All life relies on chemical reactions that occur within cell membranes, which are structures that form the living border between a cell and the outside world. These reactions range from algae harnessing solar energy through their photosystems to the human brain propagating electrical impulses along its neurons. Guardians of this frontier are specialized, membrane-immersed enzymes, yet understanding catalysis inside the membrane environment is one of the great enduring mysteries of biochemistry. The Urban Lab studies a membrane enzyme superfamily that we discovered while studying embryogenesis. These ‘rhomboid proteases’ cut select proteins to release them from the membrane. This deceptively simple reaction forms the decision-making step of several key cell communication pathways. Since rhomboid enzymes also play roles in diseases including bacterial infection, malaria invasion, and Parkinsonian neurodegeneration, decoding the engineering principles that allow rhomboid function within the membrane also promises to facilitate developing much-needed therapeutics.

Awards and Achievements

  • Canada Scholarship in Science ( 1993-6)
  • HRH The Princess of Wales’ Canada Scholarship in Biological Sciences ( 1996)
  • Trinity College (Cambridge University) External Research Scholar ( 1999)
  • University of Oxford Rolleston Memorial Prize for Best Original Research ( 2001)
  • Max Perutz Student Prize for Outstanding Research ( 2001)
  • JB & Millicent Kaye Prize Fellow in Cancer Studies Christ's College Cambridge University ( 2002)
  • University of Cambridge Gedge Prize for Best Research in Physiology ( 2002)
  • Genetics Society of America Sandler Award for Outstanding Ph.D. Dissertation ( 2003)
  • Harvard Fellow (in the Society of Fellows) ( 2004)
  • Burroughs-Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences ( 2005)
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist ( 2009)
  • Blavatnik Foundation Scholar in the Life Sciences ( 2014)
  • American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Young Investigator Award

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