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MIT Better World

By Deborah Halber

The second of three rotations was with associate professor of biology Joey Davis PhD ’10, whose lab examines how bacteria, yeast, and human cells rapidly and efficiently assemble, disassemble, and reorganize the complex internal machinery that allows them to do their jobs.

“A lot of researchers work on how intracellular machines function once they’re assembled,” Davis says. “Our niche is to use biochemical, biophysical, and structural approaches to understand how they’re built.” Davis is particularly intrigued by protein-synthesizing ribosomes and autophagosomes, which help cells break down and recycle old, damaged, or abnormal proteins.

Kinman, a self-described protein enthusiast, liked the focus of Davis’s lab, and already knew she liked Davis. During a fall seminar, she’d mentioned that she found systems biology challenging. “He’d said, ‘Oh yeah, that class really kicked my butt when I was a grad student here,’” she recalls. “That was a nice thing to hear.”

When her month-long rotation in his lab was over, she told Davis her mind was made up. “He said, ‘Laurel, you have to give your third rotation fair consideration.’” She recalls telling him, “I’m gonna be back.” A month later, she was.

As a child, Kinman pored over medical school textbooks belonging to her mom, a pediatric endocrinologist. Even before enrolling at Wellesley College for her undergraduate studies, she knew she would major in biology and mathematics.

Davis had majored in computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. Kinman’s background in mathematics helped her confidently brainstorm with him about ways to process the massive digital output of one of the cutting-edge imaging tools, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), used by Davis’s lab.

Cryo-EM data in 3-D

Every time a cell divides, it recreates its entire complement of intracellular machinery in minutes. Cryo-EM flash freezes protein complexes, capturing them mid-assembly. The challenge is tying the resulting images to specific stages of forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

Cryo-EM’s raw data comprise noisy two-dimensional snapshots. “You have to use those 2-D projections to reconstruct hundreds of three-dimensional volumes,” Kinman explains. “It ends up being a computational task to figure out how all those pictures relate to one another so that you can build up a 3-D model.”

The result is akin to an extraordinarily detailed, never-before-seen animation of how cells construct ribosomes and autophagosomes. The work could be critical to developing new antibiotics and treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, among other uses.

Inspiring fearlessness

Davis spent time in industry before opting for a career in academia, returning to MIT in fall 2017 as a faculty member actively seeking opportunities to mentor. “I can start with undergraduates the first time they’ve ever pipetted, or if they’re graduate students, the first time they’ve thought about independent research and formulating hypotheses, experimental design, and interpretation,” he says. “And I get to help them work through all of that.

“With Laurel, I’ve loved working together to define an interesting problem/challenge and then giving her sufficient intellectual freedom to develop these ideas, while also being available to provide feedback, guidance, and support,” he says.

Davis hopes to pass along to students the fearlessness—or perhaps, he says, the naivety—that serves him well in his career. “I want to foster confidence that they can do difficult things,” he says. Kinman says Davis has inspired her to incorporate her own passion for mentoring and teaching into her goal of becoming a professor at a large research institute.

Kinman wants to ensure that others have the same positive experiences she’s had working with Davis. At MIT, she helped lead a peer mentoring group, BioPals, in the Department of Biology and cofounded the BioLGBTQ+ group, focused on creating a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies. She served on two committees, one Institute-wide and one in the biology department, both tasked with providing concrete recommendations for improving mentorship experiences at MIT.

To Kinman, conducting research and supporting the next generation of scientists are inextricably linked. “There’s a lot of data that show that people from traditionally marginalized backgrounds benefit disproportionally from good mentorship,” she says. “Other data show that people who have positive mentorship experiences in science report being happier on a personal level and are more likely to persist in working in the field.

“It’s very clear,” Kinman says, “that improving mentorship leads to dramatically better science.”

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