Fuente: Biophysical Society
Sebastian Brauchi is Associate Professor in the Physiology Institute at Universidad Austral de Chile, his research focuses on protein structure and ion channel biophysics. Science is one of his three main passions in life; his biggest challenge over the years has been, he says, “to combine parenthood, rock climbing, and the lab, as all are different aspects of the same individual, needed to give meaning to my life.”
From his earliest days, Sebastian Brauchi, Associate Professor in the Physiology Institute at Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh), has been brimming with curiosity. He grew up in a house full of books and intellectual stimulation in Quilpué, a small town in the central region of Chile, close to the coastal city of Valparaíso. His father, Don Adolfo, was an electrical engineer and his mother, Anita, was a school teacher; both encouraged his exploration. “My father had a magnifying glass he used for his stamp collection, when I was around eight years old I often used it to observe insects and take notes — that is the first scientific behavior I remember,” he shares. “I have a strong inclination for the mechanics of things, how to make something function. Meccano and Legos were an important part of my childhood; as a kid I spent countless hours building things.” In high school, he learned that humans and other living things operated in much the same way as his Meccano toys: “We lifeforms are no more than big Meccanos made out of other minute Meccanos and Lego pieces, motors and hinges connecting structural scaffolds,” he says. From then on he was interested in figuring out how things work.
Brauchi’s father put him in a basic course on programming when he was ten, and got him a computer. “There I learned basic coding and the capacity of that machine to calculate complex things. I’m a very practical person, so making calculations turned out to be boring, but once I realized and gave the real value to peripherals — to the fact that computers could get and deliver voltage signals to make things happen — that was a different story. The computer was disassembled within a week, as I tried to figure out how to make the board control a step motor,” he says. “The circuitry was too complex for me and the computer never worked again, but the interesting thing was that my dad encouraged the behavior and helped me to go further by giving me a book on basic electronics. Since then, I’m never afraid of breaking anything as long as that act represents the possibility of acquiring knowledge.”
He attended a series of private Catholic schools in his childhood and teenage years — “I never had the spirit to follow the rules, I guess,” he jokes. “After years of annually changing classmates and teachers, I graduated in 1992. Never underestimate irony: completely disregarding my previous experiences and for reasons beyond my comprehension, I went to study biochemistry at the Catholic University in Valparaíso.” He dropped out after three years of university and dedicated himself to rock climbing. “After years of absence and motivated by my personal bankruptcy, I went back and finally graduated in 2001 under the supervision of Juan G. Reyes, my first mentor,” he explains.
Brauchi then worked in the lab of Dale Benos at the University of Alabama – Birmingham for a short time before returning to Chile at Benos’s advice to work with Ramon Latorre in ion channel biophysics. Latorre was director of Centro de Estudios Cientificos, a private research institution, where Brauchi performed his graduate research. He finished his PhD in molecular and cellular biology in 2006. “Ramoncito’s passion for ion channels was really sticky, and his sparkling personality was interesting enough to make me forget my previous interests. In retrospect, all around being with Ramon allowed me to give shape to my previous experiences and molded my career,” Brauchi explains. “In his lab I found the total freedom to develop my projects, build rigs out of scratch, and program my own software. I also found the strict school of biophysics always encouraging to learn from first principles. Ramon’s training — as predicted by Dale — gave me the tools I was looking for to develop myself as a researcher.”
“In 2004 I was awarded a Pew Fellowship to work as a postdoctoral trainee in the laboratory of David Clapham at Boston Children’s Hospital. I spent two years there working on ion channel biophysics and microscopy. David was a great mentor for an independent person like me; he trusted me with being able to put together complicated experimental rigs, and I learned a great deal of optics during my stay in Boston,” he shares. “The experience of being a Pew Fellow was also important for my professional development, giving me easy access to open conversations with and advice from leaders in different fields. This together with the financial support made a huge difference.”
In 2008, Brauchi was recruited as an assistant professor by the Institute of Physiology of UACh, where he has been ever since, now as an associate professor. “Over the years I have realized that human beings are dull and relatively uninteresting compared to the enormous biodiversity available. Understanding the first principles of cellular sensing, the internal circuitry of a cell, is occupying my thoughts,” he says. “My projects these days are about molecular evolution of ion channels and receptors, electrical activity of bacterial colonies, integration of sensory inputs in plants, and developing tools for cell biology and single-molecule studies.”
Brad S. Rothberg, associate professor of medical genetics and molecular biology at Temple University, is currently collaborating with Brauchi on a project focused on the structure and function of a K+ channel from Mycobacterium intracellulare, which causes lung disease primarily in immunocompromised patients. “We hope that our work will lead to a better understanding of the physiology of these bacteria, as well as new treatments for mycobacterial infection,” he shares. “Sebastian discovered that channel through a genome search, and he came to my lab in Philly for a month to work on expressing the channel to do functional studies, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on me. Now the project has led to new crystal structures and other great ideas about this class of channels.”
“I think Sebastian is probably the most easy-going person I know in science, which is odd because he takes his work very seriously,” Rothberg says. “I’m kind of neurotic by nature, and I tend to worry about ‘what happens next’; I think in some ways Sebastian is the total opposite of that. And I think being associated with that sensibility has been a good influence on me. I think we can all use a little of that.”
Brauchi himself views his career as a scientist as the same as that of a craftsman. Rather than focusing on himself and his own advancement, he tries to emphasize training and sharing of knowledge. “Don’t isolate yourself, collaborate with others instead. Always be happy about the success of your peers,” he says. “You are not a professional developing a career, you are rather a craftsman training to become a mentor of others.”
Bruna Benso, assistant professor in the School of Dentistry of the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile, worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Brauchi’s lab. “Dr. Brauchi is a very pleasant colleague to interact with; he is very innovative, smart, encouraging of creativity in all of his students, and most importantly, an ethical investigator,” she shares. “He really encourages people to come up with ideas […] and no matter what difficulties you have, he is always patiently guiding all of his students.”