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Svetlana Ikonomova

Postdoctoral Trainee in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Svetlana Ikonomova

The more I learn through my research or casual reading, the more I realize how much more there is to learn, and that prospect excites me. ”

Svetlana Ikonomova is a postdoctoral trainee in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. Her research explores the use of bacterial microcompartments to produce desirable chemicals that are difficult to produce in bacteria. This process has the potential to expand the field of sustainable production of desirable commodities.  

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience? 

Bacteria are typically thought to have no organelles and therefore no organization within the cell. It turns out some bacteria do have organelle-like structures called bacterial microcompartments. These compartments have enzymes inside of them and provide advantages, such as sequestering toxic molecules away from the rest of the cell and localizing molecules needed by enzymes to be active. I am taking advantage of these microcompartments so we can make chemicals more sustainably through bacteria mini factories instead of chemical synthesis. 

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work? 

By taking advantage of bacterial microcompartments, we have the potential to make chemicals that are difficult to produce in bacteria. We can overcome bottlenecks, such as the toxicity of intermediate products, or the competition with the rest of the cell for helper molecules needed for enzyme activity.  

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work? 

Because I work with cells, experiments can take days, and sometimes the cells can behave unexpectedly. However, that also makes it very rewarding when the results I obtain after days of work support my hypothesis. 

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career? 

Sometimes, seemingly unrelated topics can have a surprising connection. I worked as a process engineer in a semiconductor fabrication facility after my undergraduate studies. The experience inspired my interest in pursuing sensor/diagnostic research for graduate school and led me to join my PhD lab. Although my dissertation's main focus ultimately shifted away from the sensor/diagnostic field, the protein engineering knowledge and skills I gained in my PhD lab led me to attend conferences that introduced me to the Tullman-Ercek Lab, which I joined as a postdoc. 

Why Northwestern? 

I became interested in the Tullman-Ercek Lab and Northwestern after attending a conference talk given by a graduate student from the lab. The existence of the Center for Synthetic Biology and the collaborative nature among the labs within the center further excited me and led me to choose Northwestern. 

What books are on your bedside table? 

The Harry Potter series in Japanese. I read Harry Potter books to help me learn English when I moved to the U.S. during middle school. Now, I am using them to refresh my Japanese. (Bulgarian and Japanese are my first languages as I lived in Japan during my kindergarten/elementary school years.) 

What inspires you? 

Curiosity and thirst for knowledge. The more I learn through my research or casual reading, the more I realize how much more there is to learn, and that prospect excites me! 

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path? 

Be confident in yourself. You will make mistakes, and that is okay. The important thing is to learn from the mistakes and move on. 

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you. 

I started a collaboration with the Jewett Lab from Northwestern to use cell-free protein synthesis and metabolic engineering as part of my ongoing project. Since joining Northwestern, I have become more interested in the cell-free field, so I am excited to incorporate it into my research. 

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn? 

As I was about to write my first manuscript during my graduate studies, I discovered that an antibody used in an experiment was unexpectedly binding to a different target. This finding meant that the previous six months' work involving that antibody was unusable. It was a devastating finding at first and delayed publication of my manuscript. However, I learned strong troubleshooting skills that I continue to use today. 

What are you most proud of in your career to date? 

Obtaining my B.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell University. While both of my parents have graduate degrees, I am the first person in the family to get a B.S. (and later PhD) in the U.S. and in English. As someone who only started learning English at the end of the 6th grade in a new country, I am proud of that achievement. 

Published: May 18, 2021 

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