Magdalena Bezanilla Is Dartmouth’s New E.E. Just Professor

The cell biologist joins the biology department as professor and mentor.

Cell biologist Magdalena Bezanilla has joined the Department of Biological Sciences as the Ernest Everett Just 1907 Professor. She comes to Dartmouth from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Professor Bezanilla is an outstanding scholar who will create enormous synergies among the molecular and cellular biology faculty, crossing multiple departments and schools at Dartmouth,” says Elizabeth Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Paul M. Dauten Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences. “She is also a seasoned educator, having taught both undergraduate and graduate courses at University of Massachusetts and served as research mentor to many undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows. We are thrilled to have Magdalena join the faculty at Dartmouth.”

The E.E. Just faculty chair is named for a pioneering cellular biologist who was one of Dartmouth’s earliest African American graduates. Just was a founder and proponent of cellular holism, a concept that brought together the sciences of embryology and genetics, foreshadowing today’s epigenetics—the study of heritable changes that occur outside of DNA and control gene expression.

Bezanilla’s research concerns the molecular mechanisms behind plant cell growth. “How cells grow, one of the most fundamental aspects of biology, remains an open question,” she says. “Key to plant development is the underlying architecture of individual cells.”

Her work focuses on the configuration of plant cell walls and supporting structures that govern a cell’s shape, internal organization, and patterns of growth and development. She has also pioneered the use of a moss called Physcomitrella as a model system in her research.

“I am excited about my new Dartmouth colleagues and excited because there is great cell biology and plant biology research going on here,” Bezanilla says.

She is bringing a number of colleagues with her to staff her new lab. “Everybody currently in my lab at UMass Amherst is moving with me. This includes one postdoc, three graduate students, and a really talented undergraduate who I have now hired as a technician.”

Bezanilla shares some history with E.E. Just, who spent 20 summers conducting research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. “My father is an electrophysiologist who conducted research there, so I essentially grew up in Woods Hole and, as an independent researcher, I have spent the last five summers there,” she says. “With all these connections—with Just and with my family—it’s an honor to have this chair.”

In addition to the professorship, the College also honors Just through the E.E. Just Program, which supports students who are traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The program, directed by Associate Professor of Mathematics Craig Sutton, provides students with a community of undergraduate, graduate student, and postdoctoral mentors who can offer strategies for academic and research success, sponsors research internships and fellowships, and helps connect students to a national network of some the world’s leading scientists.

“I am very glad this program exists to encourage students to participate in the sciences and to stay with it,” Bezanilla says.

Joining Bezanilla as a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences is her husband, Wei-Lih Lee, who is also a cell biologist.