Cristina Pop, Ph.D.
Cristina Pop earned her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at North Carolina State University and came to Sanford-Burnham in June 2004, as a Postdoctoral Fellow. Pop studies caspases in Guy Salvesen, Ph.D.'s lab. Discovered in 1990, caspases are essential enzymes from the human body. Their role is to trigger cellular death when a cell is infected, injured, aged or mutated. If a caspase fails to do its job, the excess cells cannot be removed. As a result, sick cells accumulate and continue to divide, resulting most often in cancers. On the other hand, if caspase activation occurs too early, then healthy, useful cells die. This process can lead to autoimmune or neurological disorders. Pop is working to find new ways to target and regulate caspases.
Carol Curchoe, Ph.D.: A Day in the Life
I work with human embryonic stem cells in Alexey Terskikh, Ph.D.’s lab, a responsibility I take very seriously. Each day, I come to the lab eager to solve a tiny problem that may one day combine with other researchers’ discoveries to alleviate suffering. The goal of my research is to coax stem cells into becoming specific types of neurons. I have tried to convince the cells that this is in their best interest.
A typical day consists of me “feeding and watering” my garden of stem cells. Once a week, I transplant them so that they have room to grow. I take a group of particularly good-looking cells and suspend them in media that allows them to become neural progenitor cells, precursors to the neurons I want. After a few days, the cells are semi-specialized. They can form any type of nervous system component but can no longer form liver, lung or pancreas cells. My next task is to ask them to become so specialized that they can do only one thing.
The neurons I hope to make will not cure Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or repair a severed spinal cord; instead, they may one day replace damaged nerves outside the brain and spinal cord—the nerves that provide us with touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing.
Will my cells have accepted my guidance and become the mature neurons of the peripheral nervous system? I am searching for the evidence—a protein named Peripherin.
I finish staining my cells, center my slide and fiddle with the microscope’s focus knobs. I switch from white light to the ultraviolet light that will excite any fluorescent molecules that have stuck to my cells. Fine crimson filigrees of neural process extend before my eyes, and I feel elated. Finally, my cells have done what I asked of them! I frantically snap the pictures that will prove their existence. For today, at least, success.
Dinner will wait.
Lutz Tautz, Ph.D.: Fishman Awards
It’s not an uncommon dilemma: start your career or get more schooling. If you go the career route, you earn more money in the short term but can ultimately lose earning power. If you opt for schooling, you have to be poor a little longer. There are more than 200 postdoctoral fellows at Sanford-Burnham, and while they are gaining experience and training at one of the world’s premier scientific institutions, their salaries don’t go very far. These economics can crimp their career development, as attending conferences, taking outside classes or even buying a personal computer can be beyond their budgets.
Fortunately, for a few select postdocs, the Fishman Fund can help. The Fishman Fund was created by Mary Bradley and Reena Horowitz to honor Sanford-Burnham founders Dr. William and Lillian Fishman. Each year, the fund committee reviews applications and makes $5,000 grants to select Sanford-Burnham postdocs to help with their career development.
Lutz Tautz, Ph.D., is a staff scientist in Robert Rickert, Ph.D.’s lab, where he is developing ways to get beneficial molecules inside cancer cells. For Tautz, the Fishman Award he received in 2006 was a great help. “The award pays for things you probably couldn’t have done otherwise, like a conference or a computer. But what I think is much more important is the recognition you get. It can really help your career.”
For more information, or to contribute to the Fishman Fund, contact Chelsea Luedeke at email@example.com or 858-795-5239.