Laura Dassama, Ph.D.

Tell us about your current career position.Laura Dassama
I am currently a Kirschstein NRSA postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at Northwestern University. I work within the laboratory of Prof. Amy C. Rosenzweig, where I use physical methods to understand how methanotrophic bacteria acquire and utilize essential transition metals. Methanotrophic bacteria metabolize methane as their primary source of carbon and energy, and as such provide routes for the remediation of this potent greenhouse gas. 

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in my career occurred when I was a sophomore at Temple University. At the time I was on a pre-med track, but was much more fascinated by enzymes and the difficult chemical transformations they catalyzed. After discussing my interests with a professor, he recommended that I do some biochemistry research for a summer. At the end of that summer, I became convinced that I really did want a career doing biochemistry research.  

How did you first become interested in science?
I guess this happened early on, when I asked so many questions that they called me a “question box”. With science I have learned that I will never run out of interesting questions to ask, and better than that, I may actually be able to answer some of those questions. 

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
Of course! I remember a particularly hard year in graduate school. I had developed a method and had used several model systems to validate the method. For one of those systems I just could not reproduce my initial positive results. This led to months of frustration, during which time I feared that I would be “scooped”, that the method was not valid, and that I was just a terrible scientist. I had to rule out all of those possibilities by critically evaluating all of my work up to that point. Eventually, I was able to reproduce my initial results, and in the process was able to optimize the method significantly. 

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
I would suggest that you identify your interests and strengths early on and find an area of focus that accentuates those interests and strengths. Working in science is rewarding, but perhaps only if you work on problems that interest you. 

What are your hobbies?
I really do enjoy brewing beer! I have been told that one can learn more microbiology by brewing than I did by taking a class or two. I hope that is true. I also enjoy running, both for physical and mental fitness. 

What was the last book you read?
I last read a chapter on hyperfine interactions in a book titled Mössbauer Spectroscopy and Transition Metal Chemistry by Gütlich, Bill, and Trautwein.  However, the last book I read was Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coehlo.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I guess I have had quite a few role models, in science and outside of science. Of those, one person whose career I admire a lot is JoAnne Stubbe, Norvatis Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Biology at MIT. JoAnne has asked some of the most difficult questions regarding the reduction of ribonucleotides to make DNA precursors. Even though some of her hypotheses for the mechanism by which this occurred initially seemed far-fetched, she worked tirelessly and was fortunate to see those hypotheses proven true. Some of those, including the long distance radical translocation and proton-coupled electron transfer mechanisms, are today accepted, but initially were incredulous to the community. That she was able to stick with her ideas in spite of what others believed (or did not believe) is especially admirable.

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
The problems I work on an are interesting enough to keep me awake at night, and the thrill of answering some of those questions gets me out of bed and into the laboratory every day.