Carolyn Bertozzi. Courtesy Carolyn Bertozzi, University of California, Department of Chemistry.
When a human body and a synthetic bone implant meet, they do not always get along. Bodies typically fight foreign matter, treating it like an infection. Carolyn Bertozzi (b. 1966), professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, worked on making artificial bones that mimic the chemistry of the real thing. Similarly, she helped create materials that resemble the surface of the cornea for eyeball-friendly contact lenses.
Bertozzi grew up in a scientific family. Her father, William Bertozzi, is a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her sister, Andrea Bertozzi, is a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles. That Carolyn pursued an academic career in the sciences should come as no surprise.
Bertozzi was first attracted to chemistry when she took a course in organic chemistry as a sophomore at Harvard University. She went on to earn a Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1993 and completed postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco.
While at UCSF, she began studying what happens when you try to put nonliving matter into the human body. When doctors put foreign objects—like pacemakers or pins to hold a broken bone together—into a patient’s body, the body sometimes rejects the medical implant because it “thinks” there is an infection. Other times, the implant will irritate the tissue around it. Bertozzi researched how to modify living cells so that they accept medical implants. She discovered a way to modify the protein and sugar molecules that stud cell walls (see Laura Kiessling) so that they accept the materials that coat or make up implants.
In 1996 Bertozzi returned to Berkeley, this time as a professor and already an award-winning scientist. Her students in organic chemistry praise the clarity of her explanations and the enthusiastic way she approaches each class. She treats the students, even when they number in the hundreds, as members of a small research team. She also continues her research into making implants “biocompatible,” often working with materials scientists to change the surfaces of the implants themselves to make them more acceptable to living cells. She is also exploring other uses for the sugar molecules omnipresent on cell surfaces. Bertozzi hopes to find ways to use them in the treatment of disorders as diverse as inflammation, cancer, and bacterial infection.