Photograph: Robert E. Jawetz in Eduardo Macagno's laboratory. Photo Credit: Joe Piniero.
Robert E. Jawetz is just finishing college, but his research in genetics is already being published in a college textbook.
Jawetz will graduate from Columbia College today. Most such scientists don't publish until after medical school, which he begins this fall.
The biochemistry major has garnered a number of honors as an undergraduate: Rabi Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, high academic honors and departmental honors in biological sciences. He co-founded the Columbia Biology Club and was its second president. He was also a member of Yavheh, an Orthodox Jewish group, and of the Jewish Student Union, and played several sports on the intramural level.
The 21-year-old will enroll in the fall in Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons. And on June 18 he is to be married to his high school sweetheart, Sheryl Chesney, who will graduate from Barnard today. They will live in Riverdale in the Bronx.
A paper he wrote describing his work in locating regulatory genes in leeches will be included in a biology textbook to demonstrate that undergraduates can conduct valuable research. The editors of the widely used textbook, Biology, solicited student papers from around the country; Columbia's biology program is one of 55 represented in the book. Robert's abstract, "Chromosomal Arrangement of the Homeobox Genes in the Medicinal Leech," will appear in the textbook's fourth edition (William C. Brown Publishers), by Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and George Johnson, professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
The paper also appeared in a new journal that Jawetz helped edit. The first issue of Quest: The Journal of Columbia Undergraduate Science was out this spring, and Jawetz believes undergraduate science students will sustain the publication.
"Unless students are very good or very lucky, their undergraduate work won't get published in established academic journals," Jawetz said. "Other colleges publish student work, and we felt this gives students a chance to find out what it's like to publish." The department of biological sciences funds the journal.
Jawetz enjoys research and still is not sure whether to pursue a strictly clinical career or one that incorporates an element of research. In 1993, he applied for a research slot in the laboratory of Eduardo Macagno, professor of biological sciences and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He was accepted, and began two years of research on homeobox genes in leeches, both during the school year and summers in Columbia's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF).
A subset of homeobox genes belonging to the HOM complex are located on the same chromosome.
The genes play an important role in determining how cells in an embryo become particular body parts. Such genes are found in fruit flies, leeches and other invertebrates, as well as in vertebrates, including human beings. Current research suggests the genes in leeches may be located much farther from each other on the same chromosome than they are in vertebrates and perhaps other invertebrates.
Scientists think these genes' roles in some invertebrates may be different. That's important because biologists believe that over the course of evolution, genes generally conserve the same function from species to species. Finding that such is not the case in leeches would call that schema into question.
"It would be very strange if we ended up with something very different in the leech," Macagno said of Robert's work, which is continuing. "It's of great evolutionary interest to compare the homeobox genes from species to species. Robert's work is helping advance our understanding of the roles these genes play."
As a student at the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J., "biology just caught my fancy," he said. Too, Robert credits the example of his father, Harold, a pulmonologist at Passaic General Hospital and Beth Israel Hospital, both in Passaic, N.J., where the Jawetz family lives. Jawetz graduated from Columbia College in 1967.
Another Jawetz, Seth, will enter the Class of 1999 this fall. Robert's only other sibling, Shari, is a freshman in high school, but there's more than a slim likelihood she'll be coming to Columbia, he thinks. After all, his mom, Ava, teaches children with learning disabilities at the Hillel Academy in Passaic, having earned a master's degree from Teachers College.