Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Parkinson, our featured new member in this issue of the Newsletter, began her appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Purdue University in August of 2018. In addition to ASP, Dr. Parkinson is also a member of the American Chemical Society and the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology (SIMB). We thank Dr. Parkinson for taking the time to talk with us and are pleased to officially welcome her to ASP.
By James Fuchs, PhD
What are your research interests in pharmacognosy?
In the Parkinson laboratory, we are interested in exploring cryptic biosynthetic gene clusters from Actinobateria. Specifically, as an organic chemistry/chemical biology lab, we are interested in investigating how chemical synthesis can help us to discover new bioactive natural products and derivatives. Currently, we are chemically synthesizing compounds inspired by bioinformatic predictions of the products from biosynthetic gene clusters. Additionally, we are determining their activities against antibiotic resistant bacteria, fungi, and cancer. We are also developing synthetic routes to gamma-butyrolactone signaling molecules that could serve as activators of previously unexplored biosynthetic gene clusters.
What is your scientific and educational background?
I have been interested in the use of natural substances as medicines for as long as I can remember. As a small child I would make “medicines” out of my mother’s flowers (to the great frustration of my gardener mother) for my “sick” dolls. As a junior in high school, I was so excited by the idea of medicines from plants that I applied for a summer program in Costa Rica focused on the medicinal plants that locals use. While I was not selected for the program, that did not quell my interest in science and the discovery of novel medicines. As an undergraduate at Rhodes College (BS in Chemistry, 2010), I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in the St. Jude Summer Plus program, a program where undergraduates get to perform research in a laboratory at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. I performed my undergraduate research in the laboratory of Dr. Philip Potter, where I focused on identifying molecules that decreased the toxicity of the chemotherapeutic irinotecan. My under undergraduate project helped me to realize how noxious many anticancer treatments are, while my experience volunteering with patients opened my eyes to the urgent need for better therapeutics. This motivated me to pursue graduate studies in the development of targeted anticancer agents with Prof. Paul Hergenrother (Chemistry, UIUC). My graduate studies focused on the synthesis of derivatives of the anticancer natural product deoxynyboquinone with improved solubility and pharmacokinetic properties as well as its mechanism of action. I graduated with my PhD in chemistry in 2015.
My graduate work on the synthesis of deoxynyboquinone and other bioactive natural products sparked my interest in the discovery and biosynthesis of natural products from actinomycetes. For this reason, I performed my postdoctoral research with Prof. William Metcalf (Microbiology, UIUC). While in the Metcalf laboratory, I isolated novel natural products and determined their biosynthetic pathways. My projects in the Metcalf lab opened my eyes to the large number of biosynthetic gene clusters from actinomycetes that remain uncharacterized. The existence of so many new and likely bioactive natural products greatly excites me. Additionally, the cryptic nature of these biosynthetic gene clusters fascinated me then and continues to fascinate me now. While the regulation of some natural products is understood, I feel like the regulation of most of them remains a mystery. This mystery is the inspiration for much of my research!
Specifically, as an organic chemistry/chemical biology lab, we are interested in investigating how chemical synthesis can help us to discover new bioactive natural products and derivatives. While the regulation of some natural products is understood, I feel like the regulation of most of them remains a mystery. This mystery is the inspiration for much of my research!
How did you hear about the ASP and what led you to join the society?
I first heard about ASP when I was a postdoc in the Metcalf lab. However, I did not really participate with ASP until this past spring. When COVID hit and we were required to quarantine, I found this quite isolating. One day when I was skimming Twitter, I saw that ASP was hosting a virtual webinar series (ASP Natural Product Sciences Webinar Series). I signed up pretty much immediately! I really enjoyed getting to hear about great science going on in ASP and getting to see what a vibrant community it was. It really was one of the highlights of my quarantine! Based on this experience, I wanted to continue to interact with this community.
What would you like to achieve through your membership?
I want to learn more about the great research being performed by ASP members. Additionally, I want to make connections with the people performing this research.
What do you like doing in your spare time?
I enjoy running, cooking, and reading. Recently, I have not gotten to do as many races as I would like. (I particularly like trail races, 10Ks and half marathons.) However, I have gotten to do A LOT more cooking and have even gotten to try my hand at brewing beer.
What are you currently reading?
I tend to read multiple books at once. I am currently reading The House in the Cerulean Sea (a very uplifting and sweet fantasy novel), Let Your Mind Run (a memoir by the Olympic runner Deena Kastor), and The Vaccine Race (a particularly relevant history of the development of the vaccine against rubella).
What has been your biggest adjustment during the COVID-19 era (personally or professionally)?
Learning to teach online. I teach first semester organic chemistry to ~450 students, so we obviously are not in person. I have been trying to figure out the best way to teach organic chemistry online. So far, it has been lots of videos with molecular models, shorter mini-lectures to hopefully keep my students attention, and more frequent/smaller assessments. The one positive is that I now feel like I have the time to have a weekly “bio connection” segment (something I have been wanting to do for the past two years). Many of the students that I teach are pre-health profession or biology majors. It is nice to get to tell them a little more about why organic chemistry matters and how it connects with their interests (e.g., the thalidomide story and how cannabinoids are biosynthesized).
Is there anything else you would like other ASP members to know about yourself?
The Parkinson lab is currently looking for a postdoc in natural product biosynthesis. If you are interested, please email me (email@example.com) with a cover letter, CV, and list of references.