Photo of Mark Keller, who recently earned the title of Distinguished Scientist in the Department of Biochemistry
Keller Earns Prestigious Distinguished Scientist Title

Staff scientist Mark Keller’s long and successful career in the Department of Biochemistry has received some much-deserved recognition. He recently earned the prestigious University of Wisconsin–Madison “Distinguished” job title — one of only a handful in the department to ever receive the honor.

Biochemistry’s faculty and students are supported by many talented scientific and administrative staff, and for years Keller has been an integral part of the lab of Professor Alan Attie.

“I feel very honored to have received this distinction,” Keller says. “I’m truly fortunate in that I love coming to work every day. I work with a fantastic group of people with whom I share this honor. In fact, I stand on the shoulders of many, both here at UW and abroad, to receive this recognition.”

Keller’s journey to the UW–Madison Department of Biochemistry spanned many years, starting at the University of Oregon as an undergraduate researcher. There he worked with horseshoe crabs, exploring how light is transformed into an electrical signal in their photoreceptors.

“It was during my undergraduate studies that I discovered my passion for scientific research,” he recalls. “That experience at the University of Oregon is what started it all for me. I began as a freshman washing dishes and ended performing experiments, publishing papers and attending conferences before graduating.”

Keller then came to UW–Madison for his Ph.D. in the Neuroscience Training Program, after which he went to the University of Washington in Seattle for his postdoctoral position. Finally, he returned to UW–Madison to work in the Neurophysiology Department on the auditory hair cells of the inner ear of turtles.

“I was then looking for a new position when I literally bumped into Alan in a stairwell in the Department of Biochemistry,” he says. “Alan asked about my future plans. That chance encounter occurred on a Friday. The following Monday I was in Alan’s office, and two weeks later I was in Vancouver pitching a proposal to a pharmaceutical company that had approached Alan about a collaborative project. That was almost 20 years ago.”

Biochemistry professor Alan Attie (left) and Distinguished Scientist Mark Keller (right) view results on a computer.
  Professor Alan Attie (left) and Distinguished Scientist Mark Keller (right) view results on a 
  computer. The two have been running the Attie Lab as a successful collaboration for years, with
  Keller's work being recently recognized with a Distinguished title from the university.

After several years working at the bench, the Attie Lab kept growing — taking on new projects and securing a wide array of competitive grants spanning many related, but distinct research areas. Keller then moved to more of a management role in the lab to oversee the different grants, graduate students, postdocs, and staff researchers in the lab. Today, Keller and Attie manage the lab together as a powerful and successful collaboration.

“We’ve worked together for so long now that I feel we are one unit and that the complex web of projects and collaborations we have would be impossible to manage without him,” Attie says. “He has a unique function and it’s a fantastic partnership.”

Brian Fox, Biochemistry’s department chair, led the way in nominating Keller for the award. He says Keller has been a key player in the success of diabetes and biochemistry research being carried out in the department in collaboration with Attie, helping make the UW–Madison Department of Biochemistry one of the best in the country.

“The department faculty recognize that Mark is an exemplary scientist and so enthusiastically supported his nomination for this campus-level award,” Fox says. “Mark is a scientist, mentor, and communicator. Additional nominators from UW–Madison and other institutions also strongly supported our efforts, which we were pleased to learn were successful.”

The major current focus of the Attie Lab is the use of natural genetic variation contained within different mouse strains to discover genes that confer susceptibility to metabolic disease, with a specific focus on diabetes. Attie and Keller utilize a unique population of engineered mice that harbor as much genetic diversity as that contained within the human population

For example, Keller and his team, have shown that a western-style diet high in fat reveals remarkable metabolic differences among the mice. Some develop complications like obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, or even fail to survive, whereas other mice are essentially completely resistant to the diet challenge. This wide range of responsiveness to the diet mirrors what is observed in humans.

“We all have a friend or relative who can essentially eat whatever he or she wants with little to no health problems,” says Keller, laughing as he admits he is not one of these people. “Genetic variability underlies how one responds to diet. We are able to mimic this remarkable range of dietary responses in our mice. We work to identify the genetic differences that are responsible for the susceptibility to or protection from the diet-induced metabolic disease, with a focus on the development of novel drug targets.”

The importance of the Attie-Keller partnership was highlighted at a recent scientific meeting on campus in May, the annual Midwest Islet Club. Attie was the keynote speaker and ended his seminar by describing the relationship between the Greek god of war, Apollo, and the god of wine, Dionysus. While not literal, it’s a dichotomy that describes partnerships where Apollo is project-oriented — like Keller —  and Dionysus — more Attie’s style — is abstract and thinks in the big picture. Neither can survive without the other and the harmony is beneficial.

“Alan and I are a scientific couple,” Keller says. “He’s my colleague, scientific partner, and friend. Together we manage our research program as a team. I am indebted to Alan and our incredible staff for the continued support that enabled me to receive the honor of Distinguished Scientist.”