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Robert Brooker



Degrees earned
  • PhD Genetics, Yale University, 1983
  • BS Biology (summa cum laude), Wittenberg University, 1978

BioSketch | Curriculum Vitae

Research interests

My research interests fall into two general areas: membrane transport and biology education.

An essential characteristic of living cells is their ability to transport specific solutes across a semi-permeable membrane. An important pathway for the uptake of many different types of hydrophilic solutes is via membrane bound proteins which function as cation/solute cotransporters or symporters. This type of transporter is able to cotransport a solute with a cation so that the energy within a cation electrochemical gradient can be harnessed to drive the secondary active transport of the solute.

The Brooker research lab is interested in the transport of ions and small molecules across cellular membranes. They study two different categories of transporters: sugar transporters and metal transporters. Both categories are symporters that couple the uptake of the solute with the uptake of hydrogen ions.

With regard to sugar transport, the lab has focused on the lactose permease found in E. coli. Current studies involve an analysis of permease structure and function using genetic approaches and biophysical approaches. The metal transporters that are studied are involved in the uptake of iron (Fe+2) and manganese (Mn+2) into cells. They are part of the NRAMP family that is found in bacteria, plants, and animals. With regard to mammals, NRAMP transporters are found in intestinal cells and are needed for the uptake of iron into the body. Human genetic diseases are known which affect the regulation of iron transporters. The study of iron transporters is directed in several areas. These include regulation, structure/function, and their potential role in human disease.

Awards and honors
  • 2007-present National Academies Education Fellow in the Life Sciences
  • 2004 St. Paul Rotary Club- Outstanding Teacher Award
  • 2004 Morse Alumni Outstanding Teacher Award (University of Minnesota)
  • 1993 Biological Science Student Association: Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award
  • 1984 NRSA: Postdoctoral Fellowship
  • 1980 NIH: Predoctoral Fellowship
  • 1978 Summa Cum Laude Biology: Undergraduate
Research statement

My research interests fall into two general areas: membrane transport and biology education. Our lab studies membrane transporters that cotransport metals across the plasma membrane; more specifically, we study transporters that cotransport Fe2+ and Mn2+ across the plasma membrane (MntH, also called Nramp1 and Nramp2 in humans). We are interested in the structure/function relationships of these types of transporters and have an ongoing collaboration with Dr. Preben Morth, who is an X-ray crystallographer. We are also interested in how the metal binding site in this transporter is able to evolve in a way that alters its metal specificity. In the past few years, I have also become interested in Biology Education research. I am just beginning to carry out such research at the University of Minnesota. My interests include the use of jargon, the impact of metacognition, and the use of technology, as they affect learning gains in biology classes.

Teaching statement

My teaching philosophy is to rely on education research, particularly research that is focused on biology education, as a foundation for my teaching strategies. I am an advocate of “Flipping the Classroom” in which the majority of class time is spent on active learning exercises and projects. I am also an advocate of having students work in teams, where they can enhance each other’s learning, and motivate each other. I think that a good education in biology involves three things: (1) acquiring foundational knowledge; (2) developing skills that are required of biologists; and (3) cultivating one’s creativity. When we flip the classroom, the first goal of acquiring foundational knowledge is achieved by readings and online lectures that are done prior to coming to class. The other two goals (developing skills and cultivating creativity) are the focus of our in-class activities.

Favorite teaching innovation or approach

In the sections of Foundations of Biology (Biol2003) that I co-teach, and in my Genetics course (Biol4003), we have long-term projects that last about 8 weeks each. The goal of the long-term projects is to allow teams of students to dig more deeply into a scientific topic and provide an avenue for them to unleash their creativity. For example, in our Foundations of Biology course, one long-term project is that each team of 8 or 9 students develops a research proposal that revolves around membrane transporters. The teams propose two novel hypotheses, design experiments, and explain how they will analyze their results. In my Genetics course, one of the long-term projects is to devise a proposal to start a biotechnology company based on triplex DNA technology. Each team chooses two genes they would like to silence and then they describe: how they would conduct research to show the efficacy of silencing the gene; how they would conduct clinical trials, and how they would carry out commercialization. With regard to these long-term projects, each team submits weekly progress reports, which I review and provide feedback. I am truly inspired by the creativity and enthusiasm of our students while working on these projects.

Courses taught
  • Biol 2003 – Foundations of Biology (I teach the part of the course that focuses on biochemistry and cell biology.)
  • Biol 4003 – Genetics.
  • Biol 4003 – Cell Biology
Representative publications

Genetics, Analysis and Principles, 5/e (2015) by Robert J. Brooker, McGraw-Hill Pub.

Principles of Biology, 1/e (2015) by Robert J. Brooker, Eric P. Widmaier, Linda E. Graham, and Peter D. Stiling, McGraw-Hill Pub.

Biology, 3/e (2014) by Robert J. Brooker, Eric P. Widmaier, Linda E. Graham, and Peter D. Stiling, McGraw-Hill Pub.

Concepts of Genetics, 1/e (2013) by Robert J. Brooker, McGraw-Hill Pub.

Robert Brooker, David Matthes, Robin Wright, Deena Wassenberg, Susan Wick, and Brett Couch (2012) SCALE-UP in a Large Introductory Biology Course. This is an invited chapter in the book, Connected Science: Strategies for Integrated Learning in College, Edited by Tricia A. Ferrett, David Geelan, Whitney M. Schlegal, and Joanne L. Stewart, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Wanjun Lan , Hongliu Ren , Yu Pang , Chuseng Huang , Yufang Xu , Robert J. Brooker, and Jingyan Zhang (2011) A facile transport assay for H+ coupled transport using fluorescent probes. Anal. Methods 4, 44-46.

Haemig, Heather H., Moen, P.J., and Robert J. Brooker. (2010) Evidence that Highly Conserved Residues of Transmembrane Segment 6 of E.coli MntH Are Important for Transport Activity. Biochemistry 49, 4662-4671.

Peter J. Franco, Elizabeth A. Matzke, Jerry L. Johnson, Brian M. Wiczer and Robert J. Brooker (2006) J Membrane Biology; 211, 101-13. A suppressor analysis of residues involved proton transport in the lactose permease: Identification of a coupling sensor.

Haemig, H.A.H., and R.J. Brooker (2004) Importance of Conserved Acidic Residues in MntH, the Nramp homolog of Escherichia coli. J. Membrane Biology 201: 97-107.

Recent presentations, invited seminars and workshops

NANSI Summer Institute, 2011-2014

April, 2012: East China University of Science and Technology, Dept. of Pharmacology, Shanghai, China, Structure and Function Studies of MntH, an H+/Mn2+ Symporter.

October, 2011: University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Biology Education: Past, Present, and Future. The University of Oslo had a one-day symposium celebrating its 150th anniversary. I was the opening speaker.

Professional experience
  • 1986-1991 Assistant Professor, Department of Genetics and Cell Biology and the Biotechnology Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1991-1997 Associate Professor, Department of Genetics and Cell Biology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1997-present Professor, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development and the Dept. of Biology Teaching and Learning, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
  • 1996-2000 Director of Graduate Studies, Graduate Program in Molecular, Cellular, Development Biology and Genetics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
  • 2001-2006 Associate Head, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
  • 2004-2007 Director of Graduate Studies, Graduate Program in Microbial Engineering, University of Minnesota
Professional service
  • Founding Member, Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER)
  • Host for the annual meeting of the Society of Biology Education Research (SABER) for the past 4 years
  • Participant in AAAS & NSF Vision & Change Initiative
  • Facilitator and Workshop leader for the NorthStar (Midwest Regional) Summer Institute
  • Prior Editorial Board Member, Membrane Biochemistry, The Journal of Biological Chemistry
  • Prior Member, NSF Metabolic Biochemistry Panel
  • Ad hoc Reviewer, Biochemistry, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, Journal of Bacteriology
Current grants
  • Norwegian Centennial Chair Program, Structural characterization of the manganese transporter, MntH, of Escherichia coli.

6-144 MCB
420 Washington Avenue SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455