It’s important to keep the big picture in mind when you’re digging deeply into biological minutiae, says Bethany Strunk (Ph.D. ‘11), a postdoctoral researcher in Lois Weisman’s lab at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute and a graduate of U-M’s chemical biology doctoral program.
“There are all these little chemical reactions going on inside of you and that’s where life comes from — all these little components working together,” she says. “What’s really fascinating are all the little details of how that actually happens.”
Her current research focuses on the regulation of lipid signaling pathway in yeast. Defects in the pathway’s human counterpart have been associated with neurodegenerative disorders that affect millions of people. A better understanding of the underlying mechanisms could open the door for the development of new therapies.
“I like yeast as model system,” says Strunk, a native of southeast Michigan who holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Michigan State University. “It’s really powerful because many of the things happening at a molecular level are very similar to humans — and it makes a lot of sense to start with a system that’s so flexible and efficient.”
Her previous research in the Program in Chemical Biology at U-M and later at the Scripps Research Institute, also using yeast, investigated the cellular machinery that puts together ribosomes — the parts of a cell that make new proteins by stringing together amino acids according to instructions encoded in RNA.
“I was looking at a very specific stage in the late maturation of the small ribosomal subunit,” says Strunk, who also spent several years in East Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. “It turned out that at this stage immature small subunits are required interact with mature, large subunits and translation factors before completing maturation. What we had discovered by accident was a way that the cell checks new ribosomes to make sure they are working properly, that they have been put together right.”
Strunk was first author of a paper in Cell on the topic, and co-first author of a report in Science — which was also a collaboration between the lab at Scripps and the lab of LSI faculty member Georgios Skiniotis, a structural biologist who specializes in cryo-electron microscopy.
This type of interdisciplinarity and collaboration were among the key aspects that initially drew her to the Program in Chemical Biology and later back to LSI.
“The whole range is here,” she says. “From chemical synthesis to cell biology to genetics.”
At present, she’s collaborating with LSI faculty member and chemical biology program director Anna Mapp to better understand a key protein complex.
“The protein complex that I’m working on is like big machine, and we want to know how very specific parts of each protein are interacting with very specific parts of other proteins in the complex,” she says. “The Mapp lab has sophisticated tools and expertise to help us figure this out.”
As to what her future may hold, Strunk says she's keeping her options open, but thinks she would enjoy leading a lab at an institution where she could focus on teaching as well as research.
“After MSU, I spent three years in Tanzania teaching secondary school science classes and HIV prevention, and found I really loved working closely with students,” she says.
— January 2016