Meet the Researcher: Dan Schwartz, Physiology & Neurobiology

Professor Dan Schwartz
UConn's Dan Schwartz has a wide-ranging curiosity and sense of purpose for a wide variety of projects in and out of the lab. (Contributed Photo)

To say that UConn researcher Dan Schwartz wore many hats prior to becoming a faculty member would be an understatement. Classical piano teacher, Taekwondo instructor, personal trainer, math tutor – these are all jobs Schwartz held before deciding on a career in academia.

Schwartz has continued to display a penchant for wearing many hats since arriving at UConn in 2010 as an assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology. In his time at UConn, he gained tenure, became the director of UConn’s Center for Open Research Resources and Equipment (COR2E), established a student web development lab, invented a web tool to support academic collaborations, and launched a startup to commercialize it. In February 2020, Schwartz added an additional hat, becoming the executive director of strategic analytics and initiatives in the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Diversity of interest has long been a major factor in Schwartz’s life. Before going to Cornell University for his undergraduate studies, Taekwondo and piano were two important pursuits for Schwartz, who at 13 was among the youngest 3rd degree black belts in the country, and at 17 performed as a soloist with the Manhattan School of Music’s preparatory division orchestra, having won the conservatory’s piano concerto competition. He turned to more traditional studies at Cornell, where he majored in engineering.

At Cornell, an introductory course captivated Schwartz’s interest in viral gene therapy and would lead him on a quest to find a virology lab that would accept an engineering student with little to no biology background. Ultimately Schwartz ended up in Colin Parrish’s lab, where he would spend three years performing undergraduate research on the first molecular characterization of the Minute Virus of Canines (MVC), a virus that eventually led to the naming of a new viral genus.

Schwartz went on to receive his PhD in cell and developmental biology from Harvard University. It was there, again at an introductory graduate course, that Schwartz’s interest was piqued yet again. Learning about short protein sequence patterns known as motifs involved in protein interactions led Schwartz to wonder whether motifs could be discovered statistically from protein sequences alone, rather than through laborious biochemical experimentation. He spent the majority of his graduate student years working on a self-initiated project around the statistical analysis of protein sequences, ultimately culminating in the publication of an algorithm and related software that would become the leading tool for motif discovery in the field of proteomics with over 800 citations to date.

In 2010, Schwartz came to the University of Connecticut where he planned to continue and expand his research in protein motifs.

“When I set up my lab at UConn in 2010 I thought it was important to ‘close the loop’ between the computational and the experimental. We’re interested in understanding these motifs to further our basic science toolkit, as well as to better our understanding of the mechanisms associated with a variety of human diseases,” Schwartz says.

Among his lab’s developments is pLogo, an online tool to graphically visualize protein motifs using a statistical framework. Since its publication in 2013, pLogo has been visited by users in every state and over 100 countries around the world, and has been cited over 180 times. His lab also focuses on developing broadly utilizable techniques and technologies for the detection of short patterns experimentally. Specifically, Schwartz’s lab pioneered a strategy that uses E. coli bacteria as “living test tubes” for the detection of motifs associated with a class of human enzymes known as kinases. Protein kinases regulate a wide variety of cellular processes through the post-translational addition of phosphate groups on amino acid side chains. Importantly, kinase dysfunction has been associated with a wide range of human diseases including cancer, diabetes, and neurodegeneration. In 2017, Schwartz’s group was the first to show that a kinase mutation associated with Cushing’s Syndrome altered the recognition motif of the kinase – a result that has since been verified and expanded upon by several other large research groups. Schwartz’s lab is currently working on a similar project for another kinase, CDKL5, associated with early onset epilepsy.

Fundamentally, talented students are offered the opportunity to innovate in a manner that supports the university as well as their own career goals. It’s just about as mutually beneficial a relationship as you can get. — Dan Schwartz

Like many researchers working at the molecular level, Schwartz’s research relies on highly specialized equipment. Three years after coming to UConn, Schwartz became a vocal proponent for institutional investment in proteomics instrumentation. Proteomics is the field that deals with the large scale study of proteins. Although Schwartz’s lab had access to this instrumentation through collaborators at other institutions, he believed that UConn faculty were missing out on a rapidly growing field of experimentation that could greatly enhance their competitiveness in obtaining federal research grants. Specifically, an analysis by Schwartz revealed that within the cohort of universities plus and minus ten positions away from UConn in the US News & World Report annual rankings, UConn was the only institution that lacked a dedicated proteomics core research facility.

Schwartz dug into the topic further, ultimately consulting with over 50 faculty at Storrs on their research needs and developing a proposal for a new proteomics core facility as part of an internal UConn funding opportunity. His proposal was so persuasive that Schwartz was asked by the Vice President for Research at the time, Jeff Seemann, to oversee a total overhaul of the Biotechnology/Bioservices Center (BBC), a unit that previously managed 14 core research facilities at varying levels of functionality and openness, as its new director. Schwartz would in 2016 rebrand the BBC as the Center for Open Research Resources and Equipment (or COR²E), substantially revamping its constitutive facilities, organizational structure, and providing a portal into the over 90 different core research facilities housed across all UConn campuses and managed by a variety of different units. Today COR2E is comprised of 11 core facilities that house highly specialized equipment and services that are open for all researchers both internal and external to the university.

The benefits of COR²E are abundant and highly advantageous for the University as a whole, says Schwartz. For instance, when a university invests strategically in a set of comprehensive core facilities, it supports the research programs of literally dozens of faculty at once, and simultaneously enhances the university’s reputation among its peers.

“Cutting-edge research questions increasingly necessitate cutting-edge equipment that is prohibitively expensive for individual faculty to own. Having these facilities well-equipped and staffed with expert directors helps us recruit top faculty, conduct more insightful research, and makes us more competitive for external funding,” says Schwartz.

Schwartz’s introduction to the administrative side of research at UConn in fact started prior to his engagement on core facilities. In 2013, Schwartz pitched an idea for the development of a software platform to help academic researchers connect with potential collaborators on interdisciplinary research projects. With critical seed funding from the OVPR, Schwartz was able to create this unique tool, Lincus. Since its launch, Lincus has had over 4,000 unique users across UConn. Lincus is now also the basis for Schwartz’s startup, cofounded with three UConn alumni and located within UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP). The commercial version of Lincus, which is currently being licensed to a variety of organizations, allows users to find research experts on a national scale, “in less time than it takes to actually type a keyword” as Schwartz puts it.

While re-envisioning UConn’s core facilities and inventing an innovative technology were both a monumental task, especially for an assistant professor seeking tenure, Schwartz added yet another hat to his collection when he formed squared labs in 2017, a student group comprised of top current and former students from UConn that are hired to do whatever they do best, whether its software development or scientific illustration.

“At squared labs, we try to provide a unique and close to real-world working environment for our students,” Schwartz explains. “Fundamentally, talented students are offered the opportunity to innovate in a manner that supports the university as well as their own career goals. It’s just about as mutually beneficial a relationship as you can get.”

The students have been a part of multiple projects, and they are working on a website that helps faculty find equipment on campus. Though most squared labs projects revolve around web development, in 2018 the group launched a scientific illustration service, the centerpiece of which provides free cover art submissions for faculty who get their works accepted to academic journals. Since launching the service, student illustrations have appeared on a number of prominent journal covers.

“A lot of what we’ve been able to accomplish is thanks to the dedication of many people working together, whether it’s the COR2E directors or the squared labs students and staff,” Schwartz says. “None of this would happen if it weren’t for their hard work.”

Schwartz is always on the lookout for the next place he can work to make a positive difference at UConn. Over the last year, Schwartz has shifted some of his collaborative efforts to UConn’s Stamford campus, where, for a variety of reasons, he sees a tremendous opportunity for the future of the University and the state. He is presently spearheading university-wide initiatives in data science focused on research, student entrepreneurship activities, and a new technology incubation program. With new funding from StamfordNext (CTNext’s innovation place project supporting economic development in the Stamford region), Schwartz is launching new programs to, hopefully, establish a permanent, transformational UConn data science footprint in Stamford.

While this is one in a long line of new hats, it’s certain not to be the last for Dan Schwartz.

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