May 19:

Adam Cohen

Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Physics at Harvard

DH 1064 4 pm

Bringing Bioelectricity to Light


Every cell is encased by a lipid membrane. This lipid is an electrical insulator, with electrically conducting aqueous solutions on either side. The lipid can support a voltage difference between its faces, and this voltage pulls on all the charges in all the proteins associated with the membrane. Neurons communicate via brief pulses of membrane voltage, and the heart is synchronized via electrical impulses. But membrane voltage has been notoriously difficult to study—we cannot see it. My lab discovered that a protein derived from a Dead Sea microorganism could convert changes in membrane voltage into fluorescence signals that one can see in a microscope. We have been using these fluorescent voltage indicators to study bioelectric phenomena throughout life, from single bacteria to human stem cell-derived neurons in models of neurodegenerative diseases.

About the Speaker

Adam Cohen is a professor in the departments of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Physics at Harvard, with additional appointments in the Center for Brain Science and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. He is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His research focuses on understanding and controlling light-matter interactions in warm, wet, squishy environments.

Cohen obtained PhD degrees from Stanford in experimental biophysics (2007) and Cambridge, UK in theoretical physics (2003). He was an undergraduate at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude in 2001.  

In 2007 Technology Review Magazine named Cohen one of the top 35 US technological innovators under the age of 35 and in 2012 Popular Science named him one of their “Brilliant Ten” top young scientists. In 2014 Cohen received the Blavatnik National Award in Chemistry and the American Chemical Society Pure Chemistry Award. Cohen has founded a biotech company, Q-State Biosciences, focused on combining optical imaging with stem cell technology to develop new diagnostics and therapies for neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.