Erik L. Snapp, Ph.D., studies the cell biology of chaperones—specialized proteins that fold newly synthesized proteins into their final three-dimensional structures. Using fluorescent tags and advanced imaging techniques, the researchers in his lab observe how chaperones interact with their partner proteins in living cells. Chaperones also recognize and help eliminate misfolded proteins from cells; failure of chaperones to control misfolded proteins underlies diseases such as Huntington’s.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Coos Bay, OR, the largest lumber shipping port on the West Coast. My dad was an avid outdoorsman and took me along from an early age. We’d wake up at 4 a.m. to fish for bass, steelhead or salmon or hunt for deer, elk or ducks.
What was your favorite outdoor experience?
Hiking the 500-mile Oregon section of the Pacific Coast Trail with a friend. It was a college graduation present from my parents, who mailed all our food to various drop points. We hiked the Cascade Range over two months, taking it slowly so we could climb a bunch of mountains—a total blast.
Could you describe your path from Oregon to Einstein?
I came East to attend Harvard undergrad and went hiking with the Harvard Outing Club. Then I returned to Oregon and attended Oregon Health & Science University, where I met my wife. I earned my Ph.D. studying the Leishmania parasite. During my Ph.D. work, green fluorescent protein (GFP) was cloned, and doing live-cell imaging using GFP-labeled proteins captured my imagination. I found my dream postdoc position at the National Institutes of Health, working with Dr. Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz to exploit GFP to study protein dynamics in cells. In 2004, I was recruited to Einstein’s new biophotonics center.
What inspired you to be a scientist?
Mrs. Hill’s science table in first grade. There were fossils, crystals, skulls, a microscope and a terrarium with chameleons. For a class experiment, I did the classic vinegar-and-baking-soda reaction and thought it was so cool. I knew then that I wanted to understand how the world worked.
What do you like best about research?
Those moments when I look through the microscope and suddenly know something new that no one else on the planet has ever known.
Do you enjoy teaching?
I love it. I developed a microscopy class and teach in the cell biology course. For the graduate ethics course, I developed a lecture on the ethics of imaging, explaining the difference between appropriate and inappropriate image manipulation.
Do you have any obsessions?
Running. I started about four years ago, as part of a lifestyle change to lose weight. I changed my diet, walked daily and lost 60 pounds, then started running when walking got boring. A nice thing about living on City Island is the many nearby running paths. I wake up at 6 and run six mornings a week. I’ll be running in the Marine Corps Marathon in October in Washington, D.C.
Any other interests?
I love cooking and do a lot of barbecuing. I’m an avid gardener and recently started growing hops for beer-making. I also love to read, especially books by the Oregon writer Barry Lopez. My favorites are Arctic Dreams and Desert Notes.