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Stars of Stanford Medicine: Protein-folding, evolution and family

This Stars of Stanford Medicine Q&A features Daniel Jarosz, PhD, who studies protein folding and mutations.

Daniel Jarosz, PhD, talks fast, is quick with a laugh and is downright crazy -- in the good sense -- about science. He's also modest: Jarosz skipped high school and was recently named a Vallee Scholar, an honor that provides financial support for junior faculty members from top institutions conducting basic biomedical research, but really, he'd rather chat about science. We did just that recently.

Why did you come to Stanford?

I arrived in 2013 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become an assistant professor of chemical and systems biology and of developmental biology. Stanford seemed liked a scientific Disneyland. I was impressed by the depth of scholarship, but also by the very few barriers between departments and between labs.

What are you working on today?

We have two major projects in the lab. One looks at how frequently protein misfolding occurs in nature and how it operates in both disease and health. The other part of the lab looks at how highly mutating cells like cancer cells are able to take on deleterious mutations yet survive and even evolve new traits -- they are evolutionary ninjas.

What is the biggest challenge in your field?

There are many. Our capacity to really delve into what happens in a disease that is related to aging like Alzheimer's is very poor because many of the models we work with, like mice or fish, live for many years. It's hard to do an experiment that takes that long time. Short-lived models like yeast or flies or worms can fill some of the gap, but they don't share as many features with humans.

Also, the question of penetrance is very fascinating. The same mutations that have devastating impacts in some people do not affect others. How do you understand which you will be? What factors affect whether a mutation will have significance or not?

What is most fulfilling about your work?

The thrill of discovery is exhilarating and the fact I get to experience it with the brightest young people from around the world every day.

What is most frustrating about your work?

It's very frustrating when your favorite model turns out not to be true, or when a genuinely beautiful hypothesis just isn't right.

How do you unwind?

I have three small kids. My wife is also a scientist. Before we had kids, we spent every waking moment from when we got up until we went to sleep talking about science. Now, it's nice to have a couple of hours when we have to talk about something else.

What are you reading now?

I mostly only read scientific papers these days. But I love pretty much everything written by Jonathan Safran Foer and Jhumpa Lahiri.

What are your favorite foods?

We have had au pairs from various countries and one of the most unexpected dividends has been the chance to sample a lot of random foods. Our most recent au pair one cooked some amazing mountain Swiss dishes (complete with cheese she made herself). But my favorite cuisine is probably Japanese food.

What is your ultimate career goal?

What was most impressive about my hero scientist, Susan Lindquist, PhD, was that she was every bit as excited about what she was doing late in her career as she had been 40 years earlier. I hope to remain equally passionate for decades to come.

Stars of Stanford Medicine features standout scholars in the School of Medicine.

Previously: Stars of Stanford Medicine: "I want to leave an impact on medical care", Stars of Stanford Medicine: Amplifying signals to detect cancer early and Stars of Stanford Medicine: In love with the microbiome
Photo by Alyssa Tamboura

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