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.
ASBMB: 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.