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. I am particularly 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 currently investigating the effects on cellular stress of several ubiquitous compounds in water and food supplies, including bisphenols (BPA, BPS) and pesticides such as glyphosate. I am also interested in changes in SG dynamics that occur as a result of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease, and in autism spectrum disorders.
My lab also works in the emerging field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology seeks to apply engineering design principles to the understanding and creation of biological systems. I use synthetic biology to design biosensors and bioremediation strategies for various environmental contaminants that impact human health, including lead, arsenic, and other toxic substances. Thus the scope of my work combines generating knowledge of the biological effects of environmental toxins (via cell stress) with strategies for the detection and remediation of these compounds using synthetic biology.
One of the best things about teaching at WPI is the emphasis on practice, experience, and impact. 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. I employ active learning in my classrooms whenever possible – through the use of case studies, group problem-solving, and polling software – 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.
Professional Highlights & Honors
Worcester News Tonight covered a forum held at WPI on the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR.
The Worcester Business Journal covered a WPI forum on the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. Noted in the article were: Dean, Arts and Sciences, Jean King; Assistant Professor, Social Science, Patricia Stapleton; Associate Professor, Humanities and Arts Bethel Eddy; Associate Professor, Biology and Biotechnology, Rita Rao; and Associate Teaching Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Destin Heilman.