For Laura Hertz, a fifth-year graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences Program, the opportunity to work in the lab of Julius Lucks, co-director of the Center for Synthetic Biology, and the opportunity to mentor other students from the community, have shaped her development as a scientist and human being.

Where are you from and what first sparked your interest in science?

I’m from Boston, Massachusetts. I was a solid B+ student. I did well in all my courses and found myself naturally gravitating towards math and science. I was always a curious kid questioning how things worked in the universe. I had a bio teacher my junior year who was phenomenal and really inspirational. He handed out this opinion piece profiling some MIT scientists who were developing synthetic biology tools. That article made me wonder if it would be possible to develop a paint with microbes in it that would purify air pollution in cities. Now, I don’t know if such paint-based technology would actually be viable, but that idea—synthetic biology and its possibilities— especially with climate change, really captured my imagination.

Where did you go to college and what did you study?

I went to Case Western Reserve University, which did not have a synthetic biology program, and thus studied biochemistry. I thought that if I can’t spend these next four years engineering life, I might as well figure out the rules that will allow us to engineer and take that basic approach in order to apply it later on. In my last semester, I took an RNA class and thought that area was understudied and had a lot of research potential.

Did you apply to graduate school right afterward?

No, after Case, I worked as a full-time post-baccalaureate researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Frankly, I was burnt out after college and found the NIH’s post-bacc program a fantastic opportunity to grow my research skills while exploring my interests outside the lab and classroom. I spent two years in Dr. Jake Liang’s group studying how Hepatitis C virus adapts the RNA in our cells for its own survival. With my free time, I joined other post-baccs in conducting community-based mentorship for public high school students through the local D.C. non-profit College Bound.

What led you to Northwestern and working in the Lucks lab?

When I was applying to graduate school, I was looking at schools that had strong RNA activities going on and Northwestern caught my eye. A friend of mine in the BE (Biological Engineering) program at Northwestern sent me a few recommendations including the Lucks Lab. I decided to apply and see what happens. When I visited Northwestern, I found that I really liked the students here. I thought, “these are people that I either want to be my peers or I’d want to be like in the next several years and there are great resources and facilities here.” I could see that there are a lot of opportunities for research development and also various other professional development.

What research are you doing?

Julius’s lab has two branches that collaborate together: the engineers in the chemical engineering department, and the biologists from the IBiS [interdisciplinary biological sciences] program. My research explores riboswitches, a type of RNA that can sense a small molecule and regulate gene expression. It’s like, if RNA is a recipe card and a protein is a cake then the recipe card tells you that you need eggs to make a cake. Without the eggs, you won’t waste the butter and flour to make an incorrect product and our cells use similar logic. The engineers in our lab take these systems, as well as protein-based sensors, to develop field-deployable water sensors. I’ve stayed more fundamental and explorative, and currently, I’m developing an evolution-inspired technique that one of the engineers foresees adapting for various synthetic biology purposes.

Where did your interest in mentoring other students begin?

While in undergrad, I got a job as a Supplemental Instructor, where as a sophomore I was leading extracurricular chemistry lessons through problem-set worksheets. My boss, James Eller, explained our job was more than the course material, and given our peer-like status with our freshman students, we served as mentors. Having students ask about “which classes should I take,” “how many clubs are too many,” or “how to get involved with research,” showed me I had more knowledge to share than the course material and that it was just as important for my students’ college success. Additionally, I think like most academics I get equal joy from sharing as I do from learning myself!

What mentoring experience do you find most fulfilling?

The mentoring experience most fulfilling for me is participating in local mentorship organizations helping high school students transition to college (i.e. DC’s College Bound or Chicago’s Chicago Scholars). As a mentor in this community setting, I get to let students know there are various, exciting STEM career options. In a meeting with one of my Chicago Scholar mentees, she informed me during our September meeting of her first year of college that she no longer wanted to pursue a surgical career but rather a biotech career, specifically product translation and marketing. I was so excited to tell her what took me until mid-college to figure out: she’ll earn money going to graduate school, which surprised and excited her. I was also able to connect her for an informational interview with a VP of Technology and Business Development at a biotech startup whom I met through NU’s biotech seminar series.

I understand you were invited to give a talk at Oakton College to share your path to graduate school as part of the college’s Emerging Scholars Series. What was it about?

In addition to discussing my research and educational journey, I built upon ideas from Professor Mike Jewett’s ‘Intro to Synthetic Biology’ class that I took in 2019 which introduced the idea of a “bioeconomy” from the White House’s National Economy Blueprint. Over centuries we’ve had various ages of innovations in mechanical railroads, electricity, petrochemistry, and currently an age of electronics and information. The prediction is that next biology is going to massively alter our economy and how we get our food, energy, chemicals, materials and medicine, as we’re seeing with lab-grown meats, biofuels, and mRNA vaccines. The old way of developing vaccines has been massively updated with new genetic technology that’s allowing us to get vaccines to people so much faster to respond to pandemics in a way that we never really had before. It really feels like the bioeconomy is around the corner, and I want to help inspire talent from everywhere into this work.

What do you hope other students learn from your experience?

I hope others will learn that “outreach” can be “professional development.” I know when I began graduate school, I viewed them as two separate parts of my job, but through the years I’ve come to see them as a Venn diagram, where in this instance I was introducing young students to research as a career while it was also my first talk hosted outside of Northwestern’s campus or a conference.

What aspect of the Oakton experience was most fulfilling for you?

Having a student follow up with me through email after my talk to ask about how to get involved with research. I now get to pass along the etiquette of emailing labs asking about open positions, which can be a convoluted process and could ultimately lead to doors being open or closed. Also, after the research-talk half, a student perfectly re-explained a riboswitch prior to asking a question, which I found rewarding as the “riboswitch” concept took me a few times to grasp and so it validated the efforts I had put into communicating my research for young students.

What are your plans after graduate school?

I’d like to pursue a postdoc to explore RNA biology in the context of dormant egg cells and long-term cell maintenance. I think there’s a lot to learn about RNA’s role in fertility and reproduction that involves an emerging concept called liquid-liquid phase separation. This concept is not new, if you’ve seen oil and water separate then you’re familiar with it. But we only recently started understanding that this chemical phenomenon happens in our cells and the implications of it. I want to explore that phenomenon and do fundamental discovery of how life works. This system could inspire work for artificial cell development, which is an exciting, downstream synthetic biology application. Eventually, I hope to run my own lab in a national facility, ideally the National Institutes of Health.

by Lisa La Vallee