Sarah Keller’s lipid research yields the 2010 Avanti Young Investigator Award

KellerSarah  Keller, an associate professor at the University of Washington whose research focuses on how changes in membrane lipid composition lead to alterations in physical parameters that potentially modify the activity of membrane proteins, has been named the winner of the 2010 Avanti Young Investigator Award in Lipid Research.

 “Sarah's trajectory has been most impressive: Her studies have become more ambitious, more illuminating and more productive over time, and there is every indication of her continued ascent,” wrote one of her nominators, Theodore L. Steck, M.D., professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

 As a graduate student at Princeton University, and later as a postdoctoral fellow, Keller’s work has had a major impact on how lipid composition affects physical parameters of membranes that lead to changes in membrane protein activity and aggregation.  The impact of her early work directly inspired models of protein aggregation within membranes and provided an experimental basis for the theory of membrane lateral pressure. 

 As a faculty member at the University of Washington, Keller presented the first study demonstrating how micron-scale domains formation in membranes varied with cholesterol content and temperature. Since then, her work measuring lipid compositions in lipid domains with respect to the surrounding membrane have become the gold standard in the field. 

 More recently, Keller’s research in this area has had an impact on cell biology. 

 According to Keller’s colleague Michael H. Gelb at the University of Washington, pursuing this particular project was “ambitious and daring.”

 In contrast to a prevailing hypothesis, she definitively showed that lipid domains can be induced from one membrane leaflet to another.  In those studies, Keller showed that alterations in the composition of one leaflet could annihilate all domains in the membrane, even when one leaflet would have made domains on its own. 

 Given the fact that the molecular details of how lipids in liquid phases from one leaflet of a membrane affect lipids in the opposing leaflet are completely unknown, Keller’s results have opened a new field of study. 

 It is also clear that her work has shaped our knowledge of the physical behaviors accessible to cell membranes and their inter-leaflet effects on membrane lipid domains and proteins. 

 Gelb also emphasizes that Keller’s talents extend far beyond the laboratory.

 “Her student evaluations are off the charts, the highest in the history of the course. I am confident that, as a result of her inspiring teaching, many of these students will pursue advanced and creative research in the future,” he wrote. “I have already told her that I want to sit in on her course and see how she does it. She has won every teaching award on offer at the UW.”

 The Avanti Young Investigator Award in Lipid Research, established by ASBMB’s Lipid Research Division, recognizes outstanding research contributions in the area of lipids. The award consists of a plaque, $2,000 and transportation and expenses to present a lecture at the 2010 ASBMB Annual Meeting.


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