Celebrating 50 years of innovative research at the Barnett Institute

For the past 50 years, the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis at Northeastern University has been conducting cutting-edge research in the biology and chemistry fields. During a special celebration marking this milestone, the institute’s founder reflected on its past and envisioned the future.

“You can’t be afraid of doing new things. Science changes so rapidly, each one of you is going to have to reinvent yourself multiple times,” Barry L. Karger said during an anniversary event last week at the EXP research complex on the Boston campus.

From the launch of the institute in 1973, Karger said, “We understood we’d have to keep inventing ourselves.”

In today’s world that means using algorithms, machine learning, advanced mass spectrometry and other tools to achieve the institute’s mission of measuring molecules to understand how they work in order to advance the field of analytical chemistry and biology.

“Who knows in five or 10 years,” said Karger, James L. Waters Chair and Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

“Karger’s vision was that understanding molecules was crucial to understanding where they could be used,” said Hazel Sive, dean of Northeastern’s College of Science.

“Barnett has been and continues to be a leader in mass spectrometry, now including methods that can analyze miniscule samples and detail key cellular components,” she said.

Karger, who arrived at Northeastern in 1963 as a 24-year-old professor, said chemical analysis is at the center of fields as diverse as therapeutics, food, security, environmental studies and forensics.

The Barnett Institute has trained more than 500 Ph.D. students, post-doctoral students and staff scientists, all of whom are familiar with what current director Olga Vitek said are affectionately known as  “Kargerisms,” with the foremost catchphrase being  “molecules, measurements and meaning.”

Although much of the institute’s work now centers on biotechnology and pharmaceutics, it started out as the Institute of Chemical Analysis, Applications and Forensic Science with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 1983 it was renamed after Louis and Madlyn Barnett, who made a generous contribution that created an endowment that helps fund Karger’s vision. “It continues to be a fantastic coalescence,” Sive said.

Louis H. Barnett, who died in 2020, was a Northeastern graduate who made a name for himself in the field of chemical engineering, and held many patents in plastic processing and machinery.

His daughter, Rhoda Bernstein, said her father, a wine connoisseur, gourmet chef and dog judge in his spare time, teasingly complained that none of his three children became scientists.

“But he knew this legacy would live forever in the world of the brilliant scientists and graduates at the Barnett Institute,” she said.

The anniversary event also included the awarding of the Karger Medical to Jennifer Van Eyk of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles for her work advancing clinical proteomics, the study of how proteins work and interact with each other within cell walls.

The institute was one of the first to bring together scientists from academia and industry to work together on problems, said Karger, who received a standing ovation at the beginning and end of his talk.

“From day one, the culture was we would do both foundational and applied science,” he said, which has resulted in scientists associated with the institute playing key roles in drug discovery and the therapeutics of RNA.

The Barnett Institute is made up of an interdisciplinary team from the College of Science, Khoury College of Computer Sciences, Bouve College Health Sciences and the College of Engineering who work collaboratively with research scientists and students.

Vitek, who is also Raymond Bradford Bradstreet Professor in Khoury Colleges of Computer Sciences, in the future the institute will advance science through machine-assisted interpretation of biomolecular experiments.

“This will close the loop between experimentation and computation, and will enable faster discovery and broader impact,” said Vitek, who was named new director of the Barnett Institute in July of 2023.

David Luzzi, Northeastern’s senior vice provost of research and vice president of the innovation campus, said the institute was the first of many founded at Northeastern to find solutions to global problems.

“Northeastern has been a rocket ship, and where it is going is very important,” Luzzi said.

“You can’t be afraid of doing new things. Science changes so rapidly, each one of you is going to have to reinvent yourself multiple times. We understood we’d have to keep reinventing ourselves.”

—Barry L. Karger, Founder of the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis

This article was originally written by Cynthia McCormick Hibbert
and published in Northeastern Global News.