A Scholarship Brought Her to Columbia. A Professorship Brought Her Back.

Laura Kaufman, the new chair of the chemistry department, first came to Columbia as an undergraduate.

February 14, 2024

Laura Kaufman first came to Columbia as an undergraduate, confident that she wanted to work in the sciences, but unsure of what exactly she wanted to pursue as a career. Stints in two labs helped her find her way to graduate school at UC-Berkeley, a postdoc at Harvard, and then back to Columbia, where she became a chemistry professor in 2004. Kaufman became the chair of the department, a job with a three-year term, last summer. Columbia News spoke with her to discuss her work, her free time, and what drew her to her field.

What first drew you to chemistry?

As far back as high school, I suspected I was going to be a science major but I didn’t think I wanted to be a doctor, at least not the kind that I was familiar with who sees a lot of patients every day. I didn’t really know what that would mean until I got to Columbia, where I was accepted as an undergraduate II Rabi Scholar. Getting that scholarship really encouraged me to come here, and had it not been for that program, I might have ended up doing something totally different, like art history or religion.

I took General Chemistry in my first year and met quite a few faculty through that class. Professor Brian Bent taught one third of one semester of that course. He was really nice, really approachable, and a rising star. So, I asked to join his lab. I worked there for two academic years and two summers, and Bent sadly passed away unexpectedly at the age of 35 while I was still an undergraduate. Following my junior year, I spent a summer in Jim Valentini’s lab. Those two experiences set me up so that when I went off to graduate school at UC-Berkeley I felt really informed and confident about picking research subjects that I was going to be excited about long-term.

I have to admit I didn’t understand much of your professional bio when I read it. Can you explain what your lab is working on, as you would to a relative who knows nothing about chemistry?

My group studies how molecules move when there’s disorder and crowding. I focus on supercooled liquids, rubbery polymers, and glasses, which all have disorder and crowding that contribute to making the motion of the constituent molecules interesting.

Supercooled liquids are a good example. If you take a liquid and you cool it down, usually what happens is you get to the freezing temperature, and it freezes, forming what is called a crystalline solid. But if you cool it down fast enough, you can get below the freezing temperature without forming the crystalline solid. This is like when you put a bottle of soda or wine or something in your freezer, and so long as you don’t jiggle it too much, you will find that it’s still liquid, it has not reached the crystalline solid state.

There is all sorts of anomalous, strange activity that accompanies this supercooled state—molecules move through cooperative rearrangements, for example, where the only way that one molecule can move is if a whole bunch of molecules move together.

We study these kinds of materials primarily out of fundamental interest, because they show phenomena we do not fully understand, but also because there are definitely applications—or real-world uses—of such materials.

What are the possible real-world uses for studying these kinds of materials?

A lot of materials that we encounter on a daily basis are supercooled liquids, rubbery polymers (a lot of the plastics we encounter), or amorphous solids (like the glass we encounter in windows). Knowing how to keep these materials stable is really important. Many drugs, for example, are packaged or prepared as amorphous solids and you need to make sure they don’t crystallize to make sure that they’re maximally effective.

Are there any other subjects that your lab works on?

In addition to studying how molecules move in supercooled liquids, glasses, and rubbery polymers, about half my lab studies how cells move in tumors and how cells emerge from tumors into the tissue that surrounds them. We study that in order to better understand what can promote or hinder the progression of a tumor before it metastasizes elsewhere in the body. We don't do animal studies. Usually what we do is use an approximation of a tumor, a little sphere of cancerous cells, and we embed it in a little approximation to tissue, a hydrogel made of structural proteins that are also present in human tissue.

Tumors seem so different from supercooled liquids and rubbery polymers. How did you start to study them?

The first time I ever worked with cells was during my postdoc, which I did at Harvard. As part of the postdoc, I worked with collaborators at Massachusetts General Hospital. We were trying to determine how much force brain cancer cells exert as they move. When I first came back to Columbia as a faculty member in 2004, I brought elements of that project with me, and continued to develop hydrogels that could serve as approximations of tissue for experiments.

Developing hydrogels with particular properties allows us to dissect how cell behavior is affected by not only the particular biochemical composition of the environment surrounding cells but also the mechanical properties and network structure of cell surroundings. Experiments in such in vitro environments can even suggest new treatment strategies for diseases – for example, can we alter the tissue around a tumor instead of the tumor itself to limit its progression?

What do you like to do for hobbies outside of work?

I run. I pay attention to my dog, my cat and my children, maybe not in that order! I spend a lot of time judging rock climbing competitions because both of my children are competitive rock climbers.

What’s the farthest away you’ve ever taken them to climb?

I took my son to Indian Rock Park in Berkeley when we were there. You can walk up the rock and see across the bay. I would go there a lot in grad school and I have these really positive associations with it. But it’s also a renowned spot for climbers to practice, and so the last time I visited Berkeley, I took my son. He really enjoyed it.