Faculty Profile: Phil Best

Phil Best, professor of molecular and integrative physiology, grew up hiking, camping, and hunting in Maryland. Even now, he is happiest diving with humpback whales or biking from Seattle to Portland with his daughter and son-in-law.

“I’m always looking for interesting adventures,” he said. “A good vacation puts me someplace different, both culturally and geographically, and I enjoy being active.”

This enjoyment of and curiosity about the world around him led Best quite naturally to biology; first to the study of zoology and later to molecular and cellular physiology. Best followed one of his older brothers to Duke University, where he crossed paths with Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. Schmidt-Nielsen, a preeminent physiologist, was interested in the range of ways different animals adapt to the same extreme environmental challenges. Best remembers that Schmidt-Nielsen kept various exotic animals, including an ostrich, in the basement of the zoology building in order to measure their blood gases during exercise.

Interesting Adventures

phil best

Phil Best, professor of molecular and integrative physiology, grew up hiking, camping, and hunting in Maryland. Even now, he is happiest diving with humpback whales or biking from Seattle to Portland with his daughter and son-in-law.

“I’m always looking for interesting adventures,” he said. “A good vacation puts me someplace different, both culturally and geographically, and I enjoy being active.”

This enjoyment of and curiosity about the world around him led Best quite naturally to biology; first to the study of zoology and later to molecular and cellular physiology. Best followed one of his older brothers to Duke University, where he crossed paths with Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. Schmidt-Nielsen, a preeminent physiologist and author of several books, including The Camel’s Nose, was interested in the range of ways different animals adapt to the same extreme environmental challenges. Best remembers that Schmidt-Nielsen kept various exotic animals, including an ostrich, in the basement of the zoology building in order to measure their blood gases during exercise.

For his undergraduate senior thesis, Best wrote a computer program that modeled how albatrosses used dynamic soaring to fly for thousands of miles over the open ocean. Albatrosses do not use thermal air currents like hawks and eagles do. Instead, they take advantage of the wind shear over the ocean. Wind velocity decreases as it approaches the water’s surface, and albatrosses take advantage of this by flying high and either downwind or slightly off the wind, gradually losing some altitude. At the point when they’ve used up almost all the kinetic energy from the wind, they have just enough to turn into the wind and glide back up, at which point they head down wind again. So albatrosses can fly, with minimal flapping, for thousands of miles in an endless loop pattern.

As interesting as that project was, Best realized that his interests were shifting toward smaller scale systems. “I was really interested in comparative physiology, but it seemed that the more interesting advances were being made at the cellular and molecular level,” he said.

In particular, Best found himself intrigued by how excitable cells—nerve and muscle cells—function. In order to pursue this line of inquiry, he went to the University of Washington to earn his doctorate in physiology and biophysics. Seeking a diversity of experiences, both scientific and cultural, Best then took an international postdoctoral position at the University of Berne in Switzerland where he studied cardiac muscle; and a second postdoctoral position at the University of Chicago, where he studied calcium regulation in skeletal muscles.

Like many scientists, Best’s interests were shaped by the world around him and led him gradually to focus in more and more detail on a particular mechanism. Since coming to the University of Illinois in 1979, Best has focused on characterizing and studying the regulation and function of voltage-dependent ion channels. Ion channels are a complex of proteins with a main protein that makes the pore or channel, and a cluster of auxiliary proteins or sub-units, which modulate the behavior of the channel. As a group, these proteins are involved in electrical signaling processes across cell membranes, making them important in muscle contraction and nerve signaling.

Best is particularly focused on those ion channels that are calcium selective. Calcium is an important intracellular messenger whose movement into and within cells is regulated by calcium channel proteins. Lately, Best’s group has been investigating the structure, function and physiological relevance of T-type, or low-voltage activated, calcium channels.

The ultimate goal of Best’s laboratory is to take apart the protein complex that makes up the calcium channel and understand what each subunit brings to the whole operation.

Best has maintained this active research program despite also being head of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology for the last decade. In addition, he serves on a number of American Heart Association national panels. Best is also a fellow of the American Heart Association.

As a mentor, Best believes students learn best when they are responsible for coming up with their own idea or hypothesis. Students do this, he said, after learning the relevant bench techniques by helping out on an ongoing project.

“You can tell you’re successful with your students when they go in a direction you would never have thought of; when they become colleagues,” said Best.

In one case, one of Best’s students was looking at a different calcium channel that occurred, not in skeletal muscle, but in heart muscle. She showed that the expression of those channels varied during differentiation and growth. That finding intrigued Best and inspired him to shift part of his research focus to the heart muscle.

 “It’s following up on these interesting, new observations that is cool,” said Best, who jokes that he has changes directions so often because he has a short attention span. “I can’t work on the same thing forever; I get excited about new findings. Those novel observations are so exciting to me.”

While basic research may be Best’s first love, he is gradually shifting into more translational research. Best is hoping that further research on calcium channel subunits might result in the design of a therapeutic agent.

“Biology is changing, funding is changing, and both funding agencies and the general public want more emphasis on more immediate benefit, which is completely understandable,” he said.

Best’s transition reflects, in part, the realities of doing science research these days, but he has no problem with that.

“I find the research as engaging as it ever was, whether the goal is the understanding of a basic biological mechanism or figuring out how to improve people’s quality of life,” he said.

On the other hand, Best still is a research scientist at heart. “If you bang away at the fundamental mechanisms, that’s how you make progress,” he said. “Without a very strong basic research program you will ultimately run out of new ideas that can be translated into technical or clinical advances. And those new ideas depend on a very vigorous, very active basic research community.”

As department head, as well as an investigator in his own right and mentor to young investigators, Best is doing his part to build and maintain that very community. And, whether explaining how albatrosses soar, unraveling the mysteries of ion channels, or reporting on his grandchildren’s latest pranks, Best’s energy and enthusiasm are contagious.  That makes him a leader people are more than happy to follow.

January 04, 2008 All News