Our researchers are a fierce driving force behind therapeutic development and future treatment. Let’s find out what makes them so passionate about KIF1A! Each month, one of our invested members of the KIF1A Research Network will be in the spotlight. Dr. William Hancock is next up to share a bit about himself and what inspires his work!

Dr. William Hancock Headshot

Dr. William Hancock

Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Pennsylvania State University

Dr. Will Hancock is a Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Penn State University, where he has been for the last 22 years. He grew up in Northern California, did his undergraduate work at Duke University, and received his PhD in Bioengineering from the University of Washington in 1994. He previously served as Chair of the Bioengineering Graduate Program, and he serves on the editorial board of the Biophysical Journal and Cell and Molecular Bioengineering.

The Hancock lab is an interdisciplinary group spanning biophysics, biochemistry, cell biology and bioengineering. A major thrust in the lab is investigating the mechanochemical mechanism of biomolecular motors and how the motors kinesin and dynein carry out bidirectional transport of vesicles and organelles along intracellular microtubules. This transport is particularly important in neurons due to their highly elongated geometries, and defects in transport have been linked to neurodegenerative diseases. 

His lab uses high-resolution single-molecule microscopy to observe motor proteins, and by attaching gold nanoparticles, they are able to track motor stepping with nanometer spatial resolution and millisecond temporal resolution, opening new windows into kinesin mechanochemistry. 

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

Well, of course I would like to fly. I’m a big fan of two dimensions, but having free access to three dimensions, particularly to see all the beautiful turning trees in Pennsylvania in October, would be amazing.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist? Why were you drawn to this field?

I came to it somewhat slowly. My father was a cardiologist and I had the fortunate experience of working in a doctor’s office in 10th grade and hating it, so that cleared the possible career path of being a doctor out of the way. I always loved biology but really enjoyed physics in high school, and when I went to Duke as an undergrad, I discovered biomedical engineering, which balanced my interests nicely. Another great opportunity I had was to work a year between college and graduate school at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute where I built a device that tried to sense underwater electric fields the way that sharks do. The Institute was a balance of engineers and scientists, and as an engineer, I was really excited and inspired about what the scientists did and the way that they were able to ask questions and then work to answer them. So in graduate school, despite being in Bioengineering, I did much of my work in the physiology department and really had a science-based thesis, and I guess I really became a scientist at that point.

What do you love most about your job?

I love being able to dive deep into fundamental questions about how things work. I think early in my career part of why engineering appealed to me was that it is practical and you can describe your goals pretty easily. It took me a number of years to gain the confidence and the understanding that focusing on very precise questions and nitty gritty details of how things work is the way that we crack these huge questions in biology. And figuring out these fundamental principles of how things work at the molecular level is necessary to develop new approaches to treating human diseases.  So, I love that I am contributing to efforts to treat and cure diseases like KAND, but what really gets me up in the morning is thinking about how we can figure out the nitty gritty details of how protein machines like kinesin work.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Whew, well, getting grant funding to support my lab is the most challenging. Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health has a new funding mechanism that significantly reduces the work that people like me have to do to secure funds, and so that is allowing me more time to carry out my work. So now that I have money to fund the lab, the next most challenging thing is to hire students and postdocs who share my passions and have the aptitude to do the work. The graduate students and postdocs in my lab are the ones who carry out all of the experiments, and so assembling a great team, which I have fortunately been able to do, is incredibly important.

What development are you most excited about in terms of KIF1A research?

Actually, I think the most exciting thing about KIF1A research is the way that scientists, clinicians, and pharmaceutical companies are banding together to try to understand the disease and find a cure. It is very gratifying to see other investigators with very different perspectives on the problem contribute what they know and ideas they may have because a problem like this requires a team effort. I like to say that research “takes a village” because you are always standing on the shoulders of giants who came before you, and understanding how different molecular machines in the cell carry out their important cellular functions requires people working in different fields.

I couldn’t get through a day at work without: 

Coffee. In the morning. And in the afternoon. Oh yeah, my walk to and from work through the beautiful Penn State campus every day brings me a lot of happiness (as long as I’ve had my coffee beforehand).

I am most motivated by:

Understanding how molecular machines work.

When you are not working, what do you like to do?

I like to play guitar and sing. I used to be in a bluegrass band named the Allegheny Ridgerunners (we have an album on Spotify), and I love 60’s and 70’s country rock and many other genres of music. I also love to hike in the Central Pennsylvania mountains (while listening to music on my headphones).