“#IAmScience because I am endlessly curious and the world needs scientific solutions to our grand challenges.”
That is the attitude of someone who does her research with a purpose. Since the age of 14, Erica knew she wanted to pursue a degree in chemistry. Today, she uses that passion to research how anaerobic bacteria interact with uranium; essentially asking the question, “How do microbes and metals interact?”
What’s her end game? Improved health of the environment.
Neuroscientist and former Secretary of State science adviser to speak at Life Sciences Week
By Eleanor C. Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences
A career in science doesn’t only mean working in a lab, and no one knows that better than Frances Colón.
Colón, a neuroscientist by training and policy maker by trade, will speak about how scientists can become more involved in policy without abandoning the laboratory bench.
During her Missouri Life Sciences Week lecture “My path to science citizenship,” Colón will talk about her transition from the lab to policy. She’ll speak 3:30 p.m. Monday, April 10, in Monsanto Auditorium.
“I think scientists need to realize that they have a broader set of skills than they give themselves credit for that can be applied to the service of the community and their country in many different ways,” said Colón. “I think we’re living in a time where our country needs scientists to get engaged at every level. That doesn’t mean they need to leave a career in academia to go into policy, but it could certainly mean involvement everywhere from the community level to the national level.”
After receiving a doctoral degree in neuroscience and studying how nerve cells mature at Brandeis University, Colón first got involved in making policy as an American Association for the Advancement of Sciences policy fellow. She then served as science and environment adviser for western hemisphere affairs for more than three years before she became deputy science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State, a position she served in until January.
As deputy science adviser, she led efforts to reengage Cuba in scientific collaboration after U.S. policy regarding Cuba shifted. She also coordinated climate change policy for the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, and she worked to advance women and girls in science, technology, engineering and math. Today, she looks to use platforms outside of the government to accomplish the same missions.
Colón said of her career thus far, she is most proud of the work she’s done to educate women in opportunities in STEM careers.
“A lot of these countries started to realize that they can’t tackle a lot of the biggest challenges they’re confronting, from climate change to energy security, without having all of their best talent at the table. That required providing equal opportunity for women and men to achieve these positions,” Colón said. “We worked a lot on finding opportunities for girls to discover STEM careers and to help countries plan out what their STEM capacity building activities could be.”
These activities included things like the two-week camps for girls in South America and Africa, where they learned about coding and genetics with help from corporate partners.
Colón holds a doctorate from Brandeis University, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico. She was a delegate to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Young Leaders Forum, and a graduate of the National Hispana Leadership Institute. Last year, she was named one of the 20 most influential Latinos in technology by CNET en Español.
Colón will speak at 3:30 Monday, April 10 in Monsanto Auditorium as part of Missouri Life Sciences Week.
“#IAmScience because I need to connect the dots. How do all the puzzle pieces fit together? Why do things do what they do? How can I apply that to other things?”
For Sheryl Koenig, science communication is an enormous part of her daily tasks. She works with researchers and scientists during the grant proposal process to translate technical scientific concepts into persuasive and relevant content. Why? So that those scientists can access the means to expand their #MizzouResearch and make exciting breakthroughs. Sheryl literally helps turn their ideas and dreams into reality! #scicomm
“Living things are too beautiful for there not to be a mathematics that describes them.”
This is Thomas Schneider’s motto.
Schneider, a research biologist at the National Cancer Institute, spent most of his career understanding math and its relation with fundamental biology. His lab focuses on the DNA and RNA patterns that characterize genetic control systems; they invented the widely-used sequence logos.
“In the first place, I am doing this because I am curious,” Schneider said. “Let’s go find the math and who knows what would come out of that.”
Schneider will speak during the 33rd annual Missouri Life Sciences Week, a celebration of MU’s science research and collaboration across disciplines.
Claude Shannon’s information theory lays the foundation of Schneider’s study. In the landmark paper published in 1948, Shannon defined the quantity of information and how it transmits amid interference of noise. When people communicate via a phone call, the heat of the telephone line is one type of noise. As noise contaminates information, the highest rate at which information can be reliably transmitted over a noisy communication channel is defined as the channel capacity.
A similar concept emerges in Schneider’s Molecular Information Theory. It leads to a theoretical measure of the efficiency of molecules.
“I thought [Shannon’s] theory was screaming as I dragged it into biology. The stunning thing is that it fits biology really, really well,” Schneider said.
He looked at the DNA binding protein EcoRI, a restriction enzyme that binds DNA. When it binds, there is an inequality relationship between information and the information gained for the dissipated energy. The efficiency of DNA binding sites on nucleic acids is about 70 percent.
This mysterious number has appeared widely in his research and it also describes ecological evenness. In an even ecosystem with all species being equally represented, the evenness is close to 100 percent, but when only one species dominates the environment, its evenness dwindles to 0 percent.
Schneider found that fish species diversity in a Georgia estuary is near 70 percent and the evenness of plant species in different divisions of 8-square-meter plots in California is also around 70 percent.
When Schneider turns from ecological system to biological systems, this number still stands out. Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a free-living tiny worm, has been extensively studied and has had its entire cell lineage traced. On the basis of previous studies, Schneider calculated the efficiency of its lineage and found that the number fits the ubiquitous 70 percent, when excluding the dead cells of a C. elegans.
With this established case, one of his colleagues suggested looking into one of human’s biggest enemy – cancer. Cancer occurs when a cell develops mutations and grows out of control. Schneider hypothesized that if you have more of a certain type of cell, then you have a larger chance for that cell type to get a mutation that might lead to cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) publishes a report on all different types of cancers observed each five or six years. Based on the data collected by IARC and the hypothesis, Schneider found that for adults whose ages are above 14 years old, the cancer type evenness always remains around 70 percent.
“The thing that is interesting is that when you understand things fundamentally, it inevitably leads to practical results,” Schneider said.
Schneider’s speech on “Three Principles of Biological States: Ecology and Cancer” will be held at 1:15 p.m. April 11 in the Monsanto Auditorium at Bond Life Sciences Center.
Missouri Life Sciences Week is a university-wide event that brings together research across scientific disciplines at Mizzou. This year will highlight more than 300 student, faculty and staff research presentations and four topical lectures by accomplished researchers in addition to career development workshops and scientific service and supply exhibits.
People often think of metabolism as a perfect network. But that assumption is simply not accurate.
Andrew Hanson, an eminent scholar and professor at the University of Florida, describes the misunderstanding as “the power of a paradigm.” American biochemist Albert Lehninger spread the misunderstanding in his classic textbook “Biochemistry”, in which the message he communicated to generations of students was: metabolism is a beautiful machine that functions flawlessly.
Hanson challenges this “metabolism is perfect” paradigm using illustrations from different kinds of organisms in his lecture. He will speak in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium at 1 p.m. Friday April 14, during the 33rd annual Missouri Life Sciences Week.
For every living organism, metabolism is the sum of every chemical reaction that occurs to maintain life. This sum contains all the metabolites — small molecules created at each level of cell processes and final products — that share a part in the growth, development, reproduction and running of cells and whole organisms.
However, enzymes can make mistakes; many chemical compounds in cells are unstable and undergo spontaneous reactions. The consequences of enzyme errors and chemical side-reactions are, at best, unwanted and sometimes toxic, so organisms have developed mechanisms – damage-control systems – to deal with the consequences of damage.
Hanson’s lab has studied metabolite damage and the damage-control systems that plants and microorganisms employ to cope. But the impact of metabolic problems also reaches into the human domain, causing disease from failure or mutation of damage repair enzymes. “It matters in aging humans and animals a great deal, because aging is the result of cumulative damage,” Hanson said.
Plants are also afflicted by metabolite damage. Under environmental stress such as high temperature or water loss, the error rate of enzymes and rates of unwanted chemical reactions can go up.
The understanding of metabolite damage could also advance metabolic engineering, which is a purposeful manipulation by combining metabolic pathways and DNA techniques to produce desired products. After creating new pathways in an organism, it may fail to cope with the abnormal reactions produced by the new pathways. To fix the problem, the only solution might be to install the required damage control enzymes.
Hanson’s lab hopes to identify new or unsuspected damage reactions, and enzymes that repair or prevent damage. They also are working to connect with metabolic engineering groups that install modified pathways in plants and microbes to study sources of damage and propose solutions.
Metabolism is not perfect. However, after studying its imperfection for years, Hanson concluded, “life is put together in a very beautiful and even more powerful way than we first realize. It makes a lot of mistakes, but it also fixes them so well that we do not even notice them.”
Hanson’s lecture on “Fixing or safely trashing broken metabolites and why it matters” is this year’s Charles W. Gehrke distinguished lecture. Gehrke, a longtime MU professor of Biochemistry, was selected by NASA to analyze rocks retrieved from the first moon landing for any traces of extraterrestrial life. He died in 2009.
Hanson’s lecture is free and open to the public as part of Missouri Life Sciences Week. It occurs at 1:00 on Friday, April 14 in Bond LSC’s Monsanto Auditorium. See more about events during the week at bondlsc.missouri.edu/life-sciences-week.