I am delighted to be part of the WPI community! One of the best things about teaching at WPI is the emphasis on practice, experience, and action. Through project work, students get the opportunity to put their classroom learning into action for the benefit of society. The students of WPI are here to change the world, and I feel privileged to be able to help give them the analytical tools they need to accomplish their goals. The courses I teach – Human Biology, Genetics, and Anatomy & Physiology – help students discover the fascinating ways in which humans move, grow, reproduce, and interact with the environment. I employ active learning in my classrooms whenever possible – through the use of case studies, group problem-solving, and clickers – because I believe that the best way for a student to understand a concept is to apply that concept to the solution of a practical problem.
My research interests broadly focus on the molecular biology of mRNA translational control – or more simply put, “why” and “how” cells regulate the translation of their mRNAs into proteins. My primary interest in translational control relates to the role of protein synthesis in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). As a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, I worked to understand the underlying molecular pathology of Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), the most common heritable form of mental retardation, and the most common known cause of autism. FXS, and several other syndromic forms of autism, seem to be caused by an increased level of protein synthesis in the brain. My work showed that in the case of FXS, this defect occurs at the level of polypeptide elongation. Even more excitingly, genetic rescue of the polypeptide elongation rate cures the behavioral pathologies of FXS in mouse models of the syndrome. Here at WPI, I plan to continue my research interests through student project work on the molecular mechanisms of ASDs, and through educational and outreach initiatives with the FXS and ASD communities.
I am also interested in translational control as it relates to the cellular stress response. When cells are stressed by environmental factors, such as energy deprivation, heavy metal poisoning, or extreme temperatures, they will conserve resources by restricting mRNA translation. Under certain stress conditions, some cells will gather the translationally silenced mRNAs into cytoplasmic foci known as stress granules (SGs). We believe that the formation of SGs enhances cellular survival during periods of stress, though the dynamics of their formation and dissolution remain unclear. I am particularly interested in investigating the effects of preconditioning to low-dose stress on the kinetics of SG formation. As SGs are readily formed in response to arsenic compounds, I believe that chronic low-dose exposure to arsenic (primarily through contaminated water supplies) can affect the ability of a person’s cells to form SGs in response to other environmental stresses. Through MQPs, I plan engage with students to further explore the relationships between environmental contaminants and the cellular stress response.
A personal interest of mine is the emerging field of synthetic biology. Think of it! We may be able to engineer biological systems to solve tremendous societal problems such as the global energy crisis or the AIDS epidemic! What if environmentally-friendly biofuels can be sustainably made from algae? Or edible bacteria that contain protective vaccines could be distributed to disease-ravaged corners of the globe? I am intrigued by the promise of synthetic biology, but also concerned about its limitations, societal impacts and ethical considerations.