Faculty Faces – Dr. Andrea Duina

Andrea DuinaDr. Andrea Duina Brewer’s yeast in a biology lab? In this case it’s not used for brewing beer, but for understanding basic biological processes. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, as brewer’s yeast is known in the scientific community, is a common model system for understanding various aspects of cell biology and used by Dr. Andrea Duina and his students specifically to dissect the mechanics by which genes function in cells.

An Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, Duina also teaches courses in the College’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program. He teaches Cell Biology for freshmen and Advanced Cell Biology and Advanced Genetics for juniors and seniors. Duina will also teach Genetics, a sophomore-level course, for the first time next fall.

In the lab, his research examines how histones – proteins that package DNA – interact with other protein factors when a gene is turned on.

Outside of the classroom and the lab, Duina, who played the saxophone through college, is an avid music follower, particularly of classic jazz artists, such as pianist Keith Jarrett, guitarists Pat Martino and Pat Metheny, trumpeters Chet Baker and Miles Davis, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.

Before joining the Hendrix faculty in 2004, Duina was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School.

The move from Harvard to Hendrix was not his first encounter in a new environment.

A native of Brescia in northern Italy, not far from Milan, Duina and his family moved to Chicago in 1983, when he was 12. After high school, he went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received a bachelor’s degree in Biology. In 1998, he received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Cell Biology.

“I am used to experiencing different places, cultures, and people,” said Duina. “I’ve always been very fortunate to be in interesting places. That’s a very important thing for me.”

Duina now lives in Little Rock with his wife, Reine, who is from the Philippines and also a scientist and their four-year old son Niccolo, who plays soccer and chess and is already experiencing new cultures with trips to visit family in Italy and the Philippines.

“Coming here we didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Boston is a dynamic, culturally rich city. It’s definitely different here, but we have been very pleased and pleasantly surprised.”

“Little Rock is more family friendly. There’s more space and nature, which is great. We’ve really enjoyed that,” he said. “We were happy to see that people are very warm and friendly here.”

Moving from large research university environments to a more close-knit liberal arts college campus was also a new experience.

“It’s definitely different, in terms of the teaching and research here,” he said.

“The small classes are great. One of the things I like is knowing I can really make a big difference in students’ lives, both in classroom and in the lab,” he said.

“I get to know the students and show them what they can do with their degree. I take students to scientific conferences, which makes a big difference to them because they see what a scientific community is really like. I have really enjoyed that aspect, and that’s really hard to do in a big academic environment.”

“Research is a big part of that. From the get go, Hendrix has been really supportive of that,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that, it would have been hard to come here.”

“I’ve been very happy to do the teaching I really love and the research I really love. It’s been great,” he said. “I’m very very happy here.”
Duina was hired in part through a grant Hendrix received from the National Institutes of Health, which also helped buy research equipment. The investment in new faculty like Duina quickly paid significant dividends. He received a three-year grant, which was extended a fourth year, from the National Science Foundation.

It enabled him to hire a lab tech, offer summer stipends for student researchers, and buy additional research equipment and supplies. In December 2009, Duina received a second three-year NSF grant.

Research is a critical component in liberal arts colleges, at least in the sciences, Duina said.

“Research is absolutely integral to liberal arts education in the sciences,” he said.

One of the reasons is a practical matter.

“Look around the country. You’re not competing with the best schools if you’re not doing research,” he said.

It’s also pedagogical.

“You don’t understand the scientific process unless you’re in the lab, where you think about projects, design and set up experiments, test hypotheses, and set up controls,” he said. “At the undergraduate level, you can’t know the excitement of actually discovering something unless you experience it.”

Duina joined the Hendrix faculty shortly before the launch of Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning. Not only does Your Hendrix Odyssey offer support for the kind of faculty-led student research he is passionate about, it also encourages students to be grant writers because students have the opportunity to apply – on a competitive grants basis – for funding to support their Odyssey experiences.

“Most scientists spend a lot of their time applying for grants,” he said. “It may not be the best use of their time, but the reality is that, because of the financial situation and budgets, people have to continuously apply. It’s definitely a very important skill, definitely part of the package to be able to communicate why research is important.”