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What is your hometown?
Waldorf, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C.
When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?
How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?
My interest in science began in high school. I became involved in two science projects.
Additionally, I saw human nasal passage neurons growing in culture.
Looking through the microscope at these gorgeous cells is what really
What interested you to pursue a career in Biochemistry?
After high school, I thought I would become a microbiologist for CDC
As an undergraduate, my first lab experience was studying the effects
of transgenic plants on resistance to Colorado potato beetles. Next, I
worked 2.5 years in a plant genetics lab researching Arabidopsis
plant-pathogen interactions. This is where I learned what it means to do
research. I had my own project, presented at lab and joint group
meetings, went to a national meeting, and contributed to papers. This
experience prepared me for graduate school.
My interest in medical research was always there and during graduate
school, I had the opportunity to pursue medically relevant research. I
studied Ras/MAPK signaling and the Retinal Determination pathway using
the Drosophila eye as a model system. The Ras/MAPK pathway has key roles
in cancer. Retinal determination genes are required for eye
development, and mutations in them cause eye diseases.
Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?
I have been truly blessed with great mentors.
How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?
I had met Dr. Diane Slusarski, Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in
Genetics, through a non-science connection. This was my first
introduction to the university. Through those same connections, I heard
about a faculty position. I applied, was interviewed, and offered the
position. From my interview, it was clear that the scientific
community at Iowa is engaged. They ask good questions. One on one
interactions were fabulous, and the chalk talk revealed that I would
have good colleagues. Additionally, the open and collaborative nature of
the faculty at the university really struck me.
The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide
exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and
medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries
into patient-centered care and education?
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin have a variety of
effects on the body, from relieving pain to reducing the risk of heart
attack, stroke, and some cancers. However, these drugs also have
detrimental effects including bleeding disorders and stomach ulcers. To
design specific therapies for each action of these drugs, a mechanistic
understanding of the events that are inhibited by such drugs is
The focus of my research is to uncover such mechanisms, with the
future goal of contributing to the design of therapies to target the
newly identified factors.
What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?
Faculty have the opportunity to interact with both clinicians and
researchers, and have access to incredible resources including the
tissue repository, the Institute for Clinical and Translation Sciences,
and the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. Additionally, there are
seminars on everything from basic to clinical science, which reflects
the wide breadth of expertise at the university.
Please describe your professional interests.
While people have been using aspirin (and the plant that produces it)
for thousands of years, we know surprisingly very little about how
aspirin acts at the cellular levels.
Aspirin is a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). These drugs
have numerous beneficial effects on the body: they relieve pain and
inflammation, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke at low doses,
and reduce the incidence of certain cancers (colon and breast are the
best studied). However, these drugs also cause bleeding disorders,
stomach ulcers, and at high doses, cardiovascular complications.
NSAIDs act by inhibiting the cyclooxygenase or COX enzymes. COX
enzymes produce the prostaglandin intermediate, PGH2, which is further
processed by synthases into active prostaglandins (PGE2, PGF2, PGI2,
and PGD2) and thromboxane (TXA2). Prostaglandins are lipid signaling
molecules. When one takes an aspirin, one is altering the production of
multiple prostaglandins and messing up multiple signaling pathways.
Thus, it is not surprising that NSAIDs have so many effects.
If we want to target a particular action of prostaglandins, for
example cancer, then we need to understand the specific prostaglandin
signaling pathways involved and their downstream targets. It is these
targets that ultimately regulate the biological outcome.
One target of prostaglandins is the actin cytoskeleton. Actin is the
most conserved protein across all animals and is the most abundant
protein in the cell. The actin cytoskeleton is dynamically rearranged to
mediate cell proliferation, shape, and migration─all of these processes
play critical roles in cancer development and subsequent metastasis.
While prostaglandins are known regulators of the actin cytoskeleton, how they do this remains unknown.
The main question my lab is working to address is what are the
mechanisms by which prostaglandins regulate the actin cytoskeleton.
The main system we use to address this is fruit fly oogenesis. We use
the fly because it is an inexpensive, rapid, simplified genetic model
system. Oogenesis or follicle development provides an adult tissue that
requires prostaglandin-dependent actin remodeling. By taking advantage
of fly genetics we are screening to identify novel downstream targets
through which prostaglandins regulate the actin cytoskeleton;
importantly the targets we have identified so far are widely implicated
in cancer but have not been previously linked to prostaglandins.
What led to your interest in your focus?
When I went to the Spradling lab, I knew I was going to use fruit fly
oogenesis as my model system. When Dr. Spradling suggested looking into
prostaglandin signaling in the fly (which had never been done before), I
knew I had found my project. As prostaglandins are known regulators of
female reproductive events from cockroaches to humans, it seemed likely
that prostaglandins would also regulate fruit fly oogenesis.
During my postdoc years, I identified the Drosophila COX-like enzyme
Pxt and established its roles in regulating follicle development. One of
the most striking defects during oogenesis was the failure to undergo a
dynamic actin remodeling event that is required for the generation of a
How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?
Everyone is always willing to help, from providing a reagent for a
pilot experiment, to teaching you a new technique. This is an invaluable
resource. For example, we are currently expanding the lab’s research to
include human cancer cell lines and hopefully in the near future, mouse
models of cancer. This would not be possible without many collaborative
What are some of your outside interests?
Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?
If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine/science), what would it be?
What is the biggest change you’ve experienced in your field since you were a student?
What one piece of advice would you give to today’s students?
What do you see as “the future” of medicine/science?
I hope the future of science is a continuation of both foundational
and clinical research. Both types of research are necessary for the
advancement of human health, and neither can truly succeed without the
In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e.,
population-based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your
leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements
off campus, etc.)?
Junior mini-med school: 21 high school students came to visit my lab
and learn how we use fruit flies to understand how aspirin works. This
resulted in photos and a blurb in the Daily Iowan.
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