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Garcia to head Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics

Renowned biochemist known for contributions to field of epigenetics

by Julia Evangelou StraitDecember 15, 2020

University of Pennsylvania

Benjamin A. Garcia, PhD, a noted leader in the field of biochemistry, especially for his work advancing mass spectrometry techniques, has been named head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Garcia, whose appointment tentatively is set to begin July 1, also will become the Raymond H. Wittcoff Distinguished Professor.

The school’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics has an illustrious history as home to some of the nation’s most distinguished scientists, including scientific innovator Roy Vagelos, who headed the department — then called the Department of Biological Chemistry — from 1966-75 and went on to lead the development of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs at Merck; and Nobel laureates Carl Cori and Gerty Cori, known for their work showing how muscles manufacture and store energy. Understanding this process shed light on treatments for diabetes.

Garcia comes to Washington University from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, where he is the John McCrea Dickson, MD, Presidential Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and director of quantitative proteomics.

“Dr. Garcia was selected from an impressive pool of candidates and was unanimously endorsed as the most exceptional person to launch the next era of advancing knowledge and discovery in this vitally important department,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “We found ourselves energized by his vision for the department to continue to be at the forefront of the field and to leverage the breadth of collaborative opportunities within our biomedical research community. His personal research program, in proteomic analysis of epigenetic regulation, supports our long-term strategic institutional goal to transition our leadership in genomics into multi-omic systems medicine, which will serve as an engine producing the most imaginative approaches to personalized health care.”

Garcia’s research has focused on developing new and advanced methods for using mass spectrometry and to analyze proteins called histones that help regulate DNA. Such analyses can shed light on basic biology and disease processes. His methods have revolutionized analysis of the proteins and genetics of cells from animal models and human samples. The research has led to important observations about the regulation of cell differentiation, growth of tissues, and the development of cancer. He has developed an extensive research network that has been supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) throughout his career. He is active in partnerships with industry, previously establishing a technology alliance partnership with Thermo-Fisher to develop advanced mass spectrometry instruments and methods.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis, Garcia pursued a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Virginia, where he had a specific interest in developing expertise in mass spectrometry, a technique used to analyze the sequence and composition of compounds and molecules, such as DNA. He continued his training with a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In 2008, he joined the faculty of Princeton University in the Department of Molecular Biology and was later recruited to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 2012.

Garcia also is known for his dedication to teaching, mentorship and increasing diversity in scientific research circles. He serves as vice chair for the biochemistry and molecular biophysics graduate program at Penn, a role that includes leadership in recruitment, outreach and promotion of diversity within the department. He also serves as chair of the University Council for Diversity and Equity at Penn and has developed strategies for attracting and supporting minority students into successful careers in science.

Garcia has been recognized for his research contributions with several honors including the NIH Innovator Award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the American Chemical Society Arthur F. Findeis Award, the Protein Society’s Protein Science Young Investigator Award, the Human Proteome Organization Discovery in Proteomic Sciences Award and the prestigious American Society for Mass Spectrometry Biemann Medal, among numerous others.

He serves on the editorial boards of Molecular Omics, and the Journal of Proteome Research, and Molecular &Cellular Proteomics, and was formerly associate editor of BMC Genomics. He also served as chair of the Enabling Bioanalytical and Imaging Technology study section of the NIH and has served in other important national scientific leadership positions, including with the National Science Foundation Biological Science Advisory Committee, governing council for the World Human Proteome Organization, and board of directors for the U.S. Human Proteome Organization.

After leading the department for the past seven years, John A. Cooper, PhD, a professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics, will step down from his position to focus on his laboratory research program.

“We thank John Cooper for his exceptional, gracious and selfless leadership over the last seven years and through the remaining months of the coming academic year,” Perlmutter said.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, otolaryngology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.