All she needed to know to fall in love with molecular biology, Dr. Tora Smulders-Srinivasan learned at 15 years old, in her tenth grade biology class. While she had been aware of basic hereditary concepts, Tora hadn’t been exposed to DNA, genetics, RNA, translation, or transcription until then. In that classroom, Tora says, she fell in love. “I loved the whole idea of DNA. The fact that there is a molecule that transfers between generations – and that is what sets up the whole organism. It just fascinated me. The whole idea of making RNA and proteins – I loved it, I thought it was the best thing.”
Tora attended Cornell University and majored in biology. Of all the required classes, genetics was her favorite. The more she learned, the more fascinated she became. During her sophomore year of college, Tora enrolled in the required “genetics 101” course and worked on her first Drosophila project. While other students were annoyed that they had to go into the lab at night and work with the Drosophila, Tora looked forward to it and aced the course. Taking advantage of Cornell’s option to specialize within the general biology field, she specialized in genetics and development.
At the advice of one of her professors, Tora applied to Duke University for graduate school. Upon her acceptance, Tora met with her professor’s former PhD student, Dr. Haifan Lin, who was studying germline stem cell division in Drosophila at Duke. She concluded her first year lab rotations at Lin’s lab, and subsequently started her PhD project in that lab.
Dr. Lin was investigating the regulation of stem cells. Germline stem cells in Drosophila divide asymmetrically. When the stem cell divides, one daughter cell remains a stem cell and the other daughter stem cell becomes an egg. Most cells in an organism divide equally so that both cells are identical to the parent cell. Only stem cells have the unique property of dividing asymmetrically. During his Post Doc, Lin had discovered a specific gene called piwi whose normal function was to keep stem cells as stem cells. When mutant, the gene affected the germline stem cells, causing them to stop dividing asymmetrically and go directly into the differentiation stage. When piwi is mutant, the cells no longer remain stem cells, proving that the gene must be essential for stem cell maintenance.
Tora’s PhD project sought to identify which genes, proteins, and cell signaling pathways other than piwi, are involved in keeping a stem cell a stem cell. Tora used the piwi mutant deficiency screen to look at what other components might be interacting with the mutation in the gene. She found some individual genes that normally interact with piwi in a negative manner. When those genes were mutated, the piwi mutation improved in a negative-negative interaction. Her paper ‘Screens for piwi Suppressors in Drosophila Identify Dosage-Dependent Regulators of Germline Stem Cell Division,’ published in Genetics in 2003, discusses the experiment and results of this project.
Another paper based on her work in Lin’s lab, has not yet been published. Tora took one of the stronger suppressors that she found in individual genes and characterized the interaction in greater detail.
After she completed her PhD, Tora moved to the UK with her husband, Tom, who accepted a lecturer position at Newcastle University. Tora and Tom met at Cornell when she was an undergraduate and he was completing his PhD. Following their move to the UK, Tora sought to obtain a post doc position there.
She contacted Dr. Doug Turnbull and Dr. Robert Lightowlers who are involved in mitochondrial research at Newcastle University. Tora’s project involved working with mouse embryonic stem cells in culture, and studying mitochondrial DNA mutations. It was a whole new system, as she had never previously worked with cell cultures. Moreover, this wasn’t just regular cell culture work – it was neuronal differentiation of embryonic stem cells, which takes time to master. Since she was granted a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) for Individual Postdoctoral Fellows, Tora had the funding to continue her research for the next three years.
During her time as a post doc, Tora went on maternity leave following the birth of her son. She assertively states that both science and her family are important to her, and recognizes the difficulty in raising a child while developing a career in science. “I have always wanted to be a mother… I think my passion for science is only exceeded by my passion for having a family. As a scientist there is just no good time for it. I guess it’s a choice you have to make… I only wish it was easier to be a woman in science – to have a career in science and have a family – and do both without falling behind in either area.”
While her fellowship ended in February of this year, she was able to continue working on her project until last month, as she was granted a 6 month extension for her work. For now, Tora is focused on completing her post doc paper. She also is planning on launching a Drosophila project combining her expertise from her PhD and post doc. “I worked on Drosophila for my PhD and I love the system. It’s really an open field now for this area.” There are a lot of genetic “tricks” than can be manipulated with Drosophila, something Tora knows a lot about. She’ll be engaged in preliminary lab work on Drosophila, then applying for fellowships at the PI stage. Tora hopes to remain in academia, and is seeking a faculty position.
“I really love research and I love science. I don’t love doing experiments all the time that don’t work. On a day-to-day basis, science can be really difficult – but on a long term basis, it’s what I love to do.”
- Follow Tora on Twitter: @toraks
- Read Tora’s 2003 Publication: Smulders-Srinivasan TK, & Lin H (2003). Screens for piwi suppressors in Drosophila identify dosage-dependent regulators of germline stem cell division. Genetics, 165 (4), 1971-91 PMID: 14704180