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Karolin Luger: Unpacking the Secrets of DNA and Changing the Culture of Science

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How did you feel about science classes when you were growing up? If you’re anything like me, it was mostly a struggle. Chemistry and physics were especially difficult for me. But looking back, there were a few classes that I was pretty good at and were interesting: 9th grade biology and, later in college, genetics and biological psychology. I’ve always been interested in forensic science, too. Some times I wonder if I might have pursued a career in science, if circumstances had been different.

Karolin Luger in her lab

Karolin Luger in her lab

Having a teacher like Professor Karolin Luger might have made a difference for me, and other students who struggle with science. Luger, who teaches in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at CSU, specializes in epigenetics—the study of changes in how genes are expressed without altering the sequence of the genetic code, or DNA. More specifically, she is looking at how cells package DNA and how chromosomes untangle to expose genes that dictate cell behavior. During cell division, proteins need to access genes so that DNA can be copied, giving each cell its unique instructions (for example, as a liver cell or a skin cell). Ultimately, she and other scientists hope to understand the mechanism by which genes are expressed, and find ways to control cell division to cure diseases like cancer.

This is cutting-edge science, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have trouble understanding it. Before meeting with Dr. Luger, I tried reading up on epigentics and found that most of what is available is not written for the general public. Arriving at her office on campus, I was a bit intimidated and worried about how the interview would go. My concerns disappeared when she invited me in to her comfortable office, which is decorated with family photos and numerous plants. Dr. Luger was able to quickly determine my level of knowledge on the subject (better than the average freshman, she told me!) and she used a number of visual demonstrations and metaphors to help me understand her work. Thirty minutes later, I left the interview with a much clearer picture of her research and eager to learn more.

I will have that opportunity, and so will you, this Wednesday evening, when Karolin Luger will be the featured speaker at Beet Street’s Science Café at Avogadro’s Number from 5:30 to 7:00p.m. I enjoy covering the Culture Café series for the Beet Street blog. I get to meet fascinating people who are incredibly talented in their field. While I find that it really is the best way to get engaged in new topics and fields of research, there is usually something else about the person that sticks with me long after the program.

With Karolin Luger what really stuck with me is how she and other women scientists of her generation are changing the culture of science labs and education. Here is a

Luger with Nyborg and Stargell

Luger with Nyborg and Stargell

woman, famous in her field of research, trained at prestigious universities in Europe, who could easily be teaching at any major research university and promoting her own career. Yet she has chosen to build a world-class research laboratory here at CSU and devote her career to training the next generation of scientists (she says she chose CSU because the faculty are happy people with balanced lives and she felt she could contribute to the department’s vision for its future). In her lab, she strives to foster a good work environment for her students, providing a model for their future careers. Rather than compete for limited funding, she is pooling her research interests with her colleagues—with professors Jennifer Nyborg and Laurie Stargell, she has recently been awarded a $7.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Karolin Luger acknowledges that as a woman her approach to research and teaching might be different—and perhaps more productive—than the stereotypical aloof scientist whose students work to promote their professor’s career and are encouraged to compete with one another (which is not to say that male scientists can’t be nurturing). I think we’re seeing a generation of women scientists come of age who are finding new ways to lead and are serving as role models for young women interested in science. I never met someone like Karolin Luger when I was in school. I wish I had.

Written by Maggie Dennis

October 11th, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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