrion contribute stimuli to the nucleus of a cell, causing the cell to divide faster. According to Peixoto, when stressful situations arise in nature, animal litters tend to be bigger. From observation, this seems like nature’s way of increasing the chances of reproductive success in species. Peixoto speculates this may start at the cellular level with the nucleus, a speculation he may someday be able to prove true.

Peixoto’s team is currently developing a project that will help him understand how mitochondrion communicate with other parts of a cell and how the relationship could alleviate certain conditions, such as denervation of muscles.

Although Peixoto is very dedicated to his research, he is equally committed to his teaching career. To balance both of these endeavors, the professor’s approach is to let them feed off each other. He constantly uses the knowledge from his lab in his classrooms, as textbooks are not published often enough to keep up with new discoveries.

Conversely, going from his classroom to his lab helps keep him level-headed. It allows him to see a grand-scale picture versus a narrow view of his work.

“When I come from the class to the lab, I am coming with this wiring of looking to the forest [and] not the tree all the time. Teaching helps you keep a broader perspective on the relevance of the research you are doing. For me it’s very easy to go to the microscopic, the nanoscopic and want to get lost in there,” Peixoto said.

Peixoto was offered an opportunity at Baruch, where he could broaden the impact of his research through interactions with students to whom he can relate.

The Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences and faculty at the Department of Natural Sciences at Baruch recognize strongly support undergraduate research at Baruch. Peixoto’s lab houses 10 student researchers, each of whom are similar to Peixoto because of their passion and dedication for the work.

The students he works with in his lab are there because they pursue the work out of pure desire and interest. He likes working with people who are naturally driven and do not take any of the resources offered to them for granted. His students, in his own words, “always want more.”

Although he tries to keep his lab small to make it feel more personal, Peixoto has a hard time denying students who want to work with him. His lab, therefore, keeps on growing.

Peixoto tries to run his lab the way he runs his classroom. He allows it be an environment where students actively contribute to the learning experience. Peixoto holds weekly meetings, where everyone can present their work and discuss scientific literature. Newcomers are always welcome and there is always a senior student capable of helping the inexperienced ones learn the lab techniques.

Many of Peixoto’s students present their work in national and international scientific conferences, as well as co-author peer-reviewed scholarly articles. Interested students can gain research experience in the lab, which can be used to leverage admission into prestigious doctoral programs.

Scientific research opportunities at Baruch seem rare, to say the least, since Baruch has a reputation as a business school. However, Peixoto stresses the value of these hidden opportunities.

“I’m not here to change anyone’s career plans. I wouldn’t want that kind of responsibility over me. But I would love to give people the opportunities that are available to them, especially at this level when there is still time to make decision changes. Rather than motivating changes, I would just like to offer the possibility of change,” said Peixoto.

Peixoto hopes to continue working with Baruch students on various projects centered on mitochondrion. He also hopes to follow-up on his project on denervation by “screen[ing] FDA drug libraries in the search for molecules that can rescue mitochondrial and motor function in the flies.” However, the research Peixoto does in his lab can go in any direction. He is always asking questions that spur from his own work or from the work he does in collaboration with his students.

More information can be found at Peixoto’s website, www.peixotolab.org. He encourages any students interested to contact him or visit his office in Room 910C in the 23rd Street Building.

“It took me eight years and my postdocs, so I could get a tenure job. But definitely growing up and doing my undergrad I was fortunate to have many doors open to me. I tried an ecology lab, a biochemistry lab and I ended up doing biophysics,” says Peixoto, “I love what I do. It’s my dream job.”

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