By Eva Emerson
From his style (he prefers black) to his choice of jewelry (a small metal stud pierces his left eyebrow) and his preferred method of transportation (a 24-speed bicycle), USC College neurobiologist Michael Quick makes it clear that he is no stereotypical professor.
What he is is a talented, enthusiastic teacher and scientist who, in two short years as an associate professor of biological sciences in USC College, has already had a notable impact in the life of the school and the minds of his students.
Quick’s research studies focus on the communication between neurons that underlies all thought, movement and behavior. Chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, mediate that communication in the synapse, the gap between neurons.
Some of these neurotransmitters stand out in terms of their importance in human disease and behavior. Low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the synapse, for example, have been linked to depression. Too much glutamate and you may get epilepsy. Parkinson’s, manic depression, autism and many other brain disorders appear related to increased or decreased neurotransmitter activity.
In his attempts to better understand factors that could alter neurotransmitter levels, and thus influence disease, Quick was one of the first to identify and study the role of transporter proteins in the process.
Prozac and similar drugs help keep synaptic serotonin levels high, for example, by blocking the serotonin transporters that move serotonin molecules inside cells for recycling or destruction. As the transporters do this, they trigger a chain reaction that eventually can lead to a noticeable change in behavior.
“Neurotransmitters important in disease, as well as therapeutic drugs and drugs of abuse, can be regulated by how quickly they are reabsorbed by the cell. And that’s the transporter’s job,” says Quick.
Quick’s investigations have revealed myriad mechanisms for regulating the activity, number and location of transporters, a key step if scientists are ever to develop drugs that target the transporters.
In other promising work, Quick studies the basic biology of addiction, specifically looking at the events that establish and maintain nicotine addiction.
His most recent project focuses on something completely different. Collaborating with Getty Research Institute conservator Arlen Heginbotham, Quick and student Vicky Millay, who graduated from the College in spring, are applying biological tools to the preservation of centuries-old art and furnishings.
Quick is “jazzed,” he says. “Using antibodies, we set out to help Arlen identify a layer of ‘mystery material’ painted on a 17th century cabinet from the Getty. Recently, we detected egg albumin in the original 300-year-old piece of furniture.”
Their work has been progressing well, and the team, presenting their initial results at a meeting of art conservators in spring, has begun to stir up wider interest in the techniques.
Millay, Quick says, has been doing most of the actual lab work.
In fact, the majority of Quick’s research is done with the undergraduate students — usually between 12 and 20 — working in his lab. He works one-on-one with the students, giving each a bite-sized portion of a larger project to oversee. “We figure out what questions they’re interested in, and then try to identify a project that matches up.”
Since coming to USC, in fact, he’s switched the entire organization of his lab, giving undergraduates parts of his own projects to work on and freeing up graduate student time to focus on their own research questions.
He pushes his graduate students to work as independently as possible, he says, pursuing projects of their own design with him acting as a mentor and occasional trouble-shooter. “I really want them to learn how to be scientists, and you can only really learn that by taking on your own project and figuring out how to make things happen.”