Dr. Deborah Bell-Pedersen,
Thomas University Professor and Associate Head of Biology at TAMU is recognized as a leader in understanding the mechanisms by which circadian oscillators control rhythmic gene expression. Her interest in circadian clocks began with postdoctoral studies in the laboratories of Dr. Jay Dunlap and Dr. Jennifer Loros at Dartmouth Medical School in which she focused on molecular studies of the circadian biological clock in the model organism Neurospora crassa. Her work currently focuses on understanding how the clock regulates mRNA transcription and translation, and how defects in the clock are linked to cancer in humans.
She joined the Biology faculty at Texas A&M University in 1997, rising to Professor in 2007. She serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Biological Rhythms, and has held several leadership positions in her field, including serving on the Board of Directors for the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms and the Fungal Genetics Society and as Chair of the Neurospora Policy Committee. She has been awarded the TAMU Jo Ann Treat Award for Excellence in Research, Eminent Scholar Award, Distinguished Award in Research, and was granted the honorary title of University Professor. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Who is your role model, and why?
While there have been many, I would have to say my PhD advisor Marlene Belfort had the biggest impact on me by being a highly successful female scientist who managed to balance her career and family – she had 3 young boys when I was a PhD student in her lab. Despite heavy demands on her schedule, she always found time to meet with her students to discuss results and plan new experiments, while giving us the freedom to try new things on our own. I try to do the same with my students because I saw first-hand how her approaches helped us to develop into independent scientists. Marlene was also great at explaining complex processes in both her writing and speaking, and I try to emulate this in my papers, research seminars, and teaching.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
When I was a postdoctoral student in Jay Dunlap and Jennifer Loros’s labs at Dartmouth, I received an NIH postdoctoral fellowship to fund my salary and research. This meant I was no longer employed by Dartmouth, and resulted in losing my university health insurance. Buying my own insurance was expensive, effectively reducing my salary. I assumed that they knew this and therefore I didn’t say anything. It came up in a conversation much later, and Jay looked me in the eye and said something I will never forget. “You will never get what you want if you don’t ask for it”. I think we often expect others to know exactly what we want or need, but they don’t. I use this advice every day, and tell my students the same.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I am learning to play the violin. My father, who started out as a chemist and then became a systems analyst, was also musically talented and played many different instruments in orchestras. His favorites were the French horn and violin, and he played the violin professionally to help him pay for college. When he became very ill several years ago, he mentioned to my mother that he was worried about what would happen to his violin since none of us kids learned to play it. The violin was made in 1904 and was given as a gift to my father by his teacher when he was young. It meant a lot to him. My mother mentioned his concern to me and the next time I saw him I told him that I really wanted to learn to play the violin and would I be able to have his. This put a huge smile of relief on his face! Of course, I had to hold up my end of the deal and started taking lessons. I was incredibly fortunate to find a wonderful and extremely patient teacher, Marianne Henry, who is the first violinist for the Marion Anderson String Quartet. I love learning to play, but I get very nervous playing in front of audiences. This surprises me given that I have spent most of my life giving presentations to lots of people! My mother also played the violin, and my sister, who lives in NY, has her old violin and is learning as well. This makes for a fun holiday get together! In addition, I have several wonderful animals, a schnoodle dog named Charlie who was adopted from the local animal shelter, 4 rescue cats (Weeblie, Itsel, Bitsel, and Mimsie), a dressage horse named Hallie, and 3 adopted miniature donkeys, Lily, Lizzie, and Mae.
What got you so interested in Circadian Clocks?
When I was a PhD student, one of the faculty in my department studied biological clocks using a small marine organism, called Aplysia, as a model system to determine how light synchronizes the clock to the day/night cycle. I heard him speak about his work many times and found it fascinating, but understood that this would not be a good model organism for teasing apart the underlying mechanisms of the clock. I read up on the field and realized that while clocks play a fundamental role in an organisms’ life, little was known about how it worked at a molecular/biochemical level. At the time there were just a handful of labs using molecular genetics to study the clock, either using fungi or flies as a model organism. I was just starting to consider what I wanted to work on for my career, and thought that I would enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of the clock, and that I might be able to have a significant impact on the field in the future. I chose Jay Dunlap and Jennifer Loros’s labs for my postdoc to study the clock and its rhythmic outputs in the fungus Neurospora crassa.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have continued to study the Neurospora clock at Texas A&M. Our goal is to understand the fundamental mechanisms by which the circadian clock, important in human health and drug metabolism, regulates rhythmic protein production and thus cell function and metabolism. A longstanding puzzle in circadian biology is the existence of proteins that show robust circadian rhythms in their levels despite no rhythm in the levels of the corresponding mRNAs. We discovered that most of this regulation is due clock control of mRNA translation. Research in the lab is primarily aimed at determining the mechanisms for this regulation and we found that the clock controls translation in several different ways. For example, we discovered that translation stop codon readthrough, and thus translation fidelity, is clock-controlled. Importantly, aging is associated with both reduced circadian clock function and decreased translation fidelity. An exciting outcome of this work that we are now testing is the potential that increasing circadian clock function could improve translation fidelity and slow down the aging process.
What is on your bookshelf?
All of my old college textbooks, I could never bring myself to get rid of any of them! One that I love to read over and over again was from a parasitology course I took called “There’s a Worm in My Sashimi!”. It is funny and informative, and when I took the course I convinced myself that I had every parasite discussed in the book!