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Gaudet Brings Curiosity and Service to Role as New MCB Chair

Gaudet Brings Curiosity and Service to Role as New MCB Chair

Rachelle Gaudet’s two-plus decades at Harvard can be categorized as curiosity- and service-driven. And as of July 2023, she is bringing that perspective to her position as chair of MCB. 

“I’m looking forward to helping our faculty leverage the Harvard environment, go to seminars, present their science to the rest of the Harvard community, and to get to know people at Harvard through both their research, teaching and service,” says Gaudet.  

As chair, she will continue to focus on the MCB mission of doing the best science possible while encouraging faculty and students to become a full part of the greater Harvard ecosystem. 

“The department is exciting because it’s so diverse. So as a structural biologist, I think about the details of the proteins and how they do their work, but then I can go to the weekly seminars and hear all sorts of excellent science, but from very different viewpoints,” she says. 

Gaudet knows of what she speaks. Attending a broad variety of seminars within MCB as a postdoc introduced her to what would become the first focus area for her own lab at Harvard in 2002.

In 1999, a postdoc from UCSF (and a former graduate school collaborator of Gaudet’s) lectured on his work on the TRPV1 ion channel, which is a receptor for heat, but also capsaicin that helps us experience the sensation of heat from spicy peppers. His work came from a neurobiology perspective, but Gaudet was inspired to think about it from a structural biology perspective—how do heat and capsaicin interact with TRPV1 incell membranes to create the same physical sensation of heat?

Twenty years later that founding idea has grown and branched into four different projects, all focused on proteins within cellular membranes responsible for cell communication. For example, one group of researchers under Gaudet examine how divalent metal transporters move iron and manganese, essential metals for chemical reactions, across cell boundaries, with implications for diseases such as anemia and Parkinson’s, among others. Another group looks at gustatory receptors in insects and their involvement in sensory perceptions, which could help in our understanding of host-seeking and egg-laying behavior, and the creation of safer, more targeted insecticides.

“Rachelle has been an inspiring example as a committed scientist and mentor to her lab,” says Doeke Hekstra, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Assistant Professor of Applied Physics (SEAS). “She’s a great source of advice, a pleasure to share lab space with, and an empathetic and skilled co-instructor–I hope we’ll teach again together someday!”

Outside the lab, Gaudet takes seriously her responsibility as part of the Harvard academic community. 

“Rachelle has a knack for juggling too many balls at once and not letting any of them fall,” says Victoria D’Souza, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology. “She has amazing stamina, organizational and leadership skills.”

She was co-director (or head tutor) for undergraduate studies for 18 years and was active in many aspects of undergraduate education, for example serving on the General Education committee for the past two years, stepping down from both in July 2023 to focus on her chair responsibilities. She will continue to co-direct the Biophysics PhD program, which she started in July 2022. 

“I have learned so much from Rachelle about advising students and higher ed administration,” says Dominic Mao, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies for Chemical and Physical Biology and MCB, and Lecturer in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. “She mentored me in the same way a PI mentors an aspiring scientist. She patiently and carefully provided detailed reasoning behind her decisions on policies and their enforcement, so that I could learn to make decisions on my own. She welcomed and entertained my ideas, and encouraged me to take on new challenges. As much as I will miss working with Rachelle at DUS, I look forward to continue working with her as Chair of MCB.” 

Gaudet will follow Sean Eddy as MCB chair, whose tenure of steady leadership through uncertainty of pandemic was inspiring for Gaudet. 

“I could see him in all his interactions taking in information, synthesizing it, and pausing for just a moment to be sure he knew before making decisions,” says Gaudet. “And he would always explain the decision by referencing how our mission is really to keep doing the most excellent science that MCB can do. And that’s what I’ll keep in mind as I take over as chair.”

“One of the many things that Rachelle is bringing to the position is a great deal of passion for and experience with the MCB curriculum, both for our graduate students and for our undergraduate concentrators,” says Eddy. “With her knowledge and skill, I’m expecting her to be able to do a lot to improve teaching in the department.”

Jessica Manning, Executive Director of MCB, is looking forward to seeing the future of MCB unfold. “It was an honor to work with and to support Sean Eddy in guiding MCB through the COVID pandemic (2020-2023),” she says. “As expected, the transition from Sean Eddy to Rachelle Gaudet as the new MCB Chair has gone smoothly. I’m confident that MCB Staff will continue to provide the excellent support and services to further the success of this important leadership role and MCB’s mission.”

Gaudet’s whole scientific journey has been a study in how learning broadly can set you on unexpected yet fruitful paths.

 A curious kid who really liked school and all the classes, she first wanted to be an architect. But an AP chemistry class steered her more toward science and math. Then a linguistics class got her interested in how the brain processes language.

As a biochemistry major at the University of Montreal, Gaudet found that while neurolinguistics was fascinating, experiments yielded less concrete answers than she hoped. When she learned about the field of structural biology in some of her classes, she realized she had found her calling.

“I tell people that I essentially do research in the history of architecture but at the molecular level with proteins. Because I do see some of the parallels of what was interesting to me about architecture in seeing the proteins and how they work,” she says. “The best science we can do is at the intersection of our own interests. People are motivated by different things and this is actually a good thing for science.”

Rachelle Gaudet 

Gaudet Lab

Rachelle Gaudet

Rachelle Gaudet