Attention to Detail is Key to Success for Award-Winning Bioengineer

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WORCESTER, Mass. WPI doctoral candidate Charles S. Buer went from high school into the Navy and then to a job at Bob's Body Shop near his hometown of Dawson, Minn., about 100 miles west of Minneapolis, where he spent the next 16 years working on the details of automobile repair and restoration.

That attention to detail has stood him in good stead. Buer is now making a name for himself as a researcher whose meticulous attention to detail is earning him the respect of plant scientists worldwide. He will receive his Ph.D. in biology/biotechnology with a focus on plant bioengineering-an interdisciplinary field involving plant biology, bioprocess, molecular biology, engineering and physics-in October.

Since coming to WPI in 1994, Buer has spent much of his time doing something utterly unique: inserting microscopic objects into the cells of plants using lasers as tweezers and scissors. The object? "To study characteristics of linkages between plant cell membranes and the cell wall," he says.

For the last two and a half years, Buer has focused on developing an optical surgical technique he is using to study the physical and mechanical characteristics of these linkages, called Hechtian strands. He has discovered that by attaching specially coated microspheres to the linking strands and then using the laser tweezers to pull on the beads, he can measure the elastic properties of the strands as a function of progressive cold hardening of the cells.

Buer's research advisors are Pamela J. Weathers, professor of biology and biotechnology, and Grover A. Swartzlander Jr., assistant professor of physics. Weathers says his discoveries will aid plant biologists in their efforts to enhance the cold-hardiness of important crop plants such as wheat. "A 30 percent increase in wheat production could be achieved if winter wheat were made 2 degrees more cold hardy," Weathers reports. Buer's research may turn this goal into a reality.

Buer and Kevin Gahagan, who received his doctorate in physics in January, developed new precision laser tools in order to attempt the genetic transformation of Gingko biloba, an important pharmaceutical herb that is rapidly becoming accepted by the medical community because it appears to be able to inhibit the body's ability to form blood clots, greatly diminishing the likelihood of strokes and heart attacks. Gingko biloba also reduces cholesterol, destroys the free radicals that researchers believe cause cancer, and improves circulation to the brain¾ boosting memory and concentration.

For his breakthrough laser techniques, described in his thesis " Applications of Optical Manipulation in Plant Biology," Buer received a graduate student research award from the WPI Chapter of Sigma Xi: the National Research Society at Convocation in

April. In 1997, his research was recognized with the prestigious Philip White Memorial Award from the Society of In Vitro Biology and with a highlighted poster Memorial Award from the Society of In Vitro Biology, and with a highlighted poster award from that year's American Optical Society annual meeting.

Last year, with funding from the White award, Buer temporarily moved his plant tissue cultures, plasmids, bacterial strains and antibiotics from WPI to the University of Minnesota to study gene transfer using biolistics. In the "gene gun" biolistics method, plasmid DNA is adhered to gold microprojectiles. It is then placed in a vacuum chamber and accelerated by helium with the gene gun (attached to the pressure tank) into the tissue culture matrix. "In order to compare the optical laser insertion techniques, we used a green fluorescent protein transformation marker from a jellyfish," he explains.

Buer graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology and chemistry from Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn., in 1994. He took a circuitous route to his doctorate. "I guess I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up," he explains. "I've always had an interest in science but I didn't have the discipline when I tried a year of college following high school. I decided to join the Navy and while serving my country I worked on jet aircraft air-conditioning, ejection systems and liquid oxygen systems.

"After I left the Navy, I took the job at Bob's. I always planned to return to college and get my degree but marriage, working at the body shop and buying acreage got in the way. Shortly after I turned 40 I heard an ad about going back to college as I was driving home from work. I thought to myself, "Well, old boy, if you are going to do this, you'd better get at it or it won't be worth doing."

Buer signed up for evening classes at Southwest State in 1989, enrolled as a fulltime student the following year, and graduated four years later. "I never planned to earn a doctorate but as I neared the end of my undergraduate years I did not want to let go of the excitement I felt about research and decided to apply to graduate school."

Buer is experienced in plant, bird and mammal identification, managing greenhouses, and mapping arboretum collections. At one time he served as a consultant for the city of Marshall. Three and a half years ago he entered WPI on a prestigious USDA National Needs Fellowship. Once on campus, he not only took diverse and challenging courses, he was also president of the Graduate Student Organization and is a member of WPI's Interdisciplinary Plant Research Group. He is currently preparing a manuscript about his research to submit for publication in the Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology. An article describing his technique is in press in Biotechnology & Bioengineering

Looking ahead, Buer sees a bright future in bioengineering involving plants. "A plant's ability to produce novel drugs will require exploitation to combat increasing microbial resistance to current drugs," he says. "Laser applications in science are increasing steadily. The ability to measure tiny forces provides scientists the ability to determine physical properties in cells that could only be guessed at previously."

WPI is an independent technological university founded in 1865. In 1997, U.S. News & World Report ranked WPI among the top 50 national universities in its Best Colleges Guide and 35th among the top national institutions in the magazine's Best College Values report.

-- Ruth Trask