Dr. Joanna Slusky, protein designer!

Dr. Joanna Slusky is a protein designer at the University of Kansas whose work aims to combat antibiotic resistance, a looming public health threat all over the world. Today, DiscovHER speaks to this inspiring scientist about her work, her motivations and her advice for budding scientists.

1. Can you tell us more about your work?

I’m a protein designer. Proteins are not just for food, they’re also the molecules that make the chemistry of life happen. Creating new proteins means we can use nature’s language to make new chemical processes that solve some of our most terrifying problems. I’m particularly committed to contributing to solutions to two problems: antibiotic resistance and the pollution of our waterways.

Coming up with new proteins allows me to work on threats to public health while also gaining a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of biological chemistry. Protein design straddles natural science and engineering by answering natural science questions through engineering new molecules. When I design proteins, I figure out what chemical composition would make the function that I want.

2. What are the potential short and long-term implications of your research?

The biggest focus in my lab is developing proteins to minimize the impact of antibiotic resistance. We are working on combating antibiotic resistance in two ways: 1) disabling the resistance mechanism and 2) lessening exposure to antibiotics.

Our first goal is to create proteins that will disable the antibiotic resistance mechanism. These proteins could then work as helper-drugs to be used along with existing antibiotics, making those antibiotics more effective against resistant bacteria.

Our second goal is to stop over-prescription of antibiotics. Currently, there is no cost-effective and time-efficient way for physicians to determine if an infection is bacterial. We are designing peptides to bind to a bacteria-specific molecule. We plan for these designed peptides to be used in point-of-care, infection diagnostics.

3. What made you decide to pursue a career in science?

My mother is a scientist, so I always thought of science as possible career. After my junior year in high school, I volunteered in a molecular genetics lab. I had liked science class, and I was good at it, but that summer I was awestruck by how much fun it was to do research. It was exciting to work on questions that had never been answered before. Learning to use all the tools that had been developed to understand tiny molecules made me re-think my daily actions; even simple tasks were better thought out, more thorough and more efficient than they were in daily life. When I made soup at home I stood and stirred, but in the lab we could walk away from our beakers by using magnets and coils to stir solutes into solution. Experiences with that type of basic laboratory equipment made me start to probe what other problems had been solved and what problems could I solve.

4. What would be your advice for young scientists?

My advice first and foremost is: make your work a priority. Science is difficult and time consuming.

My second piece of advice is: if you plan to have a life partner and if you plan to have children, find a partner who is supportive of your goals. It’s an extra level of challenging to be devoted to becoming a scientist if you have a partner who is unsupportive.

I know many couples where the husband assumes his wife’s career will be secondary to his own. When they both have professional responsibilities, he assumes that his wife will pick up the slack at home so that he can do his professional work. But this difference in assumptions doesn't become apparent until there is a lot of domestic responsibility such as with the starting of a family. Now, that’s a terrible time to discover that you won’t have the support at home to become the scientist you want to be.

So, if you plan on being devoted to your science, you will need to know that your partner supports you in that. Ask questions about this now while you are young and while you are still dating. Notice if your partner is willing to make small sacrifices for your career when necessary. Ultimately, if you find a supportive partner, you will be more able to work hard and achieve your scientific goals. Good luck!

For Women in Science

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