Art, Music, and Bacterial DNA Repair Systems: Q&A with Chemistry Professor Lovett

By Meagan Goldman ’16 and Jacob Kim ’16

Last week, The ScientEphic sat down to chat with Professor Lovett from the Chemistry Department. An active figure in the Williams science scene, Lovett runs the Summer Science Program. He’s famous for knowing every student’s name on the first day of class and for playing his guitar after quizzes. Read on to learn about his past, his research, his participation in a science professor barbershop quartet, and his plans for the future.

MG: When did you realize you wanted to pursue chemistry?

CL: It’s kind of a long story. I’ll try and give you a shorthand version. I actually didn’t take my first chemistry class until I was twenty-six. I actually always wanted to be an artist, so that was my plan when I was in high school. I’ll leave out all the time between then, which was eventful but wasn’t related to science. But when I decided to go to college, I was inspired by the tuition at the neighboring school, which was only fifty-two dollars a semester, a California state university at the time.

I went to school with the goal of becoming a doctor. I hadn’t had any science background at all, but I had been reading a lot of books about homeopathic medicine, so I had this vision of being a country doctor with my black bag in the back of my car. At the time, I had two kids who were one and three, and I was a single parent, so the school had daycare, and I mention all this because it turns out that was the reason I didn’t get into medical school. But I started taking chemistry classes and biology classes because I was premed, and so I loaded up on those. I actually found that I liked both biology and chemistry, which surprised me, but I did.

I had to come up with a plan B [when I didn’t get into med school], so I went and got a master’s in chemistry. I taught chemistry at a local junior college in Pasadena, and I still remember vividly that first class in front of about thirty students – first time I’d ever taught, first time I’d ever done anything like that. I got up in front of them, and within a minute I knew this is what I want to do. It was one of those moments when I just wanted to turn to the blackboard and go, “Yeaaaah!” So that sort of explains how I got to chemistry and teaching as well. Then I went on and got a PhD in biochemistry and genetics, and here I am.

JK: Can you tell us about your research?

CL: Yeah, so for about thirty years now we’ve been working on this bacterial DNA repair system called the SOS system. It’s highly conserved in pretty much all bacteria. Particularly the regulation is highly conserved. We’ve identified thirty-three genes in the system and characterized the regulation. Essentially what it involves is a set of genes that code for DNA repair functions and cellular survival functions, and they’re normally repressed when the cell’s not in any kind of stress.

So essentially what happens is when bacterial cells get exposed to physical or chemical agents that damage DNA like carcinogens or ultraviolet light, these genes are turned on. They go about fixing the damage. It turns out that some of these genes code for DNA repair mechanisms that are error-prone, so when the system is turned on, you get a high level of mutagenesis. So that’s one of the features of this SOS system. A lot of the DNA repair is accurate, but if the damage is severe enough you get this error-prone component.

So now I’m sure you’re well aware of antibiotic resistance in bacteria – it’s a huge problem everywhere today – and it may be that the SOS system, which is present in pretty much all bacteria, could be a major player in this. Here you’ve got this system that, when it’s turned on, it activates this mutagenesis function, and if antibiotics are turning them on, then you’re basically giving them an opportunity to mutate around the antibiotic.

So what we have been doing for the past couple of years is we purchased a library of 14,400 different compounds, and we developed a screen to look for molecules that inhibit the SOS system. We’ve chosen to look at two different bacteria, two distantly related bacteria, so we’re looking at Bacillus subtilis and E. coli. They probably diverged two billion years ago, so the idea is if they work for those, they probably work for just about anything.

We’ve gone through now 7,000 of these compounds, and we’ve found 16 that actually inhibit in vitro in E. coli [in other words, they inhibit the system in E. coli when the bacteria are in an artificial setting]. Of the 16 inhibitors that inhibit in E. coli in vitro, they all inhibit in vivo in B. subtilis [when B. subtilis are in their natural environment]. But once we find things that work, we try to find out how well they work, and of course the smaller the concentration the better for medicine. You get something that works in vitro, to get it to work in vivo means it has to cross the cell wall, get inside, and in the environment in the cell it has to do the same thing. We’ve still got another 7,000 compounds to go through, and I’ve got a bunch of students working in the lab this summer to go through them. So anyways, that’s what we do.

JK: So what would be the next step if you do find a way to have it in lower concentrations?

CL: You know, we would publish this and if we got something that worked well, I’m sure once it gets published, pharmaceutical companies will jump on it, and it would be out of our hands. So you can imagine taking the molecules that work the best and try to tweak them to design a molecule that works even better. So that would be the next step, whether we do that or somebody else does that I don’t know. But that’s what we would do.

MG: So what are you teaching next year?

CL: 256 [Advanced Chemical Concepts]

JK: Again?

CL: I’m sort of semi-retired. I’m on my way out. So I’m only teaching half time.

JK: You might know this, but you’re very popular with the students. And you’re really well known, especially because you play the guitar for the students, and you participated in the barbershop quartet.

CL: That took five minutes. That was amazing! Also, I hear the tour guides talk about this guy that knows everybody’s names on the first day of class. I’ve done that since I got here. It’s gotten very easy to do that. It used to be really hard. We had these books by class with black and white, grainy postage stamp things. I would have to spend a couple hours circling them all. The most I ever had was 156 students in 101. I’d have four books and circle all the names, and would have to go through them all. But now with Glow, it probably takes me half an hour. I think it’s probably from painting portraits I got a good memory of faces.

Anyway, that barbershop quartet thing. On Wednesday afternoon, I get an email with a funny request, saying, “Would you be willing to do this?” Now, I’ve never sung with anybody before in my life, let alone in a barbershop quartet. Daniel Aalberts [from Physics] and Tom Smith [from Chemistry] used to do this. They had a little a capella group, so they had done this. And Professor Richardson [from Chemistry] and I had never done anything like this before. So I just didn’t respond. I thought, “Oh this is gonna go away. There’s no way I have time for this. I don’t even know where I begin.” On Thursday afternoon, I see this email from Steve Swoap [from Biology] that says, “Well, I’ve heard from everybody but Chip, so I don’t what we’re going to do here.” So the pressure was on, so I said all right. We met at 9 o’clock here in my office on the next morning. The Friday morning of that day. Between 9 and 9:05 was the only slot we had. Daniel Aalberts comes in with this music, and showed it to me. He started singing, and I said, “I can’t sing that high. Give me the bass part.” We had five minutes to practice that.

JK: So are you guys planning on anything else in the future?

CL: I don’t think so. [Laughs]. Unless he asks again next year, I don’t know. It was actually a lot of fun doing it.

JK: What about playing guitar for your students?

CL: I’ve been doing it since I came here. When I first started doing it, I used to play at the end, at the very last day. And I won’t tell you what song I’ll play, but I’ve done the same song at the end of every class I’ve taught here. It’s becoming more and more dated, but it’s got a chorus that everybody seems to be able to sing along to. When I first came here, the typical way class was dealt with was, they had two-hour exams and then a final. I think after I first time I taught 101, which was in 1987, I decided that I didn’t want to wait until the first hour exam to find out if students were actually paying attention to their notes and keeping up with the material. So I started doing quizzes, and I’ve been doing quizzes in every class since. I just find it’s better to make sure people keep up with the notes, which is the most important thing in my class, because there is just too much information. But you give a quiz during the first ten minutes of class, it’s hard to transition from the quiz to the class. It’s hard to get [the students] attention. Years ago, I started doing songs right after a quiz, to make that transition. I don’t when I first did it, but I’ve been doing it every year since.

MG: You mentioned you might retire soon?

CL: I have a pretty good deal. I’m doing this for four more years. I’ll do one semester a year for four more years. I told the department and the administration that I would miss teaching, so I would be happy to do it one semester a year until I couldn’t do it anymore. I really enjoy this job, because it doesn’t really seem like a job. I’m really lucky to have this as a career, because I enjoy every part of it. Except grading. I’m not wild about it. Despite how much I like the job, it just consumed all of my time. I teach and I run the Summer Science Program in the summer. I’ve been doing this program for twenty-seven, twenty-eight years. And then with research, I’ve had over 300 students work in my lab. So it’s like I don’t have time for anything else. There are a lot of things I’d like to do before I’m too old. So this is a nice arrangement for me. But I’d be happy to keep doing it.

JK: Anything else? Any other comments you want to make?

CL: No. [laughs]. You probably heard more than you needed to. Or wanted to.