As researcher, Schlissel was a prominent immunologist

By Austen Hufford, Online Editor
Published January 24, 2014

For many senior scientific researchers at universities, their days are spent writing grants and telling younger researchers what to do. Even though they are in charge of a lab, their actual lab time becomes nonexistent. But University President-elect Mark Schlissel continued to work in his lab and run experiments even as he climbed the academic ladder at the University of California, Berkeley.

Schlissel has authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific papers in his nearly three decades of research. Much of his work has focused on how immune cells form from stem cells in bone marrow. When this process goes awry, cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia can develop.

“Mark made seminal contributions to the understanding of the process,” David Raulet, chair of the Berkeley Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology said in an interview Friday.

His papers have appeared in Nature, which has been dubbed the most influential scientific journal, and his work has been cited almost 9,000 times, according to Google Scholar. He has both a M.D. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.

B lymphocytes, a large focus of his research, form continuously in the bone marrow and create antibodies. They are also known as B cells and are interesting for scientists because they are created by splitting and recombining different sections of genetic material. This process results in slightly different antibodies each time, creating diversity and helping the body fight off a wide array of diseases.

Schlissel’s work focused specifically on the formation of two proteins called RAG-1 and RAG-2. These proteins act as a sort of molecular scissors, according to David Schatz, a Yale University immunobiology professor who helped discover the proteins. The Rag-1 and Rag-2 cut the genes and allow them to be assembled into a functional configuration that will create antibodies.

Schlissel was interested in how this cutting process was targeted to the right location.

“Mark was recognized as one of the leaders in the world in the study of B cell development and this recombination,” Schatz said.

Even as a provost at Brown University, Schlissel continued to publish papers, producing five in 2013. During his time at Brown, he continued to work with his Ph.D candidates at Berkeley to help them finish. He would fly back monthly and Skype with them regularly, according to Kwan Chow, who was one of his students and now is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington.

Schlissel’s head may be in administration, but his heart is still in research.

“This was his life,” Chow said. “He ran a lab. Two years doing administrative work isn’t going to erase that.”