Dr. James Courtright- MU Faculty 1970-Present

After completing a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, and a postdoc at the University of Texas, Austin, Dr. Courtright started his research and teaching career in the Department of Biology at Marquette University in 1970. When he chose Johns Hopkins Biology Department for his doctoral study, he did so with the expectation that his studies would be largely in the area which scientists were then calling developmental biology (in contrast to "embryology" as it was called in courses and textbooks). While at Hopkins, Emeritus Prof Benjamin Willier was still active, and was well known throughout the department, for having established Hopkins as one of the premier institutions for the study of developmental mechanisms. One of his noted students was John Saunders (see story in this issue of the newsletter), who had gone to Marquette and been instrumental in securing NSF funding, recruiting excellent biologists to Marquette , and thereby enabling a national reputation for Marquette’s Biology Department.

Dr. Saunder's Physiology Lab at Marquette in the early 1950's.  John Saunders is in the middle with the pipe.On arriving at Marquette, Dr. Courtright turned his attention to an intriguing question concerning the regulatable glycerol utilization system of Neurospora, an organism well known for the ease of it genetic manipulation and cellular and biochemical fractionation. These early years proved to be particularly rewarding, especially because of the dedication of students including Patrick Denor, Valerie Hii, and Janice Briggs who elucidated the glycerol and fatty acid utilization pathways and established several of the modes of genetic and biochemical regulation in this relatively simple eukaryote. In the latter half of the 1970s, the lab turned its attention in part to biochemical collaborations on skeletal muscle with Bob Fitts (current chair of the department). This work studied the effect of thyroid hormone on muscle structure and function as well as metabolism in fatigued fibers. Two graduates students mentored during those collaborative years, Eunsook Song and Barbara Wible, now holding academic positions at Seoul Women's University and Case Western Reserve, respectively

 

In the 1980s, collaboration with now professor emeritus Krishna Kumaran resulted in a return to gene regulation in Drosophila as a model organism, both for aging research and for tissue specific gene expression. This NIH funded multiyear project documented molecular and tissue specific changes in aged animals as well as genetic elements that controlled gene expression. Jeffrey Cypher in completing his M.S. proved himself a master of microdissection and has proved to be an asset to Upjohn Co. where he continues research. Anthony Shuber was intimately involved with the identification and cloning of specific genes expressed in the ovaries and was able to be one of the first at Marquette to clone recombinant molecules; Tony now is the CEO of his own biotechnology company located in the greater Boston area.  Doctoral student John Wigboldus distinguished himself by publishing a single author paper on sequencing techniques before continuing with a postdoctoral position at Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in New Jersey.

 

In the 1990s, fortuitous circumstance led Dr. Courtright to a return to bacterial systems where he investigated the roles of fluoroquinolones on the topology of the chromosome. This work continued in the following decade and to some extent to the present. As part of these investigations, Dr. Courtright identified specific sequences for the DNA gyrase and used these to determine by molecular and genetic techniques the precise location of

Dr. John Saunders at Marquette University in the late 1960s

the DNA gyrase gene in E. coli. Using primer specific probes, this work was carried out collaboratively with Y. Kohara (National Institute Genetics-Japan), and Gene Webb, a master's student in the lab at the time. Gene went on to earn his Ph.D. at Carnegie-Mellon University and is now an administrator at the University of Chicago. These experiments with the DNA gyrase resulted in a particularly interesting early stage microarray system and enabled us to identify not only the gyrase gene but also the closely related chromosome partition gene sites on the E. coli chromosome (see Figure) and added to the evidence for the acquisition of new enzyme functions by duplication and mutation.

 

In recent years, Dr. Courtright has continued his interest in duplicated sites in the bacterial chromosome, work helped in part by the contributions of Ethan James an undergraduate, who continued his interests in microbiology and completed his doctoral thesis a few years ago with John Cronin at University of  Illinois-Urbana. A number of other undergraduates, Steve Archer, William Collier, Eric Perdue have passed through the lab and have continued their interests in biology or medicine in their postgraduate careers.

When asked to reflect on his research philosophy, Dr. Courtright sees himself as a product of the mechanistic paradigm practiced elsewhere but also firmly rooted at Marquette. This paradigm in part insists that one ask questions that are related to broad problems in biology questions not usually satisfied with purely descriptive explanations. He relates that his years at Marquette have been enjoyable and rewarding and have enabled him to pursue the answers to questions that are relevant and intriguing. Dr. Courtright feels blessed to have had the good fortune of having some truly remarkable students pass through the lab over the years, and feels one of his most rewarding contributions has come from imparting to them the excitement of the experiment and the joy in making new discoveries.

In recent years, Dr. Courtright has directed more attention to teaching, addressing the continual challenge of helping MU students master the ever increasing levels of modern biology. His enjoyment in working with students is driven by a passion for asking good experimental questions and showing students how solutions to those questions is one of the challenges that make biological research so rewarding.

 

 



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