According to one professor, John Mottinger, Chatenay-Lapointe is probably the most intelligent person that he has taught in his 38 years at URI.
“Dr. Mottinger was the one who got me interested in genetics in the first place when I took his introductory genetics course,” said Chatenay-Lapointe, who earned a Centennial Scholarship to URI and was awarded the University’s Norris Wood Award for Research. “It was a difficult course, but it was primarily experiment based – not just facts – and he taught the techniques and methodologies you need to answer important questions in science.”
That spark of interest in molecular biology turned into a passion for the modest URI student, who later taught himself genomics, proteomics and transgenics, though he only admits to doing “a lot of independent reading.”
“I like problem-based research,” he said, “ because it allows you to be creative, and yet it still is in the framework of a logical objective reality. At the end of the day, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, so while you can be original and approach things your own way, you still have to be methodical and precise.”
One problem Chatenay-Lapointe played an important role in tackling while at URI is the genetic mapping of a Bt toxin-resistance gene, working with biology professor Marian Goldsmith.
“Bt is an insecticide, and millions of acres of transgenic crops are planted every year that express this agent,” he explained. “If insects develop a resistance to this toxin, they could do heavy damage to crops and the insecticide wouldn’t be useful any more. It could be a major blow to both farmers and biotech companies.”
After graduation from URI, Chatenay-Lapointe will enroll at Yale University to earn a doctorate in genetics. “Yale has a great reputation, it has great laboratories, great researchers and a strong genetics program.”
And after that? “I’m not sure,” he admits. “I haven’t decided whether I want to work in industry or academia. I might want to become a professor, but I’d also like to start my own biotech company some day.”
URI News Bureau photo by Michael Salerno Photography.