Breier, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of California–Berkeley, has been fascinated with science since his grade school days, encouraged by his pharmacist father. He has a strong interest in attracting people to his chosen field. "The pursuit of science and knowledge, and greater understanding of how life works, is going to benefit everyone in the future," he says.
This belief is one reason he volunteers for Ask a Scientist. "I have had a lot of help along the way in becoming a scientist, and I feel I can give back a little bit. Providing answers and further stirring people's curiosity can in turn help encourage them into science," he says.
Not many students have more time on their hands in graduate school than while they were undergraduates, but that is true for Breier. At the University of Kentucky, he loaded his plate with a triple major—chemistry, biology, and classics—graduating summa cum laude in only four years. "You can't be a nut about science like I am unless you enjoy it," he says. He adds that knowing Latin and Greek has been handy for figuring out what scientific words mean.
Breier's current research is centered on DNA replication, using baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and Escherichia coli. "The big question I am trying to contribute to is, How do organisms decide whether to start copying their chromosomes and how do they control that once it starts?" Breier says. Of the 300 to 400 origins of replication in the yeast genome, which serve as assembly points for the machinery that copies the DNA, only 26 are very finely mapped. Breier distilled key features of these origins and then designed a computer program that identified more than half the remaining origins throughout the genome. In E. coli, he is using microarrays, which can measure the number of copies of virtually every gene in an organism in parallel, to follow the progress and dynamics of the replication machinery as it copies the genome. (For more information on how microarrays work, see "The Basics of DNA Microarrays" at http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/genomics/microarray.html.) DNA replication is one of the most important processes in life, he explains, and understanding more about it in organisms such as yeast could eventually help in developing drugs that improve human health—for instance, by thwarting growth of certain microorganisms or cancerous cells.
Breier finds time to play tennis each week and enjoys a game or two of bridge. He feels strongly that scientists should break away from the lab and keep outside interests going. "The field of DNA replication is generally cooperative and open, but some areas are more competitive," he says. "There is something of a culture that you should be in the lab for a large amount of time, to the exclusion of other activities," he says. "Burnout can happen and it's a real shame when it does."
Author: Cathy Kristiansen