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An Interview with Catherine Scull, PhD


Posted by Rafee Mirza on 2022-01-10

Interview with Catherine Scull, PhD

Interviewer: Rafee Mirza




Dr. Catherine Scull is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Walter Lab in the Department of Chemistry. Her research seeks to better understand the co-transcriptional folding of riboswitch RNA. Dr. Scull received a B.S. in Cell, Molecular, and Microbial Biology from Auburn University and went on to complete her PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics in the lab of David Schneider at Auburn University. 


Rafee: Can you tell me a little bit about what you and the Walter Lab study? 


Dr. Scull: In the Walter Lab, we study RNA biology broadly. How RNA can influence gene expression, such as differentiation of cells, but also how it can influence smaller things, such as how changes in RNA itself affects the way it folds. We use exciting technology called “single molecule”, which allows us to to look at individual pieces of RNA molecules. It gives us greater insight into what a particular piece of RNA undergoes through interaction with another protein. 


Rafee: Single-Molecule Analysis gives you an immensely detailed view of what you are studying, but how often do you step back to look at the greater picture of the puzzle?


Dr. Scull: An analogy I like to use is a horse race! Imagine watching the Kentucky Derby from a blimp and seeing the “smear” of horses travel from the top, but you also don’t know why the fastest horse is the fastest because you cannot see it. We use tracking devices like fluorophores to see these actual interactions. Imagine if we put tracking devices on the front and back hooves of a horse, it would allow us to see when and how it is galloping. 


Rafee: What type of instrument do you use to do such analyses?


Dr. Scull: We use TIRF (Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence) microscopy! The reason they are so useful is because most of the light is reflected out of the surface. I use a lot of prism-based TIRF microscopy, so only a tiny bit of the surface is actually excited. This gives us an evanescent field very close to the surface of the sample. 


Rafee: What was your undergraduate and graduate experience like?


Dr. Scull: I went to Auburn for my undergraduate and moved to the University of Alabama Birmingham for my graduate work, and this is where I was exposed to single molecule work. I often saw two different populations of enzymes but you could not differentiate them because you could only look at them alongside the rest of the proteins. And so, that led me to research for single molecule labs for my postdoctoral studies. 


Rafee: What did you study in graduate school and how was it different from your work now?


Dr. Scull: In graduate school, I studied an enzyme called RNA Polymerase I. “PolI” makes all of the ribosomal RNAs and it is directly linked to protein synthesis, making it a prominent candidate for cancer therapeutics. The problem is that if you inhibit PolI, which is very similar in structure to PolII, you have a chance of having some indirect binding and it would shut off all your genes. The goal was to create some sort of a transient decrease in rRNA to give only cancer cells stress. I wanted to look at things that would affect PolI but not affect PolII. We were interested in figuring out differences between them. 


Rafee: Have you ever been interested in studying it through other models?


Dr. Scull: Kind of, it is much harder to isolate PolI from human cells than from yeast cells partly due to the fact that yeast grows much faster and it is an older system. The Schneider Lab is now utilizing more mammalian systems.


Rafee: Was research something you always wanted to do?


Dr. Scull: I did not know what research was when I was your age in undergrad. I spent most of my time thinking I wanted to be a pharmacist, because I was interested in how drugs interact with the human body. During my undergrad, I got to work in both a research lab and in a pharmacy, so I was able to get both perspectives. I think that pharmacy is a wonderful career, but it was not my calling. I loved research and I went through the whole, “am I smart enough? Am I the write person for a PhD?”. But I knew I really liked research so I applied. I went with what I was excited about and it worked out.


Rafee: At both an emotional and technical level, how did you deal with setbacks in a lab setting?


Dr. Scull: I think that you have to “feel that feeling”, you can’t just put it away. You need to recognize that you are not defined by your failures, but how you respond to them. It is still never easy and there are always going to be challenges. Having that mindset where every challenge is an opportunity to become a more developed person is the best thing you can do to overcome it.


Rafee: Would you still use the same kind of approach in real life?


Dr. Scull: Definitely. One of the biggest skills you gain from graduate school is learning how you yourself deal with adversity. There is a lot of growth in critical thinking and dealing with other people. Learning to tap into the network around you for support is also essential. 


Rafee: When did you learn to not say “yes” to everything?


Dr. Scull: I learned it a bit in grad school but I think it is still something I struggle with. But that's OK! It's a mark of a caring and good person to want to say yes to everything and that's not a bad thing. 


Rafee: How has Walter Lab been?


Dr. Scull: I started in April 2020, which was a really weird time to start a job. There have been a lot of growing challenges and a lot of pandemic challenges. But the science is really cool and the people are phenomenal. It has been a different kind of challenge than I expected. There is a lot of stress on independence as a postdoc, figuring out your own schedule and learning what to say yes to. It is difficult sometimes to create your own definition of your job. The goal is to develop skills so that you are successful in the next phase of your career, it is still a training position. 


Rafee: What do you envision as your next step?


Dr. Scull: I have a deep passion for mentoring and training, it’s one of the most fulfilling parts of the job. I've learned in recent times that there are a lot of opportunities to develop trainees in industry and faculty positions. I would love to do scientific research for the rest of my life, but I think both options are great.


Rafee: Would you see yourself as a teacher?


Dr. Scull: I love mentoring and I love teaching in small groups, but it is very stressful to perform in front of  a class of 150 people. I love the idea of teaching in a small setting, but I do not think I would enjoy teaching in such a large setting. If it becomes a part of my future job, then I will work hard to be good at it, but at the moment, it’s not something I feel particularly gifted in. 


Rafee: When you are mentoring someone or teaching a small group, what are your core philosophies?


Dr. Scull: I like to convey the message that I would like the audience to take home and do it in a way that is easiest for the audience to understand. Creating engagement with your audience, whoever you are interacting with, is the most important thing. The best way to do that in academic science is to put together a convincing story, a line of thought that is attainable for a broad group of individuals. To make it something where there is engagement from both sides is ideal. 


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faculty, Chemistry, Walter Lab, Interview, Rafee Mirza, RNA

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