Alumni Profiles Series: Michael Brenowitz

 January 24, 2024

Dr. Michael Brenowitz graduated from Duke University in 1982 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry,  working as a member of Joe and Celia Bonaventura’s laboratory at the Beaufort Marine lab. He came to Duke following his undergraduate studies in biology at Wesleyan University. He did postdoctoral training with Gary Ackers at Johns Hopkins University. Currently, he is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Department of Molecular Pharmacology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he has spent the past 37 years of his career. His research explores how protein, DNA, and RNA structure, folding, and assembly, and epigenetic modifications determine the biological function of these macromolecules.

When were you first interested in science?

Growing up, my father was a marine biologist at Adelphi University in New York. I often took field trips with him, so my initial thought about science was that it was an opportunity to go to

Brenowitz in the lab 1977
Dr. Brenowitz (left) in the lab, 1977

the beach, which I loved. As I got older and entered college, I thought I would give marine science a try. I studied biology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and my junior year I decided to spend a semester at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort to explore marine biology research.

Did you always know you wanted to attend graduate school? 

My family always placed value on higher education, and my default pathway was to pursue postgraduate studies. I have always been interested in learning and trying new things, so graduate school seemed the natural progression for me. After my semester at Duke’s marine lab I was drawn back to Duke University for graduate school.

Tell me about your graduate school experience.

My mentors, and Duke’s unique culture, were very influential for me. My main lab was posted in Beaufort, NC but the main libraries were back in Durham. Beyond my short internship, I had never spent any time outside of New York, so going between Beaufort and Durham was a culture shock for me. Since I went to graduate school back before the internet, I tried to make my last trip to Durham at the end of June to pick up all the articles and books for my research.

My mentors, Joe and Celia, were instrumental in shaping my career in science as well as the good parts of the person I’ve become. They instilled the structure-function bug (how protein structure dictates its specific biological function) in me during the biochemistry course they taught. As a graduate student in the Bonaventura lab I studied invertebrate respiratory proteins, such as hemocyanin in the arthropod horseshoe crab that causes them to have blue blood. Back in Durham, my home away from home was Jane and David Richardson’s lab.


What was your path to professorship after graduate school?

After I graduated from Duke in 1982, I continued on to do a postdoc in Gary Acker’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, where I studied gene transcription factors and we did lots of DNA footprinting and cooperativity assays. The research was a novel melding of biophysics and molecular biology because this was at the dawn of biotechnology—at that time there were only four or five restriction enzymes on the market.

After my postdoc, when I was looking for academic professor positions, I swore I would never go back to New York and was constantly told that biochemistry was obsolete as everything would transition into molecular biology and genetics. Nevertheless, I took a position at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York because I found my biochemistry community within the Department of Biochemistry. These folks lead with the guidelines of looking at the physical principles that guide biological activity, and they embrace collaboration and collegiality.

What are your hobbies outside of science?

I recently took on being a volunteer EMS. With science you sometimes wait 10-15 years for your contribution to reach the general public, but with EMS it happens so much sooner and it provides a greater connection with humanity.


Carly Williams headshot
Carly Williams

Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry

Carly Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at Duke University. Her research focuses on small molecule inhibitors targeting DNA damage tolerance pathways as a way to overcome hormone therapy resistance in prostate cancer. In her free time, she loves to hike or play board games with her husband and cuddle her cats.