In second grade, Mark O’Brian was so fascinated by astronomy that he knew how many moons each planet has.
Over time, his curiosity shifted from the vastness of the solar system to the complexities of human anatomy. From there, he turned his attention to cells.
By the time he joined UB’s faculty in 1988, O’Brian was studying nanometer-sized DNA.
“The way I see it is that as I got older, the size of the things I was interested in got smaller,” he says.
O’Brian researches Bradyrhizobium japonicum, a model bacterium for pathogens that are too onerous for scientists to culture in the lab. His experiments on this non-pathogenic bacterium are shedding light on agents responsible for brucellosis, typhus and other diseases.
“It’s common to use mice or fruit flies to study human disease, and this is the same principle. We’re trying to understand a pathogen by studying a non-pathogen that you can work with more easily.”
O’Brian values the camaraderie of his UB colleagues and the autonomy to pursue his research. “I’ve been able to do what I want in every aspect of my career, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Mentoring PhD students is one of the most satisfying aspects of his job.
“When students defend their thesis, you realize how polished they’ve become. They know their subject, they’re confident and they can field the faculty’s questions. For me, that’s it—that’s real excitement.”
Within the biochemistry department, O’Brian holds the distinction of being the only Buffalo native. Although he didn't plan on returning home after completing his PhD and postdoctoral research at Johns Hopkins University, he found the benefits of UB and the region too great to pass up.
“Between the opportunity to work in a very collegial department, getting a good start-up package and living in an affordable city where we could raise our kids,” he says, “this was all around my best bet.”