In 2011, F. Anne Stephenson became an associate editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry after serving as an editorial board member for more than eight years. Stephenson is a molecular neuroscientist at the University College London, where she was appointed a professor in 1995. Her research focuses on fast-acting neurotransmitter receptors and the associated scaffolding and trafficking proteins. Stephenson has served on the British Neuroscience Association Committee and the Neurochemical Group of the Biochemical Society. She is a member of the Medical Research Council’s College of Experts and recently completed a four-year term on the Molecular and Cellular Neurosciences Committee of the Wellcome Trust. Stephenson spoke with ASBMB Today about her research interests, her thoughts on the JBC, and her perspective on life. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Tell us what your group works on.
We’re interested in neurotransmission. When people were studying neurotransmitter receptors in the early days, they thought there was just one type of every neurotransmitter receptor. When molecular cloning came about, it became clear that there were families of receptors for each neurotransmitter molecule. We study two different families, NMDA and GABA receptors. Both receptor families are implicated in many neurodegenerative disorders. The aim of my laboratory for a long time was to determine the complexity of these receptors. We developed sequence-specific antibodies to distinguish between these very highly related proteins so that we could study their distribution and functional properties. That’s how we started to study the scaffolding proteins, which are cytoplasmic proteins involved in the clustering and targeting of neurotransmitter receptors to the right place of neurons. We discovered [for example] the trafficking kinesin family of scaffolding proteins. TRAK proteins form a link between motor proteins and their cargoes and are involved in the mitochondrial transport in neurons. We’re also studying interactions between NMDA receptors and the protein amyloid precursor protein that’s implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.
What has been your career trajectory?
I started out at Cambridge University, where I got a degree in natural sciences, which gives you a very broad scientific education. I went to do either physics or chemistry, but Cambridge was very male-dominated. I remember going to physics classes where I would be the only girl. I lost interest. In the second year, I took up biochemistry and really loved it. The molecular aspects appealed to me, and it seemed to be more relevant because you could see the clinical applications. I still graduated in chemistry, but I did that one year of biochemistry.
After leaving Cambridge, I earned a master’s degree in neurochemistry [at the University of London]. I had absolutely no idea that I was going to go into research, but I just loved my laboratory work. I then did a Ph.D. at the University of Bath in the U.K., where I studied the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor at the neuromuscular junction and its role in an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis. I next went to the United States [in the early 1980s] to Richard Olsen’s lab, which, at the time, was at the University of California, Riverside, but is now at [University of California, Los Angeles]. I wasn’t there for very long, but I started to work on GABA receptors. Going to America was a big thing for me in those days. It introduced me to American science.
I went back to the U.K., got a fellowship from the Medical Research Council and joined Professor Eric Barnard. He was then at Imperial College in London. I carried on with GABA receptors. At the time, molecular biology was really starting to have an impact on neuroscience. Eric Barnard led that field in the U.K. I was very fortunate to get another fellowship [in 1983] from the Royal Society, which is analogous to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. They had a scheme to try to hold onto young scientists by giving them quite long fellowships. The first year that the fellowships were announced, Professor Barnard put my name forward, and I was very lucky to get one of those. I held it for eight years. Although I was working under [Barnard’s] big umbrella, I still had some independence, because I had my own salary.
I got my position at the School of Pharmacy [at the University of London in 1989] and set up my own lab. My lab still had the very old-fashioned huge teak benches, which I had to scrub down with help from Mike Duggan, my first postdoc! I then got some refurbished space, and I am still in that space now.