Faculty Profile: Gabriel Rocklin, PhD, assistant professor of Pharmacology
Gabriel Rocklin, PhD, is an assistant professor of Pharmacology and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. He is also a faculty member at Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, where his lab develops high-throughput methods for protein biophysics and protein design, with a focus on protein therapeutics.
What are your research interests?
I am interested in how protein sequences determine protein phenotypes such as structure, folding stability, conformational dynamics, binding affinity for small molecules and other proteins, and more.
What is the ultimate goal of your research?
The goal of our lab is to develop experimental and computational tools to explore these sequence-phenotype relationships. We have both fundamental and applied sides of the lab. We investigate sequence-phenotype relationships as well as use our approaches to design new proteins for many applications. Our ultimate goal is to create computational and experimental tools that empower protein design research around the world, as well to develop new classes of proteins therapeutics.
How did you become interested in this area of research?
I first became interested in biochemistry in high school. I saw pictures of protein structures in textbooks and was astonished at their complexity. When I was in college, several breakthroughs in computational protein design made the field very exciting for me, although I ended up not pursuing protein design research until I was a postdoc. One of my biggest surprises as a postdoc came when I asked ten different people in our lab the best way to design new proteins. I got ten very different answers! And there really wasn't any way to know who was correct. So that pushed me into developing new high-throughput experimental methods. These methods now make it possible to systematically examine protein design methods on a huge scale.
What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus (and beyond)?
I think collaboration is one of the best parts of science. For now, my collaborations at Northwestern are with other members at the Center for Synthetic Biology, including Mike Jewett, Josh Leonard and Neil Kelleher. But as our applied projects develop, we will be excited to find new collaborators in disease areas where protein therapeutics could be beneficial. We also have a great collaboration on the other side of the river with Tobin Sosnick at the University of Chicago. Apart from those, the entire protein design field is extremely collaborative. Our lab is a member of RosettaCommons, a unique international consortium of labs that contribute to the development of the Rosetta software for protein modeling and design. This organization fosters social connections and lines of communication between over fifty labs worldwide. This ultimately promotes collaboration over competition. This helps smooth down the harshest aspects of science and helps the field progress much faster.
How is your research funded?
Our research is funded by two National Institutes of Health awards: a New Innovator DP2 award and an R21 Exploratory Research award. We are also supported by individual fellowships that many of our researchers have earned for themselves, including fellowships from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Human Frontier Science Program, the Chemistry of Life Processes Training Program, the São Paulo Research Foundation, and RosettaCommons.
Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by so many things in science! I am inspired by the students and postdocs in the lab, and the energy they bring to some pretty wide-open exploratory projects! I am also inspired by the positive energy and ambition of my colleagues in the Center for Synthetic Biology. And I am still inspired by the examples set by my previous mentors. My PhD mentors Brian Shoichet and Ken Dill inspire me with their emphasis on addressing fundamental questions using simple models. Brian in particular is a model for my lab by pursuing both basic and applied work and finding the synergies between them. His scientific honesty is also inspiring. My postdoc mentor continues to inspire me with his incredible ambition and the speed that he brings to science, along with such a passion for collaboration. I've been very lucky for the people I've gotten to learn from.