Double duty

By Anne Trafton
Credit: Scott Brauer

When Collin Stultz was 4 years old, his Jamaican parents moved their family to Brooklyn, N.Y., in search of a better life. The Stultzes wanted their children to achieve the American dream — which, to them, meant becoming a doctor or lawyer.

Stultz’s academic strength was mathematics: He won numerous awards for his talent, each of which his mother proudly saved. “My mother to this day has a folder that she keeps with any award that I won. If you went to her today, she’d take it out and dust it off and show it to you,” says Stultz, 44, now an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and an associate professor in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST). Stultz is also a cardiologist who has appointments at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the West Roxbury Veterans Affairs Hospital.

Though his had little formal education, they were wise and knowledgeable, Stultz says. They worked hard to give their four children the chance for a good education, eventually buying a small apartment building in Brooklyn. “They made life better for themselves,” Stultz says. “They grew up poor, and they never left the mindset of being poor. They wanted to make sure that things were different for me.”

At MIT, where he recently earned tenure, Stultz studies the physical structure of proteins involved in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. His research interests reflect his desire to help other people.

“Our investigations always start with a disease, like atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s,” Stultz says. “What do we know about those diseases? We can break them down into the fundamental proteins and biomolecules that are involved, and then we study those and try to get insight into disease processes.”

Discovering new paths

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Credit: Melanie Gonick

Stultz, the youngest sibling in his family, skipped ninth grade and entered Harvard University at 17. There, he was drawn to a field called mathematical logic, and recursion theory in particular. While math was Stultz’s favorite pursuit, he also fulfilled the premedical requirements — and, believing that he could help more people as a doctor than a mathematician, ultimately enrolled at Harvard Medical School.

“I hated my first two years in med school because it was all about memorization,” Stultz says. He decided to take a year off to work in the lab of computational biologist Temple Smith at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Smith put him to work using a mathematical technique known as Hidden Markov modeling to try to predict protein structures from their amino acid sequences.

“During that year, I decided this was something I really wanted to do more of,” Stultz says. He applied to Harvard’s PhD program in biophysics, where he worked with physical chemist Martin Karplus. After finishing his PhD, he returned to complete his last two years of medical school, then did an internship and residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

After another three years’ training in cardiovascular medicine, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship with MIT biomedical engineer Elazer Edelman, Stultz applied for a faculty opening in HST and MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). He got the job, despite having no formal training in or computer science.

“I am an oddball,” Stultz says. “That’s actually one of the interesting things about the EECS department. You can take two people in the same department, and you can put them together and they speak two completely different languages. In my view, that’s a strength of the department.”

‘Really hard problems’

Stultz’s current research has two major branches. One, done in collaboration with John Guttag, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor of and Engineering, uses electrocardiograms to develop algorithms that predict which heart-attack patients are most likely to survive. His other work uses computer simulations to study the structure of proteins such as collagen and the Tau protein that forms plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

“The unifying theme of our work is that we’re interested in really hard problems that you cannot solve just by looking at experimental results alone,” Stultz says. “If it’s difficult, if it’s not something that you can easily design an experiment to get answers to, that’s something that we’re interested in.”

The best part of his job, Stultz says, is working with his students and postdocs. “I like them to challenge me about things they don’t understand or things they don’t agree with,” he says. “I love the scientific colloquy. Or to use a stronger word, I love the scientific battle — where you and someone else sit down and talk about an issue, maybe have a disagreement about it, but are persuaded by the data and come to some conclusion, or learn something. … That’s the stuff that keeps me coming to work.”

When not in his lab or seeing patients, Stultz is an avid and unapologetic New York Yankees fan who often goes to Fenway Park dressed in Yankees paraphernalia. Luckily for him, “every time I’ve been to Fenway Park and seen the Yankees and Red Sox, the Yankees have lost. That’s the only reason I’ve been able to make it home alive,” he laughs.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

MIT zeroes in on Alzheimer's structures

Aug 22, 2008

MIT engineers report a new approach to identifying protein structures key to Alzheimer's disease, an important step toward the development of new drugs that could prevent such structures from forming.

The kids are alright

May 26, 2011

Children should be seen and not heard... who says? A Philosophy academic at The University of Nottingham is challenging the adage by teaching primary school children to argue properly.

Is there a hidden bias against creativity?

Nov 18, 2011

CEOs, teachers, and leaders claim they want creative ideas to solve problems. But creative ideas are rejected all the time. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

Humans more diverse than we allow

Mar 29, 2011

A question central to Gillian Einstein's research is, How can I do science that would not make essentialist assumptions about the body?

Recommended for you

Team finds key to tuberculosis resistance

47 minutes ago

The cascade of events leading to bacterial infection and the immune response is mostly understood. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying the immune response to the bacteria that causes tuberculosis ...

Mutation may cause early loss of sperm supply

1 hour ago

Brown University biologists have determined how the loss of a gene in male mice results in the premature exhaustion of their fertility. Their fundamental new insights into the complex process of sperm generation ...

No more bleeding for 'iron overload' patients?

3 hours ago

Hemochromatosis (HH) is the most common genetic disorder in the western world, and yet is barely known. Only in the US 1 in 9 people carry the mutation (although not necessarily the disease).

3-D printing offers innovative method to deliver medication

8 hours ago

3-D printing could become a powerful tool in customizing interventional radiology treatments to individual patient needs, with clinicians having the ability to construct devices to a specific size and shape. That's according ...

Mystery of the reverse-wired eyeball solved

Feb 27, 2015

From a practical standpoint, the wiring of the human eye - a product of our evolutionary baggage - doesn't make a lot of sense. In vertebrates, photoreceptors are located behind the neurons in the back of the eye - resulting ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Dec 02, 2011
What a great success story. Young man from a poor family from the island of Jamaica makes good, could have been the headline. It only PROVES that high ambition, a love of study and research, highly focused on the right ideals, a willingness to work hard toward the right goals, and the full backing and support of loving parents and family are key ingredients for contentment, happiness and success in one's life. Kudos to Professor Stultz.
1 / 5 (5) Dec 02, 2011
And there are many more people that are just as bright and determined as Professor Stultz that have no chance because of the prevailing economic order.

I had an incredible professor who began his life as a subsistence farmer in Ethiopia. He made it to the US and received his doctorate.

He would be highly offended if you claimed his relatives still in Ethiopia were dumber, less capable, or less deserving than himself. I remember out of all the ignorant shit the little pipsqueak trust-fund kids spouted off in his class, only one thing seemed to irk him, the word "tribe".

"Why do you call us a tribe? Isn't a tribe just a village? Tribe denotes primitive, not intelligent. Would you take offense to your village labeled as a tribe? I come from a village."

I really credit the man for his patience. He dealt with A LOT of ignorance in that class.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.