Spring 2019

Working Life

Photo by Matt Wittmeyer/University of Rochester Medical Center

It might seem like Lynne Maquat had the deck stacked — or maybe the test tubes racked — against her. The first-generation college student was entering a male-dominated field while overcoming her shy nature. Nevertheless, she found a successful formula. Today, as a professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, she is a force in the field of RNA research and a trailblazer for women in science.

As a doctoral student at CALS, Maquat worked with pro­fessor emeritus Bill Reznikoff, who she describes as a great supporter of women graduate students at a time when many departments had few women faculty. She has filled the years between graduation and now with a long list of accolades for her research. Recently, she received the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences and the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science; the latter also acknowledges contributions to mentoring other women in science. She was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 and the National Academy of Medicine in 2018 in recognition of her pioneering work on the com­plexity of RNA.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is part of a biological sequence familiar to students of the life sciences everywhere: DNA is transcribed into RNA, which is best known to be translated into the proteins that organ­isms need to survive. Maquat’s work has uncovered layer after layer of complexity in this process. She led the discovery of what is called nonsense-mediated mRNA decay, a mechanism by which a cell can prevent the production of unwanted pro­teins that could lead to disease if left unchecked. But there’s much more to RNA’s story — and to Maquat’s motivations as a scientist.

What makes RNA so important and interesting to study?

RNA does so many critical things for our cells. Most of our genetic material — our DNA — produces RNA. And there are many types of RNA. One type contains information from which proteins are made. Another type is the catalytic center of our protein synthesis machin­ery. Still other types regulate either our DNA or other RNA molecules. And all RNA molecules self-regulate how long and where they reside in cells depending on their particular sequence and structure. RNA is a very versatile molecule. I’ve been working with RNA for a long time, and, in my own lab, we study defects in RNA metabolism in disease. It is now accepted that how our RNAs are processed is key to how our genetic material — our genes — are expressed and how our cells adapt to changing environ­ments — caused by stress and disease — during development and differentiation.

What propels you to mentor young women in science?

When compared to men, many fewer women who earn a Ph.D. go on and use that degree in a career. The reason is largely cultural — because of what we have been taught to believe and the lack of infrastructure available to us to succeed. Many people can’t understand why women would choose science as a career path. For all of these and other reasons, it is important to men­tor women, and I believe one of the best ways to mentor is through example.

What is your mentoring philosophy?

I tell young scientists that it is important not to discourage yourself from taking the next step by looking too far in the future. Success doesn’t happen overnight but in small steps that, at the time, are manageable. I believe it is important for young women (and also young men — actually everyone) to set goals and seriously chip away at working to fulfill them. It is also important to have resilience and perseverance when life hap­pens in unanticipated ways.