Faculty Focus

Spies, Maria

Maria Spies, PhD

What is your hometown?

St. Petersburg, Russia.

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?

June 2012

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

I was always curious how things work. Chemistry and physics captivated my imagination since I was first exposed to these subjects as a middle school student.

In college, I chose biophysics as my major. Understanding and appreciation of the medical implications of the fundamental research came later.

I was fortunate to receive support for my postdoctoral work, and later for my independent lab, from the American Cancer Society (ACS). Writing the two grant proposals and serving on the ACS grant review panel made me rethink how I look at the fundamental research and helped me to place my work in the biomedical context–what we do in my lab has a real potential to transform how cancer is being diagnosed and treated.

What interested you to pursue a career in Biochemistry?

The ability to understand life at the most fundamental molecular level, and to use the obtained knowledge to better human health.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

I had many great mentors and role models in college, graduate school, and pretty much throughout my career. I have many colleagues who are not only excellent scientists, but also great people–you just can’t help but try to be like them.

After finishing my PhD, I was very fortunate to join the lab of Professor Steve Kowalczykowski (UC Davis) as a postdoctoral scholar. Steve was the most instrumental in helping me become the scientist I am now and the mentor I am to my students and postdocs.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?

The Biochemistry department at Iowa is a vibrant community of excellent scientists.

I knew and highly respected the work of several Biochemistry and College of Medicine faculty. When an opportunity to join the Biochemistry department presented itself, the choice was very simple.

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?

My lab studies the most fundamental molecular mechanisms underlying DNA repair and genome maintenance. Understanding how DNA repair is orchestrated and regulated in normal and malignant cells helps us to identify novel anticancer drug targets and to develop new therapeutics and treatment approaches.

Since moving my lab to Iowa last summer we started a new drug discovery campaign that focuses on RAD52 DNA repair protein, an emerging therapeutic target. Specific RAD52 inhibitors may revolutionize treatment and prevention of the BRCA1- and BRCA2-deficient malignancies, reduce toxicity associated with standard radiation and chemotherapy, and may decrease the need for radical preventive treatments (such as mastectomy).

What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?

Most importantly, it provides opportunities to translate our fundamental biochemical research into breakthroughs in medical care. For example, our new drug discovery campaign (described above) would have been extremely challenging outside of an academic medical center: what made this program reality are the presence of University of Iowa High Throughput Screening facility and an extremely supportive environment for all levels of translational studies.

Another important opportunity is to contribute to the medical education.

Please describe your professional interests.

My lab uses tools of traditional and single-molecule biochemistry to reveal the molecular mechanisms of DNA repair.

The integrity of our genomes are under continuous assault by the exogenous sources of DNA damage, which include UV, radiation, toxic chemicals and environmental carcinogens, as well as by the byproducts of cellular metabolism. These assaults necessitate activities of numerous proteins that recognize, repair or bypass an estimated 200,000 DNA modifications experienced every day by each of our cells. Mechanistic analysis of DNA repair machines provides an unprecedented understanding of the fundamental cellular processes underlying genetic stability and instability. It also helps to reveal how and why certain mutations in DNA repair genes give rise to diseases.

My research emphasizes the genome caretakers involved in homologous recombination and recombinational DNA repair. The ultimate goal of our research is to reconstitute the molecular events ensuring repair and restart of the replication forks stalled or damaged by DNA lesions. What makes these machines “tick” and ensure that the cell stays healthy? Can we identify the difference between normal DNA repair machines and those hijacked by the cancerous cell? And if we do, can we go beyond deciphering the fundamental molecular mechanisms of the enzymes, proteins, and macromolecular assemblies orchestrating DNA repair to find an Achilles’ heel in their mechanism of action or malfunction? Can we target this distinct feature and thereby contribute to an emerging generation of targeted anticancer therapies?

What led to your interest in your field?

I started working in a DNA repair lab while an undergrad at St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. I realized that I really liked the subject, so continued to study DNA repair for my graduate, postdoctoral, and independent work. The techniques I used somewhat changed (from molecular biology and structural biology to biochemistry and single-molecule biochemistry), but the object of my studies remained the same–there is still so much left to learn!

How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?

It is really great to work alongside truly outstanding colleagues.

What are some of your outside interests?

I have a 9-year old daughter–so, there isn’t much time when I am not either immersed in my work or in my daughter’s activities. I really like to travel, read (fiction and science fiction). I am trying to stay in shape by playing squash, participating in a zumba class at the rec center, and running. I used to draw a lot, but now this is a skill used primarily for the scientific presentations and teaching.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

Richard Feynman once said: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” We apply this to the biochemical reconstitutions we do in my lab: if we truly understand the biological process, we should be able to reconstruct it in the test tube or at the level of individual molecules in our TIRF microscope. Even more, we should be able to design a molecular monkey-ranch to stop this process.

If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine/science), what would it be?

I would like to see more funding designated for biomedical research and for personalized medicine.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

Accumulation of knowledge and the appreciation how complex and interconnected are the molecular pathways governing cellular activities on one hand, and the speed with which a basic scientific discovery can be translated into biomedical advances.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

Follow your dreams – if you choose the path that is right for you, you can not only make the World around you a better place, but also really enjoy the process. While at the University of Iowa, take advantage of the educational and research opportunities. A career in biomedical research can be extremely fulfilling and fun, but you have to be really knowledgeable and creative to be competitive.

What do you see as "the future" of medicine/science?

I hope to see personalized medicine become state of the care for all patients. I also hope to see our society will continue to invest in and appreciate fundamental science