Brief bio and trajectory: I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, where I discovered a passion for science during high school. Going into college, I knew that I would focus in a STEM field, but debated a career in research or medicine. I received my BS in Physics at the University of Oregon (2003-07), where I also minored in Biology and Biochemistry. During my time at UO, I was involved in biophysical and materials science research using the membrane protein bacteriorhodopsin for 3 years, solidifying my aspirations for a career in academic research. Following my undergraduate career, I was a research technician in a neuroscience lab studying pain pathways at Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU) for one year before matriculating at Dartmouth in September 2008. I received my PhD in Biochemistry from Dr. Dean Madden's lab in 2014, where I studied PDZ domain interactions, specifically those that interact with the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR). Following my time in New England, I was a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. John Kuriyan's lab at UC Berkeley. In the Kuriyan lab, I studied protein-protein interactions in signaling pathways, e.g., those involving the ubiquitin ligase Cbl and Src family of tyrosine kinases. I was a Jane Coffin Childs fellow during my postdoctoral work, was involved in scientific outreach in local elementary schools, and guest lectured for several classes (including at San Quentin State Prison). In 2017, I started my independent career as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Western Washington University. To date, my lab has 30 current and alumni undergraduate and Master's students. We were initially supported by start-up funds, and are now funded by the NSF (RUI and CAREER grants) and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (Cottrell Scholar Award). I also teach several classes a year, e.g., Biochemistry (including courses focused on protein structure/function and metabolism), Biophysical Chemistry, Biochemistry Lab, and Honors seminar courses (including about the Bioethics of Emergent Technologies like CRISPR/Cas9 and Science in Society (focusing on viral pandemics)).
Outside of the lab, I am married to Dr. Lee Brooks, who is an alumnus of Dr. Mike Whitfield's lab and received his PhD in Genetics from Dartmouth in 2014. Lee is a Support Scientist at 10x Genomics. We have two young sons, 5 and 2, who are very fun and a lot of work! I am also a spinning instructor for faculty/staff classes. I started taking spinning classes during college, but underwent instructor certification while at Dartmouth and taught at Berkeley as well. Our house and the Western campus are both adjacent to the Sehome Arboretum here in Bellingham, Washington and I go trail running or hiking most days.
Lab focus: My lab is broadly interested in protein-peptide interactions, or those that involve recognition of a small number of amino acids by a protein module. These interactions are often transient and regulatory in nature, and members from the same family of peptide-binding domains may have overlapping specificities. We use protein biochemistry and structural biology to investigate the position-specific selectivity determinants of these important interactions. One of our major projects is to look at the evolution of specificity in the PDZ domain, using choanoflagellates as a model system. In recent years, we started exploring another protein family, bacterial sortases, which are a powerful protein modification tool in protein engineering. We solved a number of peptide-bound structures and also use biochemical data of engineered loop-swapped chimeras and molecular dynamics simulations to predict and test exciting new insights into target recognition by bacterial sortases. We are also beginning a new project to look at specificity-determining loops in SH2 and SH3 domains, peptide-binding domains important in tyrosine kinase and other signaling pathways in the cell. All three projects are done in close collaboration with other labs, at Western or elsewhere.
What was your favorite Dartmouth experience?
I loved being at Dartmouth and have very fond memories of my Dartmouth experience. The best ones involve the people I was with day-to-day, including my lab mates and those in Dr. Harry Higgs' lab next door. Seeing protein crystals appear was particularly exciting, as was solving those first crystal structures. I still get a rush solving protein structures for the first time! I met my now husband at Dartmouth and lived with the same fellow-MCB student (Dr. Chelsea Boyd, who graduated from Dr. George O'Toole's lab) for the entire duration of my PhD. Some key special memories are throwing our annual holiday sweater party with Chelsea, racing Dr. Ernest Heimsath down the slopes of the Dartmouth Skiway, getting coffee at the bookstore with Dr. Jill Langer, watching Dr. Pinar Gurel and the Dartmouth figure skating team's exhibitions, hiking with Dr. Kelli Hvorecny, Dr. Devin Schweppe, and many others, and hundreds of additional instances of times with my peers. Even though I got my PhD over 7 years ago now, I still communicate with at least one person from my time at Dartmouth weekly (not counting Lee, my husband!). I recently gave a seminar to my department as a part of my tenure and promotion over Zoom, and several Dartmouth colleagues, including my advisor Dr. Madden, watched my talk, which was extremely special and rewarding. I would not change a thing about my decision to attend Dartmouth or join the Madden lab.
Why do you think MCB is an awesome (and unique) program?
As many of my peers can attest, the interview weekend made it easy to choose the MCB program at Dartmouth for my PhD. I appreciated the clear camaraderie and friendship that I witnessed in the current students, which was not apparent at other programs where I interviewed. Getting a PhD can be very challenging (understatement of the year) and having a strong network of support is critical to success. The MCB program at Dartmouth provided this and more! Coming from the west coast, I also loved experiencing New England and living in Hanover. It's true that New England fall is incredible! Hanover is such a unique community – a small town, but built almost entirely around Dartmouth and DHMC, so rich with culture and intellectuals at the top of their respective fields, including impressive scientific research. The outdoor recreation also cannot be beat, I used to tell college friends and others that it was wonderful waking up on a Saturday morning and knowing that I could not spend my day shopping or running errands (there are not enough stores nearby!), but instead would be going on a hike or skiing at the Skiway or something else active and outdoors.
What advice would you have for 1st year MCB students? MCB students about to graduate?
For 1st year MCB students, I would recommend choosing a thesis lab based 80% on the mentor and 20% on the scientific project. I truly believe that success in science depends on having high quality advisors that, critically, are going to train and mentor you based on how you learn. Science is tough and not intuitive; there are very few young scientists who just "get it" without proper mentoring. The project is important as well in that you need to find a scientific question you are interested in, learning techniques that will help you in your career trajectory, and something that is going to excite you enough to be in lab every day for several years, including some weekends and late nights. But, it's important to remember that the PhD training is meant to prepare you how to think about science, ask questions, and figure out how to progress specific knowledge. In your postdoc or whatever you do next, you will likely be working in a different system and on a different question, so the training you receive is more important than the project itself. That said, publishing papers is currency in academic science, and you want to go to a lab that is productive (and well funded). Understand that the ability to publish papers and do cutting edge research is a bit out of your hands as a PhD student, so again, the right mentor (for you) is going to be vital to your success.
For MCB students who are finishing up their PhD work, my advice is to network, be open to exploring career opportunities that until recently were considered "non-traditional," and to remember that you are well trained for several career trajectories. Networking in science is just as important as other fields, you never know who will end up being an advocate for you. Informational interviews are relatively easy to set up, as most people respond well to, "Your career trajectory is impressive, how did you get to where you are?" The worst thing that can happen if you send an email to someone is that they will not respond, which is honestly not that bad, as you can quickly shift your focus elsewhere. Also, be honest with yourself about your career ambitions, overall level of competitiveness, and that your career trajectory may not be linear. Set goals for yourself, but be flexible as you move through your career and allow these goals to shift as opportunities present themselves. Maybe you started a PhD program because you wanted to be a professor at an R1 institution, but have realized that while you still love science, you vehemently dislike writing grants. In that case, maybe working in the biotech industry makes more sense for you? Overall, the unemployment rate for people with PhD degrees is quite low. However, science is extremely competitive and time gaps in your publication record and/or having a research-based job (e.g., postdoc, research scientist, etc.) are going to make it challenging, though not impossible, to compete for tenure-track academic or industrial research and development (R&D) jobs. You will lose ~10 years of earning power by getting a PhD and doing at least one postdoc, as compared to those who join the workforce immediately following a Bachelor's degree. Some PhDs make up for this with high-paying stable careers, but others do not. Keep this in mind as you navigate your career trajectory and start saving for retirement early, even if it feels like you are not contributing much at the time.