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Spotlight on Laura Dassama: Postdoctoral Fellow in Molecular Biosciences and Master Brewer

Created: April 8, 2016
Laura Dassama

Laura Dassama integrates science into her life both professionally and recreationally: she is a postdoctoral fellow in Rosenzweig Lab, and she uses her scientific insights to brew beer in her free time.

Laura moved from Liberia to the US, first to attend the University of Miami and then Temple University, where she became involved with undergraduate research in biochemistry. This led her to pursue a doctoral degree at Pennsylvania State University, where she studied the structure and function of enzyme cofactors. She was introduced to Northwestern during her graduate career when she collaborated with her current postdoctoral advisor, Amy Rosenzweig, on a project to obtain a high-resolution crystal structure of a protein.

“Protein X-ray crystallography is something that has always fascinated me. It was such a great experience working with Amy, I decided to come to her lab and work with her on one of her projects.” Laura explains, “Although I came here to learn one technique, she put me on a project that has allowed me to expand my knowledge much further beyond crystallography of proteins.”

That project is the biological oxidation of methane gas.

“Methane is a greenhouse gas that sticks around and is destructive to our environment, so we would like to convert it to something more useful,” Laura explains. “There are bacteria that actually live on methane as their sole source of energy. I’m interested in how the bacteria that metabolize methane get the nutrients they need to be able to do this. We know that they require different transition metals, especially copper, to function. So how do they get copper in order to do this?

Laura, who is in the third year of her postdoctoral fellowship, has received funding grants from the National Institutes of Health and, most recently, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The Burrough’s grant provides three years of funding for postdocs to take their research in a slightly different direction from their mentor’s lab. This has given Laura the opportunity and funding needed to examine her own ideas, namely, how bacteria acquire drug resistance.

“I work with a multidrug resistance protein in this lab,” Laura says. "Bacteria express such proteins in response to antibiotics and foreign (drug) products; these proteins then secrete the drugs, allowing the bacteria to live. One of the things I find fascinating is how these proteins can recognize so many different drugs and classes of drugs in order to get rid of them.”

Laura’s love of science expands beyond the lab and into a cold glass, so to speak. She spends her free time developing her passion outside of lab work: brewing her own beer. While she enjoys everything she has made so far, her favorite batch was a Belgian-style IPA. She hopes to one day brew something that she has never tried before. 

 “It’s actually very scientific because it’s a lot of microbiology. You have to culture yeast and get it to convert whatever sugars you’re adding to the beer to alcohol, so I really enjoy that part.”

Although her scientific background is convenient, she admits that she can sometimes get carried away in the details. “The people I brew with might think I’m a bit crazy,” she laughs, “I go a little overboard with sterile techniques because I know how you need to be stringent about those in order to get reproducible results.”

When possible, Laura gets involved with outreach activities, especially encouraging girls to pursue careers in science. Most recently, she had a high school science teacher and student shadow her for a day. “They were fun to be around” she remarks. “They got to learn how bacteria are not all bad; and can do really good things. I like reaching out to girls who are still early on in the process of thinking about science as a career. Science works! It’s challenging, but it’s very rewarding.”

Laura will be applying for an academic position in the fall. She considers academia to be her “dream job,” and looks forward to starting her own lab. For Laura, depth of department trumps job location. “I can live and work anywhere, but it is important to have a supportive environment with a department that is open to different ideas.“ she says, “When it comes down to it, it will be most about where I can do the best science possible.”

Wherever she ends up, Laura will continue her quest for great science and great beer.