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Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Taekjip Ha joins BME faculty

September 30, 2015

Bloomberg Distinguished Professor TJ Ha

In addition to conducting research in two separate labs, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor TJ Ha will teach a course on biomedical engineering and biophysics for undergraduate students.

Taekjip “TJ” Ha, a world leader in single-molecule biology and intracellular imaging, has joined the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s faculty as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor. He will divide his time among the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and the Whiting School of Engineering.

Ha arrives from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was the Gutgsell Professor of Physics. He received his BS degree from Seoul National University and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley — all in physics.

His background reflects the fact that physics — particularly at the single-molecule level — is expected to drive many breakthroughs in biology in coming decades. The new approaches help scientists understand biological issues that aren’t readily understood by traditional biological research methods. Ha helps develop some of the ultra-sophisticated instruments needed to use light microscopy to examine interactions at a single enzyme level, for example, overcoming the limits of ensemble measurements. That allows researchers to fully understand the spectrum of interactions across time, rather than just the group average that was the best that many biological tools could previously provide.

For example, Ha uses physical techniques to tag and study the mechanisms of helicases, a class of enzymes that crawl along the DNA helix, separating the strands. His work has included the development of a “superhelicase” to unzip DNA threads in a way that allows repair of only the damaged DNA threads.

His research builds upon the development of nanoscopy — the optical microscopy that allows scientists to track the pathways of molecules in cells — that was the discovery that won three individuals the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 2014. The long-term implication for Ha’s research is in understanding DNA processes to better treat cancer and infectious diseases, and it fits under the umbrella of the Johns Hopkins Individualized Health Initiative.

In addition to conducting research in two separate labs at Hopkins, Ha will teach a course on biomedical engineering and biophysics for undergraduate students. His wife, Sua Myong, who studies the role of DNA recombination and repair in cancer development, has joined the Krieger School’s Biophysics Department.

— Michael Blumfield