January 2011

An interview with Heather Pinkett

Heather Pinkett, an assistant professor in the department of molecular biosciences at Northwestern University, talks about her research and interests and shares some of the challenges she’s faced in her scientific development.

PinkettASBMB: Tell us about your current position.
Pinkett: I am an assistant professor in the department of molecular biosciences at Northwestern University. In 2008, I joined the faculty at NU after doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology in the laboratory of Douglas Rees. In addition to running a research group, my role as assistant professor includes teaching and advising graduate students. My research group consist of undergraduates and grad students all working on different projects that relate to the mechanism of transport. My lab is interested in how compounds are transported into and out of the cell, especially toxins, so we study membrane-bound molecular pumps called ATP binding cassette transporters to understand this mechanism.

Normally, proteins that bind small molecules recognize the shape of only one compound or the common features of a few related compounds. By contrast, several members of the ABC transporter family can induce multidrug resistance by recognizing and exporting a large number of unrelated compounds. For cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who develop multidrug resistance, expulsion of cytotoxins means that tumor cells are never completely eradicated. In MDR, patients who are on medication eventually develop resistance to not only the drugs they are taking but to several different types of drugs. Because all ABC transporters utilize ATP as an energy source for transport, basic mechanistic information that can be gleaned from structures may help us understand how this superfamily of proteins functions.

ASBMB: What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Pinkett: Most importantly, I have chosen to work in areas of great interest to me. These have turned out to be less-developed fields in which there are many questions left to answer. I find that doing research in a still-emerging field is the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, approach. My first long-term research experience was at the National Institutes of Health. After college, I decided to delay pursuing my doctorate for two years in order to spend some time in a research lab. I applied for the NIH Pre-Intramural Research Training Award program and was accepted at the National Human Genome Research Institute as part of the Prostate Investigational Group. There, I worked with Christiane Robbins and John Carpten in search of genes predisposing men to hereditary prostate cancer. After a few months, Christiane Robbins sent me to the National Institute of Standards and Technology to learn how to make bacterial artificial chromosome libraries, and I became the lab BAC library expert.

At this particular point in my scientific journey, being part of a research environment where my ideas were valued and I was a contributing member of a group was really important to me. My two-year research experience was phenomenal and solidified my belief in my ability to do good research. When I went off to graduate school, I did not question my research abilities since I had been successfully completing laboratory research projects for the past two years.

ASBMB: How did you first become interested in science?
Pinkett: I have been interested in math and science from elementary school on. I attended a math- and science-focused high school in New York City, but my “aha” moment occurred during my first year in college. Originally, I thought I wanted to be a child psychiatrist; I had even volunteered at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan for a summer. When I went off to college, I majored in biochemistry and minored in psychology. Sitting in my psychology classes, I found I was fascinated not only by the discussions of behavior associated with mental disorders but also by our discussions on neurotransmitters. I wanted to know more. I would carry these psychology discussions into my biology classes, inquiring about research on norepinephrine and serotonin levels in the brain. Making connections between my psychology and biology studies kick-started my search to find a lab in which I could gain experience doing research.

ASBMB: 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?
Pinkett: A large part of research is learning from your failures. If you’re not failing, you’re not really trying! I think any time your work is critiqued can be difficult. You develop a tough skin over the years when reading grant reviews or comments on a submitted paper. In the case of one grant in particular, I could not understand why my proposal was not selected, since I thought it represented my best work. After talking to senior colleagues, I found that learning how to improve the presentation of your research and gain information from reviewers after a grant is rejected is a common and important part of the grant process. You can’t be afraid to try again, especially if you don’t know the reason you are being rejected. It may be that this year the funding agency would like to award the money to cancer research and your project falls outside that area. I learned quickly that when applying for grants, you just have to choose carefully the opportunities that are most applicable to your research, clearly state how your research aligns with to the mission of the funding agency and try again.

ASBMB: What advice would you give to young people from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
Pinkett: Get involved in science research early on. You will never know if you would like to pursue research if you don’t give it a try. Most undergraduates at Northwestern University who apply to work in my lab enter with no experience at all, and I welcome them. My advice is to write a well-crafted, “Dear Professor X” letter that talks about your ambition and interest in doing research in their lab specifically. Ask the professor for the opportunity to shadow a student or postdoc in the lab for the academic year. When you join the lab, make an effort to read the papers that pertain to its research. Always take notes and ask questions; there are no silly questions, especially if you won’t understand your assignment without further explanation. And, most importantly, never object to starting with the most simple tasks. We professors see promise in freshmen who quickly learn to pour gels and make buffers and soon ask them to do more complex research-related tasks. Carrying out basic laboratory tasks could be the start of your long-term science career. With that said, it is never too late to get involved in science! After 12 years on Wall Street, my cousin Desmond went back to school to obtain a masters degree in geology.

ASBMB: What are your hobbies?
Pinkett: I love travel and photography, perfect hobbies for the scientist who gets to travel for conferences. One year, the Protein Society meeting was held in Barcelona, Spain, definitely one of the most beautiful and architecturally rich cities I have visited. I stayed for a few days after the conference to tour Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batllo and Casa Milà (la Pedrera). The pictures from that trip are framed on my wall.

ASBMB: What was the last book you read?
Pinkett: Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty.” Zadie Smith’s novels focus on the dynamics of race, age and economics.

ASBMB: Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
Pinkett: My mother has been a great role model for me as I have pursued my career aspirations. When I was younger, she spent nights and weekends studying for exams that she always aced. She taught me always to show up prepared. Starting with my undergraduate research experience, I also have benefitted from scientists who believed in my potential and gave me an opportunity. From gas phase kinetics to my research experience at NIH, I was given an opportunity to work on something that was completely outside my field. My graduate school and postdoctoral advisers continue to be supportive of my career path.

ASBMB: What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
Pinkett: I always remember after a long day of experiments that there is something to be gained, even if it is not the expected result. At the least, you learn how to design a better experiment. One of the great things about my job as a principal investigator is the control I have over pursuing research that I want to work on. For me, my interest in ABC transporters has developed into an interest in understanding multidrug resistance. The MDR phenomenon is not only a problem for cancer chemotherapy – using the same mechanism, ABC transporters also play a role in antibiotic resistance. Due to cross-resistance to antibiotics, fungal infections are now on the rise for hospital patients with compromised immune systems. The potential impact that results from my lab may have on the ABC transporter field is what gets me up in the mornings.

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