Real Scientists is Stateside this week with Caitlyn Cardetti, (@CaitlynCardetti) a PhD candidate in molecular and cellular pharmacology at Stony Brook University in New York.
Welcome to Real Scientists! Can you tell us about how you got into science?
Honestly, I can’t remember a light bulb moment of wanting to pursue STEM. I’ve loved science since I was a child and over the years wanted to be an astronaut, an anthropologist, a botanist, a forensic scientist, an engineer, a biologist. As I got older, I ended up working in healthcare to pay for undergrad which solidified my interest in medicine and geared me towards biology.
Fascinating! How did you narrow your focus down to pharmacology?
I initially planned on pursuing a PhD in neuroscience, but was rejected from all the programs I applied for. So last minute I applied for an MS in pharmacology at SBU due to cost and convenience thinking that I could use an MS to reapply again later to be more competitive. But I ended up being asked to join the PhD track here so I stayed. I stayed because I love the work my PI does with mitochondria, he is a great mentor, and my department is very supportive. Dysfunction in mitochondria are implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases which was my interest in applying to neuroscience programs, so basically as far as I’m concerned it’s just a different means to the same end.
What are you working on now?
I work on establishing a better understanding of RNA processing within the mitochondria. Why? Because incorrect processing and maturation of mitochondrial RNAs (mtRNA) are the cause of most human mitochondrial disease. And mitochondrial dysfunction is involved in aging and many common diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cancer.
So what are mitochondria and what is RNA? Mitochondria are energy producing, double-membraned organelles which are like organs for the cells. You may have heard of them referred to as the powerhouses of the cell and that’s because they generate ATP, our cells’ currency for energy, which our cells (and ourselves!) need to survive. Mitochondria contain their own DNA (which is separate from the DNA you’re used to, called nuclear DNA). DNA is transcribed into RNA which is then translated into protein and protein is one of the four building blocks for our cells/body. So if something goes wrong with the RNA processing, then we are setting ourselves up for something to go wrong with our protein building blocks.
Okay, back to my work – when mtDNA is transcribed, the new mtRNA organizes in membrane-less mitochondrial substructures called mitochondrial RNA granules (MRGs). We know that MRGs are membrane-less and contain newly-transcribed mitochondrial RNA. And we know MRGs are platforms for many processes of RNA processing and maturation. However, we do not know how they form, what keeps them together (remember they are membrane-less), and what determines protein and RNA composition. These unknowns are what I’m interested in exploring.
This sounds super interesting! What do you want the public to know about your work?
1: The public is funding it so they should know where their money is going.
2: Research contributes to the greater good of society – although this might not always be apparent since it is a slow process.
3: My work is really cool and if you don’t think so then I guess I need to spend more time convincing you.
What do you get up to when you’re not in the lab?
I’m currently the President of @SBU_GWiSE promoting #WomenInSTEM. I’m also the TA for Introduction to STEM Policy this semester which I’m excited for. I admin the #RoCur @Neurotweeps which is similar to @RealScientists with a focus on neuroscience.
I also enjoy cooking, running and yoga.
Finally, what does a perfect day look like?
On a perfect day, I’d wake up without an alarm to sun shining in my bedroom window. Then I would go for a solo morning run in the woods on a perfect brisk autumn day, where the leaves are turning colors. After returning home, I’d make brunch with that special someone while dancing to music and laughing. Then we’d lounge by the fireplace while reading a book before cooking a nice dinner with dessert and having a few drinks by the fireplace before calling it a night. Although I can’t control the weather and I don’t have a fireplace YET, the rest is fair game!
Caitlyn Cardetti, welcome to Real Scientists!