Queens College Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Robert Bittman, one of the world's leading lipid chemists and experts on membrane structure and function, is an avid tennis player when he's away from the lab
Recently Robert Bittman, an intrepid explorer of micro worlds, was finishing a grant proposal. He was suggesting a new way to observe how cholesterol and other fat-soluble molecules, sphingolipids, interact with each other to form “domains” or “lipid rafts” on board cell membranes. In clusters, they recruit specific proteins. These domains may control many cellular processes in both health and disease. Rafts can also play a nasty role in many human diseases. Bittman hopes to develop synthetic lipids that can be used to visualize rafts, measure membrane ordering, and prevent rafts in healthy cells from being targeted or invaded by pathogens.
On the macro level, Bittman fights his own cholesterol by taking statins. But don't get him wrong: cholesterol isn’t all bad. “Cholesterol needs a P.R. department,” he said. “People feel cholesterol is bad. But the cell membrane would be too leaky without it, and cells would not be able to function. Some lipids even control whether a cell is going to proliferate or die.”
One of the world’s leading lipid chemists and experts on membrane structure and function, Bittman has published over 300 studies and has edited 57 volumes of the monograph Organic Reactions and a book on subcellular biochemistry about cholesterol’s functions. He has received the Avanti Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for outstanding research contributions in the area of lipids, and has been supported for nearly four decades by grants of more than $8 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1985 Bittman was among the first group of scientists to receive the NIH’s prestigious MERIT Award. He is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A Queens native, Bittman has spent his entire academic career at Queens College since being hired in 1966. “I appreciate working with graduate students and colleagues from all over the world who are active and doing research,” he said.
And how does he relax? Opera (not new ones) and tennis. “I’ve been lucky enough to have won quite a few tournaments. When I was in college I was on the tennis team.”
Favorite science-related book: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History by P. Le Couteur and J. Burreson
Favorite music: Classical, especially Mozart
Courses Taught: Physical Biochemistry, Biochemistry of Lipids and Membranes, Advanced Organic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry
Interesting fact: He attended Jamaica High School with the late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. “I had some very smart friends in high school,” Bittman said.