When China native Chang-Jun Liu arrived at the Noble Research Institute in 1999 for a four-year postdoctoral fellowship, he fully expected to broaden his research experience and abilities. He also surmised he would learn about life in America. It was his first experience outside his homeland. What he received was more than even he expected.
That cumulative experience of Liu's postdoctoral fellowship at the Noble Research Institute is largely responsible for who and where he is today, said Liu during an interview more than a decade later. Liu is a biochemist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Upton, N. Y., and an adjunct professor of biochemistry and cell biology at nearby Stony Brook University.
His current research on biosynthesis of plant phenylpropanoids organic compounds that serve as essential components of structural polymers, among other things builds on his work under Rick Dixon, D.Phil., D.Sc., director of the Noble Research Institute's Plant Biology Division, Distinguished Professor and Samuel Roberts Noble Research Chair, and senior vice president. At the Noble Research Institute, Liu worked in the area of isoflavonoids, compounds that belong to a family of the plant phenylpropanoids that his BNL group currently studies.
To say that he merely conducted research, however, is a bit of an understatement. As part of a then ongoing collaboration between the Noble Research Institute and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., Liu characterized an enzyme critical for synthesis of isoflavonoids in legume species.
That breakthrough led to a subsequent postdoctoral position at the Salk Institute, supported in part by a $50,000 postdoctoral excellence award from the Noble Research Institute to help fund continued study of that enzyme.
"Chang-Jun was a remarkable young researcher during his time at the Noble Research Institute and later at the Salk Institute. He was dedicated, insightful and focused," Dixon said. "His diligence has resulted in excellent research and a remarkable career. I'm proud that he is a member of the Noble Research Institute's research alumni."
Today, Liu's phenylpropanoids biosynthesis research includes the characterization and regulation of biosynthetic pathways, the structure-function relationship of the involved key enzymes and the structural modification of cell wall biomass.
"We study lignocellulosic biomass, an abundant and environmentally friendly, renewable energy source derived mostly from plant cell walls," explained Liu, who earned his doctorate in plant biochemistry and molecular biology at the Shanghai Institute of Plant Physiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. "Plant cell walls provide unlimited quantities of renewable biomass, but the intertwined lignin and cellulose that comprise the cell wall resist decomposition, which makes obtaining energy from the biomass difficult."
By investigating the biosynthesis and molecular regulation of plant cell walls, Liu and his colleagues hope to develop novel strategies to tailor the cell wall composition and structure for biofuel and biomaterial production. "If we can manage the biosynthesis," he said, "we believe we can make a cell wall suitable for efficient, sustainable biofuel production."
Looking back, Liu attributes much of his success to his experience at the Noble Research Institute. "The Noble Research Institute is a state-of-the-art facility with a highly effective management system. The valuable mentorship and support I received from Rick and other scientists in his group strongly influenced my future research," Liu said. "They taught me how to run a successful research group and develop enthusiasm. I frequently draw on that knowledge when I'm faced with a new scientific challenge or am mentoring a new student."
Beyond the research, Liu credited many Noble Research Institute employees with integrating him into American life and culture. "Asia and the United States have completely different social and educational systems," Liu said. "So many colleagues at the Noble Research Institute provided me with guidance and friendship so that I could adapt to life in the United States."
There were many "firsts" for Liu during his time at the Noble Research Institute. Peers helped teach him how to drive and then he purchased his very first car. When Liu and his wife, Yang Chen, welcomed their first son, Allen Liu, into the world, the Human Resources Department provided assistance with hospital arrangements and insurance. His colleagues offered their spare time to help refine his English.
"These experiences may seem trivial to some, but they had a profound influence on my career and life development," Liu said. "Of the many lessons I learned, Rick's may have been most important. He led me into my research field and taught me to interact with colleagues and be a professional scientist. I owe him a great debt of gratitude."
Liu stays in touch with Dixon, seeking his guidance on a variety of issues, and continues to get other help from the Noble Research Institute in the form of research materials and collaboration with Dixon and Fang Chen, Ph.D., a research scientist in Dixon's laboratory.
"In my opinion, the Noble Research Institute is one of the best institutes in the nation for plant study, particularly in molecular genetics and biology," Liu said. "I so appreciate my four years there and the collaborations I've enjoyed with the organization since my fellowship.
"The experience was important for both my character and professional development. Without it, I don't think I would have had the opportunity to be where I am today."