The University of Rhode Island recently honored professor of microbiology Paul Cohen with a place in the college’s Environment and Life Sciences Hall of Fame, along with a newly established scholarship in his name to support graduate students studying cell and molecular biology. The Paul Cohen Graduate Mentorship Fund will not only help support students with an interest in Cohen’s field, but will also underscore the importance of mentorship in the sciences – an area Cohen has been successfully nurturing throughout his long career at the university.
Cohen, who began working at URI in 1966, has spent his career studying E. coli strains and their impact on disease. He is known for his ability to help students reach their potential in the life sciences field as well as his willingness to guide young faculty members.
Cohen, who expects to retire from URI next year, doesn’t have any plans to slow down. He recently emailed PBN about his work and plans for the future.
PBN: After 47 years, how does E. coli remain an interesting topic to study?
COHEN: When I was in graduate school, my Ph.D. supervisor told me that there’s a huge difference between 20 years of experience and one year of experience 20 times. That’s one of the wonderful things about research. Each project leads to new questions and each new question requires a different approach. So over the years my research associates, graduate students and I constantly did – and are doing – new things. We’re always reading the current literature and learning what others are doing and that gives us new insights into how to revisit old problems that we had previously failed to solve. So while E. coli remains interesting to study, it is also the nature of the research process that is so exciting.
PBN: How is your research changing the way problematic strains of E. coli are treated?
COHEN: [Our research] showed that different E. coli strains, both commensal and pathogenic, use different nutrients for growth in the mucus layer of the mouse’s large intestine [used as a model for the human intestine], which has far-reaching implications with respect to how pathogenic E. coli strains can colonize the intestine when it is already colonized with commensal E. coli strains. This finding has suggested new approaches toward rationally constructing effective probiotic strains of E. coli that we hope will be effective in preventing pathogenic strains from colonizing and causing disease.
PBN: How does a man with such enthusiasm for his work view retirement? What are your plans?
COHEN: I’ve been so busy teaching, running a research laboratory and co-writing and co-editing [an upcoming] book entitled, “Metabolism and Bacterial Pathogenesis,” I haven’t thought much about retirement. I’m sure I’ll be hanging around the department as an emeritus professor to keep learning and contributing. Also, my wife, Cathy, and I have been offered the prospect of spending six months working on E. coli strains at the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, Denmark, so it may be that retirement will be a continuation of what I’ve been doing, as well as the beginning of a new and exciting adventure. •