University of Texas at Austin


Embracing Change and Pioneering Progress - Profile Ron Elber

By Rebecca Riley

Published Aug. 15, 2023

Ron Elber

Dr. Ron Elber's departure from academia signals not the end of a career, but the beginning of its newest chapter.

"Retirement is a place where significant change happens," he reflects. "It’s been more than forty years now of conducting research in academia. That's a long period - I think a change will be good."

The computational biologist’s research career kicked off in 1984 with a PhD in theoretical chemistry from the Hebrew University at Jerusalem. Venturing through professorships in chemistry, biology, and computer science at such distinguished institutions as the Hebrew University, his alma mater, and Cornell University, he showcased a curiosity that transcended traditional silos. 

It was this interdisciplinary spirit that brought him to the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences upon joining the University of Texas at Austin chemistry department. His directorship at the Center for Computational Life Sciences and Biology within the Oden Institute spurred the groundbreaking simulation of biological molecules, buoyed by pioneering algorithms. 

In the last decade, he specialized in simulating the interactions between molecules and membranes. The computational biologist has spent considerable efforts developing algorithms and computational methods for this application. 

Now, Elber's entrepreneurial spirit propels him towards uncharted terrain: a startup venture poised to reshape cancer therapy. Collaborating seamlessly with biologists and chemists, he wields computational tools, unveiling the intricate mechanisms of cancer-fighting peptides.

This undertaking is the culmination of Elber’s almost forty-year academic journey. "I believe that teaching, researching, and advancing knowledge is good,” he affirmed, “but bringing a new and useful medicine to the market? This, I hope, will have an even greater impact on people’s lives." 

Within this new realm of computationally modeled and peptide-powered cancer therapy, the challenge hinges on crafting molecules that selectively target malignant cells. 

Elber and his collaborator's innovative approach zeroes in on cancer cell mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum. Guided by computational simulations, his team is forging a peptide rooted in human protein domains, intrinsically attuned to the unique membrane composition of cancer cells. This groundbreaking stride ushers in a novel anti-cancer compound.

He emphasizes, "We felt that the chance of this molecule reaching the market and saving lives without our work outside of academia is pretty slim. We need to push it." 

Reflecting on his tenure with the Oden Institute, Elber acknowledges the transformative impact this research hub has wielded upon computational biology.

“Computational science was not always as strong as it is today,” he reflects. “People did not consider it to be the very general and powerful science that it has become.”

From its inception as a visionary hub bridging diverse disciplines, the Oden Institute has catalyzed the advancement of realms spanning molecules, astrophysics, oceans, and modern materials.

“I hope this vision will continue,” said Elber. “I hope the effort that is being made to strengthen computational biology will continue.”

With a legacy of innovation and a future brimming with potential, Elber exemplifies the bridge between academic exploration and real-world impact.