Biochemist Christine Dunham studies protein synthesis as an Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the Emory School of Medicine. I had the great privilege of meeting her at the ASBMB (American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) Annual Meeting, where she was accepting the 2019 ASBMB Young Investigator Award.
Dunham received an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from Barnard College, Columbia University, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz and postdoctoral research at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. She started her own group at Emory in 2008 studying the structure and function of the intracellular machinery that makes proteins.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids that link together to form chains that fold up into beautiful, functional shapes. The order in which to link the amino acids together is specified by messenger RNA (mRNA) “words” called codons. Molecules call tRNAs recognize specific codons and bring the corresponding amino acids to be added by an RNA/protein machine called the ribosome.
Dunham studies how the tRNAs interact with the mRNA and the ribosome and how modifications to tRNAs can affect how well the ribosome can tell whether the right one’s there. This is important because if the wrong amino acids are incorporated, the resultant proteins might not work as needed.
Her research is fascinating, but that’s not the only reason it was such an honor to meet her. She partnered with the CREST (Connecting Researchers, Educators and Students) program run through the MSOE Center for BioMolecular Modeling (CBM).
The program is an interactive way to introduce undergraduate students to structural biology and biochemistry. Groups of undergraduate students build 3-D models of proteins ands them to gain a deeper understanding of a scientist’s research. Then they bring their models to the conference and get to discuss them with that scientist. This year, that scientist was Dr. Dunham, and she did a great job personally interacting with each student, answering their questions, and explaining fun backstories behind the different molecular structures. And she’s passing along her teaching skills to the students she mentees in her lab; helping her out were two of her fantastic graduate students, Pooja Srinivas and Ian Pavelich.
Congratulations on your award Dr. Dunham and thank you for all your work inside and outside of the lab.