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MIT Technology Review

What Alumni Do

Neuroscientist Charles Mobbs ‘78 studies the science of aging

October 20, 2008

“What determines the trajectory of a scientific career?” Charles Mobbs asks. “In my case, there were a few aha moments. It’s scary that there were so few of them­–three or four, one minute each. What if I hadn’t been there that night? What if I hadn’t read that paper?”

With a single children’s book, a life’s journey began.

For Mobbs, the appearance of the right book at the right time triggered his first two ahas. As a second grader, Charlie Mobbs went to the San Antonio bookmobile for a cowboy book, but they were all checked out. So he ended up with Sun, Moon, and Stars–a picture book that swept him into Robert Heinlein’s science fiction and ultimately to MIT. Then one afternoon at MIT, Mobbs was avoiding a problem set by browsing books in the Coop and came across Time, Cells, and Aging, by Bernard Strehler of USC. He began reading it then and there and ultimately persuaded Strehler to be his first graduate advisor.

Years later, as a postdoc at Rockefeller University, Mobbs read a journal article in the wee hours at the university’s library. Racing down the chain of other referenced papers, he had one of his key insights: that cells use glucose as an energy source more effectively the more they are exposed to it. These cells become “addicted” to glucose and turn to it more than to fats or amino acids, even though glucose exposure speeds up cell damage and wears the cell out.

Studies of the way cell metabolism drives the aging process are complex. “You’re always worried you’re fooling yourself,” Mobbs says. “Not that anyone would make up data; they really have an idea and they just don’t give it up.” He protects against this tendency by questioning his assumptions. “When you just believe the data, that’s when you really make the breakthroughs,” he says.

Mobbs has made a habit of looking at problems in new ways. In one case, he listed all the genes that are turned on or off by the presence of glucose. As he worked, he “gradu­ally started getting a great idea” about how genes might change the way a cell uses glucose, he recalls. “But one gene didn’t seem to fit, and I went to bed discouraged. When I got up and looked at the gene a little more, I realized I had mistaken it for another one, and everything fell into place.”

Today, Mobbs spends more time on grant proposals and papers than on lab work. He’s also “something of a poet, specializing in sonnets and limericks,” he says. “I find this avocation helps a lot when writing papers, where verbal economy is at a premium.”

Mobbs lives in New York with his wife, his daughter, and a book collection reined in by the realities of Manhattan real estate.