Welcoming Dr. Michael Lawson

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Dr. Michael Lawson

The department welcomes innovative RNA biochemist and biophysicist Dr. Michael Lawson, who will join the UCLA faculty as an Assistant Professor of biochemistry on July 1, 2023.

A leader in the investigation of RNA regulatory mechanisms in translation linked to human disease, Lawson’s background in single-molecule biophysics, RNA biochemistry, and structural biology will allow him to bring to UCLA new perspectives on the interplay between translation and mRNA decay.

“We are pleased to welcome Michael to UCLA,” said Professor Miguel García-Garibay, UCLA’s Dean of Physical Sciences. “With UCLA’s renewed commitment to undergraduate education, we are lucky to have recruited not only a state-of-the-art researcher but an outstanding instructor. In every stage of Lawson’s career, he has focused his energy on mentoring undergraduates in the laboratory and the classroom.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Pomona College, Lawson conducted research as a Fulbright scholar at Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Halle (Saale) Germany where he studied in silico screening for specific inhibitors of chromatin remodeling enzymes.

He then went on to the University of California, Berkeley, to receive his Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology as a National Science (NSF) Graduate Fellow in Professor James Berger’s lab, where he worked on the classic Rho terminator system for transcription. In his research, he determined how the specificity of transcription termination by Rho is modulated in bacteria, in particular in response to translational stress. Lawson’s work upended the view of Rho as a simple sequence-specific factor and determined the molecular mechanisms by which transcription termination by Rho can be regulated in response to stress conditions.

“We are excited to welcome Mike to UCLA,” said Distinguished Kenneth N. Trueblood Professor Neil Garg, the Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “His recruitment builds in an important area of RNA biochemistry that nicely complements the ongoing research of Professors Juli Feigon and Guillaume Chanfreau.”

Lawson is currently a NIH K99/R00 awardee and A.P. Giannini Postdoctoral Fellow in Professor Joseph Puglisi’s group at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Department of Structural Biology, where he discovered the basis of speed and fidelity in eukaryotic translation termination. Using single-molecule assays and an in vitro-reconstituted yeast translation system, he found that the release factors elicit termination at stop codons through a tightly regulated process and that diverse ligands inhibit termination to promote stop-codon readthrough. Lawson’s work revealed the order and timing of events during translation termination and provided a kinetic framework to pave the way towards new therapies for the ~11% of genetic diseases caused by premature stop codons.

Lawson’s independent research at UCLA will focus on studying how translation can act as a safety valve to ensure the destruction of aberrant mRNAs. By reconstituting normal and aberrant mRNA translation events in vitro, he will track the interplay of decay factors with ribosomes to define what dictates transcript fate. He is particularly interested in understanding how eukaryotic ribosomes distinguish between proper and premature stop codons, with only the latter triggering mRNA decay. Together this work will facilitate the discovery of treatments for the myriad diseases arising from translational dysfunction, including cystic fibrosis and cancers.

Lawson is also committed to making academia more diverse, equitable, and inclusive while training the next generation of scientists. At Stanford, Lawson co-chaired the Stanford Postdoctoral Association’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) committee, and also helped to organize an annual symposium that brings a speaker with equity, diversity and inclusion expertise to Stanford. Lawson plans to continue to focus on mentoring, teaching, and DEI service at UCLA.

The search committee was highly impressed by Lawson’s accomplishments and outstanding expertise in many areas including structural biology, single molecular biophysics and RNA biochemistry. His background makes him very well suited to teach a variety of courses in the Department including Chem 153B, Chem 156 and upper division elective courses focused on gene regulation or RNA biochemistry. His expertise complements those of the Faculty in our Department and will strengthen the research focus on gene regulation, RNA biology and link to diseases.

Professor Steven Clarke, chair of the search committee that selected Lawson from a group of over 150 outstanding applicants from around the world, remarked on Lawson being the fourth faculty member of the department that did their undergraduate work at Pomona College. “Michael Lawson (Pomona Class of 2009) continues the almost unbroken tradition that begun with Francis Blacet (Pomona Class of 1922, UCLA faculty from 1932-1966), followed by Frederick Hawthorne (Pomona Class of 1949, UCLA faculty 1969- 2006) and myself (Pomona Class of 1970, UCLA faculty from 1978).”

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.