Mentor:Jesse Zalatan, Chemistry
Current research project: Investigations Into Scaffold-Mediated Pathway Insulation
Elizabeth Karas is a senior at the University of Washington majoring in biochemistry. Her research interests include studying enzyme kinetics and signal processing in cells. Currently, she is studying proteins in the Wnt signaling pathway to determine the chemical mechanisms by which the cell is able to correctly process signals without interfering with other cellular pathways. Elizabeth intends to pursue a career in researching pediatric cancers. She is also passionate about teaching and committed to making research more equitable and accessible. In her free time, she enjoys climbing, doing puzzles, and cooking!
Translate your work so that we can all understand its importance
Cells are able to communicate with each other by sending and receiving signals. When a cell receives a signal, it processes that information using signaling proteins. Distinct signals, such as insulin signals and Wnt signals (a signal that triggers cells to grow and become specialized), are processed using some of the same proteins. This means that when the cell receives either of these signals, the exact same protein is used to process them. This might be a cause for concern. If the same protein is used, how does the cell know that an insulin signal should only trigger an insulin response and not a Wnt response? The cell has developed mechanisms to ensure inappropriate activation of the wrong pathway does not happen, one of which is called scaffold-mediated pathway insulation. This is where a scaffold protein, one that binds other proteins to hold them in close proximity, assists in keeping signaling pathways separate from each other. I am investigating the kinetic mechanism by which the Wnt scaffold protein, Axin, assists in pathway insulation.
When, how, and why did you get involved in undergraduate research?
I got involved in my first research experience my sophomore year, but joined my current lab my junior year. I am currently an undergraduate researcher in the Zalatan lab. I had taken Dr. Zalatan’s class, after which I emailed him to ask if I could discuss his research with him, especially the cell signaling project. Research has always interested me because it involves a lot of problem solving. It allows me to take material I learned in my classes and apply it to real-world problems. Ultimately, undergraduate research is the experience that has made me truly believe that I can be a successful scientist.
What advice would you give a student who is considering getting involved in undergraduate research?
You don’t need to, and aren’t expected to, know everything about the research in order to join the lab. Everyone is learning along the way! Take the chance on the project that excites you and email the professor with specifics about why that research excites you. Additionally, choose a lab that has an environment in which you feel comfortable making mistakes. Making mistakes is part of the whole research process, and being in a place that supports learning from those mistakes will help you grow as a researcher!