July Lab Spotlight: Walter Lab
Each month, The Michigan Daily’s Research beat publishes a feature on one University of Michigan laboratory or research group to highlight the efforts of the lab team and the importance of the research. The following article is the lab spotlight for the month of July 2023.
This edition of The Daily’s lab spotlight features the Walter Lab. Directed by Nils Walter, professor of biological chemistry, the lab studies RNA biology and DNA nanotechnology with the hope of helping create future medical innovations.
A variety of postdocs, doctoral students, graduate students and undergraduate students in a range of subspecialties across biology and chemistry make up the staff of the Walter Lab. Walter said the diversity in expertise and backgrounds is crucial to innovative science.
“My philosophy about science is that in the end, diversity matters a lot,” Walter said. “If you want to do cutting edge science, oftentimes you have to hear what else goes on in adjacent fields.”
The lab has a biology and a microscopy lab manager, with a variety of micro groups that specialize in different topics including intracellular RNA and bacterial RNA. Postdoctoral fellow Adrien Chauvier, biology lab manager, said getting an outside perspective from people in other disciplines is valuable to his own research.
“Putting together all those microgroup meetings, pairing people together even though they are not in the same field exactly or the same project — we can benefit from each other,” Chauvier said. “I always said that the paper that I published in this lab, yeah, I did the work. But most of the ideas and troubleshooting came from another microgroup actually, a microgroup that was not at all into bacterial DNA, but they are the expertise that I needed.”
Walter sees himself as a generalist, and said his ability to look at the broader picture outside of individual specialties helps him run a lab made up of so many areas of expertise.
“I’m interested in the big picture,” Walter said. “I’m interested in picking up tools from computation of bioinformatics, from telecommunications, (from) whatever to apply to biological questions we are experts in, but I want to, in the process, educate people broadly, but also want them to contribute broadly to the enterprise.”
Neel Chhabra, a high school student working at the lab for the summer, said he found the lab to be welcoming, and appreciates the researchers’ willingness to talk to him about the work they are doing.
“In my six weeks here, I’ve never ever felt that science was being kept from me,” Chhabra said. “It’s always been like, I can go ask any of the postdocs, ‘Hey, what are you working on?’ and ask them questions on what they’re doing, what the application is, and I can just understand it.”
Walter said he considers a variety of elements when taking on new projects, including potential logistical challenges. According to Walter, it is more difficult to get funding for a project if the proposal is similar in nature to one that has already received funding. Beyond funding, Walter said personal interests and the interests of those working in the lab are important considerations for new research directions.
“When you have some flexibility (with funding) … then intellectual curiosity is the other big driving force, and that curiosity can come from me in that I go to conferences or talk with colleagues and see ‘Oh, this is a cool technique,’ or ‘This is an interesting type of question.’ ” Walter said. “And so that might spawn new ideas in projects that eventually then you go back and get more funding for, but it could also be individual students or postdocs.”
Doctoral student Jingxuan Tang studies a specific mutation in a gene that codes for a quality-control protein that causes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This protein checks to see if other proteins produced in the cell meet that cell’s standards.
“In human cells, there’s a lot of things that are misfolded,” Tang said. “Not every protein that your cell makes is functional and then (if not) it needs to be degraded, before things go wrong.
Doctoral student Emily Sumrall is part of the lab’s intracellular RNA microgroup. Sumrall said while her group as a whole looks at the role of RNA within cells, her specific research focuses on the interaction between RNA and disordered proteins, or proteins lacking structure.
“I’m studying how RNA generally interacts with disordered proteins, generally,” Sumrall said. “I’m taking a model RNA, and a model protein, and then putting them into a test tube, and then looking at it under a microscope.”
Microscopes are crucial in a lab that focuses on single-molecule analysis. Microscopy Lab Manager Sujay Ray said he trains new lab members on how to use the lab’s microscopes and makes sure they are aware of the tools the lab has to offer.
“I generally train people (on) whichever microscope they want to use,” Ray said. “I also give a brief overview of what we have in the lab. It’s good to know what we have in the lab, because if you are planning some experiment (but) you don’t know if something exists in the lab, you cannot plan.”
Research into fundamental sciences, which explore the way things in the universe work at a very basic level, does not always have immediate effects on the real world. In the case of RNA research, however, fundamental science research can open up a variety of opportunities, many of which lie in the field of medicine.
Walter said as bacteria evolve to become resistant to antibiotics, knowledge of gene regulation and the role of various RNA may be important in finding a way to make antibiotics less susceptible to antibiotic resistance.
“What I’m currently very excited about is this possibility to use what (we’ve) learned about gene regulation in bacteria to potentially design new types of antibiotics that will be very specific to the bacterium and will overcome problems with small molecule drugs where the bacterium can quickly evolve a mutation that basically makes it resistant,” Walter said.
Tang said even though the mutation she’s studying is relatively rare, it is still important to learn about because the mutation is interwoven with other mutations in the cell.
“You study all these mutations and they’re connected,” Tang said. “They’re all in the cell. Their pathways are connected, and if you only study one pathway, and then you don’t go to the other pathways, you don’t know the link between (them) and probably don’t know the general cell biology as a whole.”
Nakelle Cooper, a high school student working at the Walter Lab during the summer through D-RISE, said she now sees science as a collaborative process after her time at the lab.
“I used to think that scientists would just work on doing their own research and all that.” Cooper said. “It’s a lot easier and probably a lot more fun if you’re working with other people doing science.”
Summer News Editor Abigail VanderMolen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.