January 28, 2013

Stephen Barnes, Ph.D.

From a child in war-torn London, Stephen Barnes, Ph.D., became a metabolomic marvel and a UAB distinguished scientist.

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steve barnes webStephen Barnes, Ph.D., a London native, still remembers how tough times were in post-World War II England. The fighting had devastated the country’s economy, and because resources were not available to expand food production and imports, rationing was common.

“We had rationing of things like sugar and butter until I was 10 years old,” says Barnes, a UAB professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology. “That was the world we knew.”

Children like Barnes were expected to get an education and make money to help get the country back on track. Barnes figured that, like many of England’s youth, he would wind up in industry. But his applied chemistry degree and industrial training instead steered him into the area of research, where he eventually worked under the tutelage of Nobel Laureate Sir Ernst Chain, the co-discoverer of penicillin. There he began using a form of metabolomics, now very popular in modern biomedical research.

Barnes has spent the past 50 years — 35 of which have been at UAB — developing a broad range of academic interests. He has a long history of grant support, resulting in many millions of dollars in funding for UAB, his lab and colleagues. He also is a professional consultant to companies, institutions and agencies and has been acknowledged for his work with numerous awards and designations. The most recent of these is his selection as the 2012 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, the UAB Academic Health Center’s most prestigious faculty award.

“This really is a phenomenal honor,” Barnes says. “When I look back at the history of the award, I’m in the shadow of giants. These are some amazing people, many of whom I came to know well. I owe them a lot for conveying all of their wisdom.”

Barnes’ expertise has had a lasting influence on UAB. In particular, Barnes provided critical leadership in the development of modern mass spectrometry at UAB with encouragement from Al LoBuglio, M.D., former director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Barnes started the Mass Spectrometry Shared Facility in the Center in 1993 and was its director from then until 2009.

“The current ability of the UAB faculty to measure their molecules of interest in minuscule amounts is, in large part, due to Dr. Barnes’ contributions, both intellectual and technical, to our scientific village,” says David Allison, Ph.D., distinguished professor of biostatistics. “These areas of research have become his passions and have served as a cornerstone throughout his scientific career, resulting in major contributions to the UAB and international scientific communities.”

While his research has brought national and international attention, colleagues say Barnes’ impact on students has been equally important.

“The number of trainees rotating through his laboratories, the graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, visiting faculty and undergraduate and high school students all attest to his willingness to share his scientific knowledge with others,” says Clinton J. Grubbs, Ph.D., director of the Chemoprevention Center. “What better mark of a Distinguished Faculty Lecturer can there be?”

Barnes remembers how vital it was to him that his early mentor, Nobel Laureate Chain, taught him the value of lateral thinking and how to develop alternative ways of explaining data and thinking of experiments that can distinguish between those alternatives. Unilever scientist Professor Tony James, co-inventor of gas-liquid chromatography, and Dame Sheila Sherlock at the Royal Free Hospital in London also made indelible impressions on a young Barnes.

“My early mentors were so critical,” Barnes says. “I had people who recognized my talents and potential, and pushed me on to the next step. … People gave me the chance, and here I am.”

Read the complete story, including why Barnes is known as the “Godfather of Soy,” on the UAB eReporter website.

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