Dr. Stephani Page is a post-doctoral research associate at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and studies the biochemistry and biomechanics of yeast.
Tell us about your work?
I’ll start by saying that I work in yeast. The kind used in bread and beer. Yeast have a genetic tractibility – one can make changes to or remove genes with relative ease compared to human cell lines. Yeast and humans also have similar pathways and components for regulating biological processes. I study a fundamental process responsible for responding to changes in available glucose (glucose is a sugar that is an important nutrient across all domains of life). Disregulation of the glucose response has been linked to various cancers, polycystic ovary syndrome, and other health issues we care about. My work focuses metabolic changes as a result of acute reduction in available glucose. There are more than one pathways that function to respond to glucose stress and, within those pathways, there are isoforms (loosely, copies of the same protein) that play roles in regulating the response. My work asks the question, “what are the similarities and distinctions in pathways and pathway components that have overlapping biological function?” I am using yeast to do my work from the vantage point of the biological systems meaning all the biological processes that are being regulated within a cell. My main approach is the use of mass spectrometry to assessing whether and how much the metabolome (basically, the profile of small molecules) changes when cells are under glucose stress.
Why should the layperson care about yeast?
First, using yeast, I can doing experiments that I cannot do with human cell lines. That gives me the space to try different avenues to get important information about biological processes that happen in humans. What I learn can be of use to individuals who do studies using mammals and human cell lines and tissues. Disregulation by one of the protein families that I am studying is linked to the exact type of Pancreatic Cancer that my father had. I hope that what I about the function of these proteins aids people who study Pancreatic Cancer (and other cancers).
Second, yeast and glucose are a very important topic for bread, beer, wine, and biofuels (to name a few things) because these industries use yeast. These are major industries that are also tied to food security, economy, environmental protection, and fuels.
Third, I am working to develop new approaches to studying things we care about. As we develop new tools and approaches, we can enhance the ways in which science is done in order to, hopefully, more efficiently and more effectively do work.
Fourth, scientific research – social sciences, physical sciences, life science – is valuable. The people who do this work are valuable. That valuable is contained in the people of the past, present, and future. That value is contained in the Earth itself and how we treat it. My work one way that I value the world I live in.
How did you end up researching yeast and what led you to your research emphasis?
I landed in my current fields of study through a somewhat serendipitous path. I identify as a basic scientist who very interdisciplinary in my path and my interests. I was finishing my PhD while grieving the passing of my father after his battle against Pancreatic Cancer. I had been studying microbial signal transduction with a focus on eukaryotic systems and phosphorylation biochemistry. I knew that I wanted to take the pieces of my background and build on our knowledge of the regulation of biological processes – something that is hugely relevant to cancers. Potential targets for therapies are yet to be revealed and I know that developing new tools, approaches, and therapies is tied to increasing our knowledge of the fundamental biological processes that, when disregulated, give rise to disease. I am motivated by my desire to have an impact on what and how science is done. I am motivated by my desire to push for changing the landscape of the biomedical research enterprise into a space where bias no longer inhibits and prohibits brilliance based on race, nationality, gender, sex, difference in ability, socioeconomic background, educational pedigree, etc.
I wanted to be a figure skater, then a writer and fashion designer. I was the annoying student in grade school who loved every topic (except Biology, actually). I was unaware that I had such a strong relationship with science until my high school Chemistry teacher pointed out to me that I was connecting deeply with Chemistry. I went on to earn an degree in Chemical Engineering, where I did lab research and patient care rather than industry co-ops. I took a Biochemistry course in my last semester and really enjoyed it. Thinking I was destined to be a physician, I decided to get a masters in Biology thinking I needed a bio background to get into med school. I loved developing approaches, doing research, experimental problem-solving and talking about my work – which led to my going to graduate school and earning a PhD in Biochemistry & Biophysics.