An Interview with AAUW Dissertation Fellowship Winner Caitlyn Cardetti

Congratulations to GWISE president Caitlyn on this fellowship! We are so proud! Keep reading for more information about Caitlyn’s research:

Name: Caitlyn Cardetti
Education: I earned a B.S. Human Biology and Psychology with a minor in Chemistry back in 2013 from Minnesota State University, Mankato. I am currently a Ph.D. Candidate here in Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology
Research: I study mitochondrial RNA processing. 
Future goal(s):  Immediate goal is to graduate and obtain a postdoctoral fellowship which all seems scarily close. My long term goal is to become a professor.

Caitlyn working in the lab

When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science? Who (or what) sparked your interest in this field?: 
This question is hard for me because I just always was. I played outdoors as a kid so I was always observing the natural world. I enjoyed and did well in my science and math classes. I worked in healthcare and liked learning about people and disease so I think that’s what ultimately directed my route towards human biology and medicine. But I didn’t want to treat people, I wanted to teach and make discoveries. I still want to teach and make discoveries and that’s why I would like to become a professor.

What is your research topic and why is it important?:  
Mitochondria are double-membrane organelles found in essentially all eukaryotes. Mitochondria contain their own DNA (mtDNA), maintained as circular genomes. Human mtDNA encodes 13 mRNAs, 22 tRNAs and 2 rRNAs; which in coordination with nuclear-encoded proteins build the respiratory complexes necessary for oxidative phosphorylation – the principal generator of cellular ATP. Mutations in nuclear genes leading to incorrect processing and maturation of mitochondrial RNAs cause many human mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondrial disorders have a collective prevalence of more than 1 in 5000 in the population. Furthermore, mitochondrial dysfunction is involved in aging, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Mitochondrial gene expression is regulated by two distinct structures: the nucleoid, a punctate DNA-protein complex, and the mitochondrial RNA granule (MRG). MRGs contain newly transcribed RNA and colocalize with the proteins GRSF1 and FastKD2. MRGs are dynamic structures that provide a platform for regulation of RNA processing and mitoribosome assembly. However, it is not clear how they assemble, how their protein and RNA composition changes, or which RNA processing steps are confined to the MRG.
My hypothesis is that MRGs are phase separated condensates. Condensates have defined boundaries but remain dynamic by exchanging materials with the surrounding environment. Condensates are enriched in scaffold protein separated by a phase boundary from the matrix with a low concentration. There are two main classes of proteins that form condensates under physiological conditions: proteins with intrinsically disordered regions (IDRs) and proteins with multiple copies of interaction domains (MCIDs). I propose that FastKD2 and a newly identified mitochondrial protein, Neugrin may serve as scaffold proteins driving phase separation in MRGs. FastKD2 has a segment of >=40 disordered residues and Neugrin (NGRN) is predicted to be almost entirely disordered, which is often a driving force for phase separation. I am also characterizing NGRN’s direct role in mitochondrial RNA processing.

You recently won the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Dissertation Fellowship! How did that feel? What was the first thought that went through your head?:  
It felt surreal. It still feels surreal. I couldn’t stop crying – happy tears. I felt recognized for all my hard work and it was really validating. I also felt relief because my funding has been in a bit of limbo so this is a major stress relief in that category. Then I felt like oh shit, I need to focus – because I set up a ton of lab work that day thinking I would need distraction from a rejection. I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong. 

Do you have any tips or advice for others applying to the AAUW Fellowship?:   
Give yourself time to write the best application you can. And get involved with GWISE  – they want to know about your commitment to serving women and girls and GWISE will provide you with many opportunities to do so. 

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science?: 
We all need to challenge our views on gender roles and work on our double standards every single day. We need to learn to identify microaggressions and understand the hostility they create can undermine someone’s ability to meet their full potential. This also applies to race, culture, religion, ableism, socioeconomic status, etc.

Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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