Smiling from behind her desk as she reached up and alternated both arms like she were crossing a set of monkey bars, animated Jennifer “Jake” DeLuca, researcher and assistant professor at CSU, flashed back to when her cell biology professor Dr. Salmon, showcased these epic moves.
This little comic maneuver, used to illustrate microtubule dynamics, sparked her interest in an area, which would one day become her career. Leaving her early college endeavors behind — anthropology and the Greek classics — DeLuca pursued cell biology.
“I was one of those kids who would change what they wanted to be every day. I changed my major five or six times. (But) when Dr. Salmon put up his arms to describe (microtubules), it inspired me to go into cell biology,” said DeLuca with a genuine laugh.
History and a scientist
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, DeLuca moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. for graduate school, where she worked with Dr. Less Wilson on microtubule dynamics research.
Microtubules are tiny barrel-like projects within the cell that aid in the process of cell division, otherwise known as mitosis. Her thesis encompassed the isolation and study of mitotic microtubule motor proteins –/or the microtubules that attach to chromosomes and allow for cell division –/in an effort to understand how cancer and genetic birth defects develop during cell division.
Wanting to pursue a post-doctoral degree in cell biology and microscopy, DeLuca and her husband moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., where the humidity got the best of her husband as he unpacked in the summer heat, blanketed with sweat.
Back to her roots at the University of North Carolina, she not only enjoyed working with her mentor and long-time friend Dr. Ted Salmon, but also took some time for school spirit, witnessing both times the basketball team made it to the national championship.
In 2007, DeLuca and her family ventured back to the drier land in Colorado. Opening her lab on CSU’s campus that year, DeLuca and her team set out to understand the cellular mechanism, or microtubules, used to evenly divide chromosomes.
Chemicals used in anti-cancer treatments including chemotherapy kill not only cancer cells, but healthy, rapidly dividing body cells like hair, blood and stomach cells, causing nausea and hair-loss, among other side-effects. With her research, DeLuca hopes to understand specifically how microtubules help to divide mutated cancers cells, hopefully leading to the development of treatments that will halt cancerous cell division and spare the healthy cells.
“By studying how the microtubules attach to chromosomes during cellular division and the proteins involved, we can potentially identify new targets for rational anti-cancer drug design,” DeLuca said.
Humans, rat kangaroos and a lab
Her lab team —- involving three undergraduates, two graduate students, one post-doctoral, one research scientist and one technician — is now working specifically on one microtubule-chromosome complex called NDC80 using human and rat kangaroo cells.
Far from a typical joey, the rat kangaroo cells provide the team with a unique way to observe the cells during division because they’re huge, even though the animal is about the size of a hamster. More importantly, the cells remain flat during mitosis, whereas human cells puff out like a blowfish, making all the chromosomes easily visible on one plane.
Another key aspect is rat kangaroo cells have very few chromosomes, compared with humans who have 46 total, making it easier to pin-point particular microtubule interactions.
“We are lucky (we can) visually watch the process using a light microscope,” DeLuca said.
As a new investigator, DeLuca was awarded the 2009 Pew Scholars Award earlier this month. Unlike other grants given for research, the Pew Scholar is unique in that the money endowed to those chosen is not limited to one experiment. DeLuca, granted $240,000 for the next four years, has the creative freedom to follow any path depending on where her research takes her.
“(We) have an opportunity to pursue and expand our research. Most other (grants) fund outlined experiments, (and you are) restricted by the outline. That’s what makes this award so neat because (we) have the flexibility to use money at (our) discretion (and) pursue exciting and unexpected results that might arise,” DeLuca said.
DeLuca plans to use the grant money to further her study of the binding interactions between microtubules and chromosomes, and examine the proteins outside of the cell, called in vitro, to understand biochemical properties including how they bind.
Partnering with other universities including CU-Boulder, DeLuca is working with their engineering department to create a 3-D image of this binding site by taking photos on multiple planes and putting them together. They hope to publish the results of this experiment by next spring.
The people behind the microscope
Walking down the hall of the Molecular and Radiological Biosciences Building, DeLuca enters her lab to find everyone each working on their piece of the puzzle. Walking around the small quarters to greet everyone, the trustworthy relationships DeLuca shared with her team were evident.
Geoff Guimaraes, a fourth-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry, unlatched a plastic container holding the results for his experiment to show to DeLuca. His ultimate goal is to build a graph showing the maximum limit of proteins a microtubule can hold, which influences how a cell divides.
Working with DeLuca in the lab for two-and-a-half years he said, “I can’t imagine working in another lab. Science isn’t always easy, it’s great to come in and work with good people.”
As for her Pew Scholars grant, he said, “I’m stoked. Usually only people from (schools like) Harvard, MIT, and Yale win this award. (It shows) what a top notch scientist she is. (It’s) extremely prestigious and great. She totally deserves it.”
Betsy Buechler, a senior biochemistry major, has worked with DeLuca’s lab “pretty much since it started,” and said of the experience, “it’s been really fantastic. She answers questions and takes time to work with me . (and) help with the lab as a whole. (She’s) always smiling. It’s great.”
When asked what makes DeLuca unique, Buechler said, “she’s a really well-rounded person (and) takes time to get to know people as people.”
Having had her as a cell biology professor as well, Buechler said as a professor, DeLuca is very interactive and goes beyond the norm.
“The way she explained stuff wasn’t just reading words off a slide. (She) used visuals,” she said. “(With) microtubule motor proteins, her acting that out helped me more than any video or words on a PowerPoint could.”
Speaking on the importance of research on campus, DeLuca said, “I think that research as a whole at an academic institution is essential for biomedical progress to occur. Undergraduate research is an extremely valuable part of (their) education whether they plan to pursue a research career or not.”
She added, “It provides an opportunity to be creative, to become a critical thinker and to carry out ideas to an endpoint. Gaining these skills is important no matter what career you choose.”
As for what she wants students to know, DeLuca said that she wanted them “to know how enthusiastic I am. I love what I do and I hope the passion is infectious. I hope they develop their own passion for whatever their projects are and are as excited about it as I am.”
“There are so many things in the world to do and to see. (You’re) lucky to find something (you’re) truly happy doing,” DeLuca said.
A mother, a national park passport carrier, a mentor, a runner and now a Pew Scholars grant winner for biomedical science, DeLuca’s journey, though it started with a little hand gesture, continues in leaps and bounds. Her research takes a unique view at “curing” cancer by not only killing what’s there but preventing it.
Staff writer Lauren Leete can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.