by Angela Herring

A quarter cen­tury ago, Barry Karger and his team pub­lished research in the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sci­ences that would help enable sci­en­tists to sequence the human genome. It marked the first time anyone had shown a reli­able and high-​​resolution ana­lyt­ical tech­nique for char­ac­ter­izing DNA molecules.

“And if you don’t know what the mol­e­cule is, you can’t get very far,” said Karger, the James L. Waters Chair in Ana­lyt­ical Chem­istry at North­eastern and the founding director of the university’s Bar­nett Insti­tute of Chem­ical and Bio­log­ical Analysis.

Karger’s method took an existing technology—capillary electrophoresis—to new heights. For this achieve­ment, along with a life­time of con­tri­bu­tions to the field, Karger was hon­ored Sunday as the third-​​ever recip­ient of the Arnold O. Beckman Medal and Award for Out­standing Sci­en­tific Achieve­ments in the Field of Elec­tro­driven Sep­a­ra­tion Tech­niques. He received the award at the 30th Inter­na­tional Sym­po­sium on Microscale Biosep­a­ra­tion, held in Hun­gary on April 27-​​May 1.

The award honors the legacy of Arnold O. Beckman, an Amer­ican chemist who invented the pH meter and other impor­tant ana­lyt­ical chem­istry tech­nolo­gies. Receiving the award brought Karger back to his roots; he founded the con­fer­ence series around the same time as the pub­li­ca­tion of his break­through research paper. At that time the series was called High Per­for­mance Cap­il­lary Elec­trophoresis, which Karger orga­nized for a decade. It has since expanded into the world’s largest inter­na­tional gath­ering of the electro-​​separation research community.

Karger’s novel cap­il­lary elec­trophoresis method was used to sequence 40 per­cent of the human genome. After com­pleting that project in 2003, he piv­oted in his research to focus on liquid chro­matog­raphy and mass spec­trom­etry to inves­ti­gate pro­teins. Some of his work, which has been focused on clin­ical and biotech­nical chal­lenges, has lead to impor­tant dis­cov­eries for the diag­nosis of breast cancer and other dis­eases. He also has made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the biotech­nology industry.

Karger’s 50-​​year career—which is still quite active—has been sup­ported by the simple fact that he gets bored easily, as he put it. “That means you don’t get bogged down, you’re not afraid to go into new areas,” he explained. So even after the founding of an inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized research center 40 years ago, watching nearly 400 scholars pass through its doors, and making major con­tri­bu­tions to a number of dif­ferent fields, Karger is still learning new things.

For instance, only now have the tech­nolo­gies come far enough for him to be able to com­bine two of his most beloved—capillary elec­trophoresis and mass spec­trom­etry. This will allow his team to look at full intact pro­teins rather than just pep­tides, or pieces of the pro­tein. And since, as he said, “it’s the pro­tein that does the func­tion, not the pep­tide,” such a method could yield yet another major breakthrough.

Upon receiving the award, Karger pre­sented a lec­ture titled, “Fifty years in sep­a­ra­tion sci­ence and the future.” In his talk, he dis­cussed the ele­ments that he believes make for suc­cessful sci­ence: a multi-​​faceted under­standing of the problem at hand, a will­ing­ness to look at it in an inte­gra­tive way, and the ability to col­lab­o­rate with col­leagues across dis­ci­plines and with industry partners.

“In the tech­nology, things are moving so fast, so you have to do this,” he said.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on April 28, 2014.