The Columns

Faculty Focus: Fred LaRiviere Associate Professor of Chemistry

— by on September 5th, 2016

Fred LaRiviere

“One of the most important things about science, and any discipline, is communication.”

What courses do you teach?
I teach Biochemistry I and II, an advanced biochemistry course on the mechanisms of cancer, general chemistry, a Writing 100 section called the Science of Sherlock. I also co-teach a Spring Term forensic science class called CSI: W&L.

How did you become interested in biochemistry?
When I started college, I knew I liked science and thought I was going to be a chemistry major, because that’s what I enjoyed most from high school. My interest in chemistry morphed into biochemistry during my time doing research in an undergraduate research lab. I liked the practical application of chemistry to biological systems.

What does your current research focus on?
In my lab we study the ribosome, which is the part of the cell that makes proteins. The ribosome is an essential component of the cell — it’s this large complex of machinery made of both RNA molecules and protein molecules. We’re mostly interested in the RNA molecules, because the RNA components of the ribosomes are the functional components. We’ve been asking the question “What happens when ribosomes are not working properly?” Mostly, our work is focused on what I call a quality-control pathway. That is, eukaryotic cells have a mechanism to detect defective ribosomes and remove them so that they don’t interfere with the normally functioning ribosomes. It’s a pathway that we’ve termed nonfunctional ribosomal RNA decay, which we abbreviate to NRD, which we then affectionately refer to as the nerd pathway.

Being a biochemist by training, how did you end up teaching a Writing 100 class on Sherlock Holmes?
I’ve always had this casual interest in forensic science and, as a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes books, had this idea about developing a course around the science that is in those books. I thought it would be a great topic as a Writing 100 class, for which there is always a high demand. In my course, which is open to all first-years, we ask, is Sherlock Holmes a scientist? Is he a forensic scientist? Does he use science or the scientific method in his investigations? Those questions serve as a framework for reading and studying the stories.

Why is it important for scientists to be able to write well?
One of the most important things about science, and any discipline, is communication. You can be a great scientist, but if you can’t communicate well, then that means that you can’t present your ideas to others. That means you’re not going to be able to get funding for your research, you’re not going to be able to make your science accessible to others. It’s important to be able to explain to the general public basic scientific concepts — why your research is important and why it should be studied.

Talk a little bit about the forensic science class you teach during Spring Term.
I team-teach the CSI: W&L class with Fiona Watson from the Biology Department. We both thought it would be a great topic to explore as a non-science major’s lab class as a way to get non-science students interested in science and a way for students to fulfill their lab science requirement. Forensic science is perfect for us because it’s so interdisciplinary. There’s chemistry, biology and physics in forensics science, so it allows us to expose the students to lots of different ideas.

We have a lot of fun with it. On the first day of class, we stage several crime scenes and then send students into the field to collect the evidence and bring it back to the lab. We spend the next few weeks learning how to analyze the evidence, and they try to solve the crimes.

What do you enjoy most about W&L?
I would say two things. Being at such a small place means we can really get to know students — I really enjoy seeing them grow academically and hearing about their successes after they leave. And second would be my colleagues, both in chemistry and across campus. It’s great being at a place where you can go to the next building over and hear a talk on sociology or something outside your field, which may be harder to do at a bigger place.

– interview by Wesley Sigmon ’16