L. Mario Amzel, professor and former director of the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, died Aug. 28 after an illness.
Dr. Amzel will be remembered as a kind and deeply thoughtful colleague who valued friendship as much as he did science. Those who knew and interacted with him considered Mario to be a “scientist’s scientist.” He was widely recognized as an international leader in his field of biophysics.
Dr. Amzel spent most of his academic career here at Johns Hopkins. Born in Argentina, he earned his doctorate in physical chemistry at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. He came to Johns Hopkins in 1969 as a postdoctoral fellow. From that point on, he remained here, rising to the rank of full professor in 1984.
In 2006, Dr. Amzel was named director of the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry, after leading the department on an interim basis for the previous three years. He stepped down from that position in May after 15 years of successful leadership, and continued to lead his research laboratory.
He was a member of the Johns Hopkins team that produced the first high-resolution images of antibody-antigen recognition, the body’s reaction to fighting off disease and illness. His early work to crystalize and determine the structure of an antibody was of seminal importance in immunology.
Dr. Amzel’s research also involved the cancer-related protein PI3K, which is part of the body’s hormone signaling system. He worked to understand PI3K’s structure, its normal state and how cancer mutations inappropriately activate it. In addition, his research led to major discoveries to determine how proteins navigate sodium channels in cardiac cells, a key factor in enabling the heart to beat.
More recently, Dr. Amzel’s lab had been developing computational methods to calculate the changes that occur when a protein recognizes another macromolecule or a small ligand, a key factor in how medicines bind to their targets.
A committed educator, Mario put his students first. He was the 1994 recipient of the Teacher of the Year Award, and had been an advisory committee member for the Institute for Excellence in Education for the past 12 years. He mentored and inspired generations of young scientists, training 33 graduate students and 15 postdoctoral fellows in his laboratory. He also supported Johns Hopkins University programs that exposed Baltimore City students to the wonders of science, and offered paid internships for them to do research with graduate students and professors.
Mario served in various roles for school of medicine graduate programs in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, and served on the Advisory Board of the Medical Faculty for the past 14 years.
Highly regarded, Dr. Amzel regularly lectured at leading universities and research institutes around the world, and authored more than 250 journal articles. He participated in various committees, councils and advisory panels for the Biophysical Society, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Biophysical Society.
We want to extend our deepest condolences to Mario’s partner, Janna Wehrle; two daughters, Anouk Amzel and Daniela Amzel; two sons-in-law and a granddaughter. The family will hold a private funeral. We are planning a memorial service at Johns Hopkins, and will provide additional information at the appropriate time.