Alumni Angle: Christopher Berger ‘86

Part of what makes Lawrence a remarkable and truly multidisciplinary liberal arts college is its impressive science department. Christopher Berger ’86 is a testament to Lawrence’s ability to help shape scientific advancement through driving its students to future success in their field.

Currently a Professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics as well as Director of Graduate Education for the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, Berger reflects on how an education at Lawrence led to his current professional position and influenced his personal life.

Berger was drawn to Lawrence after meeting alumni at a gathering in Los Angeles, which is near his small-town home on the Central Coast of California. Already interested in going to a small liberal arts college, Berger knew he wanted to “see another part of the country.” After meeting with the alumni, Berger said that he was “so impressed by the people I met there that I knew Lawrence was the school for me. I have never regretted that decision.”

At Lawrence, Berger was involved in the chemistry and biology departments, as well as running on the phenomenal cross country, indoor and outdoor track teams and working at the grill in the student union. Because there was no biochemistry major at Lawrence at that time, Berger chose to major in chemistry. “I decided on chemistry as a major rather than biology, because there was less memorization and more quantitative reasoning involved, which suited me well. I am still that way.” Berger explained.

A large focus of Berger’s studies at Lawrence and in his current research is how the body works. At Lawrence, Berger was able to combine his interest in running and science through an independent study with retired Professor of Biology Dr. Perreault on electron microscopy.

Looking back, Berger said that “[Perreault] was an amazing mentor, and I ended up getting some great EM pictures of sarcomeres inside of muscle cells. I still use a lot of microscopy in my research today.”

After graduating from Lawrence, Berger went on to receive a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Minnesota ¬– Twin Cities, then did postdoctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania for three years.

During this time, Berger continued pursuing scientific investigation on the workings of the body. “I developed my own ideas for an independent research lab studying the molecular mechanisms of muscle contraction, building upon the interests that started at Lawrence,” Berger said.

Berger works now at the University of Vermont and oversees PhD training in the college. He is currently conducting research on the process of axonal transport in nerve cells, which causes degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s when the process goes awry.

Driven by his own mother’s diagnosis, Berger has been working to understand axonal transport in order to treat the disease. “We use a lot of single-molecule imaging techniques, meaning that we use very high resolution microscopes to directly watch how individual molecules, known as motor proteins, move things from one end of the cell to another. We are interested in how a protein known as Tau regulates these motor proteins. Tau is known to be directly involved in Alzheimer’s, but it isn’t clear how.”

Berger explained, “My lab discovered that Tau can switch between static and diffusive (moving around) states that affect motor protein transport differently. We are currently testing how the diffusive Tau misregulates motor protein transport in another neurodegenerative disease, frontotemporal dementia.”

Much of Berger’s professional choices have stemmed from the importance of his connection to personal interests and relationships. Berger cited an excellent department and colleagues as one of the reasons he was drawn to work at the University of Vermont, and explained, “My home department of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics is one of the best places in the world to study contractile proteins and cell motility, my field of interest. I have a number of colleagues with similar interests who I interact with a lot, which keeps the environment intellectually stimulating.”

At the same time, family interests drew Berger to Vermont. “My wife is originally from Vermont, and we always loved visiting there, so we jumped at the chance to move there. It is an incredible place to live, work, and raise a family. It is a very active environment with lots of outdoor activities. Hiking, mountain biking, trail running and skiing are all readily available.” Berger said.

While Lawrence has contributed significantly to Berger’s professional development, Berger especially stresses the importance of the relationships which Lawrence helped him to build. “I met my wife Elizabeth at Lawrence, and we have now been very happily married for almost 29 years.”

Berger mentioned that their three children show signs of being as driven and successful as their parents. From a coworker at the grill named Ardys who Berger described as his mother away from home, to teammates, professors and his own wife, Berger was able to create a sense of community, find role models and create lasting relationships in his life through his time at Lawrence.