Inga Jarmoskaite | Microscopic Mechanics
Explaining my Research
RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is one of the most ancient molecules of life that is thought to have been present in organisms that thrived on Earth billions of years ago. Even to this day, our cells still rely on a diverse collection of RNA molecules, which enable the cells to grow, protect themselves from intruders and perform a variety of housekeeping tasks. Although chemically RNA is extremely similar to DNA – the carrier of genetic information, - RNA is much more versatile both in terms of its structure and function. Before they can carry out their diverse functions, RNAs often must fold into complicated networks of helices, loops and junctions, forming miniature machines that can, for example, make other molecules (like the cell’s most important factory, the ribosome), deliver cargos between different locations inside the cell (like the transporter RNA, or tRNA) and transform other types of molecules in a variety of ways.
My PhD thesis research focuses on the assembly processes that lead from a newly made, unstructured RNA molecule to its final functional structure. I am particularly interested in the roles of the so-called RNA chaperones in this process, studying how these “helpers” correct mistakes that inevitably happen during RNA folding and how they use the cellular fuel, ATP, to help RNA fold correctly. This is a relatively new area of research with many exciting questions still unanswered. Besides enhancing our understanding of how the cell works, answering these questions also holds promise in explaining some of the most severe human diseases, such as cancer and AIDS, which often involve malfunction of RNA chaperones and closely related molecules.
How did you become involved with “Present your PhD Thesis to a 12 year-old” project?
I saw Josh Russell present the project at an event and was immediately enthusiastic about his outreach idea. However, I was initially hesitant about preparing my own presentation: after all, the tiny molecules that fascinate me are not intuitively familiar to a middle school student and giving a clear and entertaining talk seemed overwhelming to say the least.
I drew some of the ideas for my presentation from the movie “Inner Life of the Cell” - a beautiful 3D animation that was released by MIT scientists and a team of animators a few years ago. In my talk, I introduce the cell as a buzzing city, picturing the molecules inside it as factories, machines - much like the ones we encounter in real life. And I introduce myself as a mechanic who repairs some of these machines using other tiny molecules as tools. This was one of the most challenging science presentations I ever had to prepare, but certainly one of the most rewarding ones as well!
What is your goal introducing such a project/topic to young students?
I feel extremely lucky being able to do what I do and I think that it is important for young students to be aware of science as a career path that is rewarding on so many levels and can accommodate such a broad range of interests and skills. Besides, I remember only too well how my own fascination for science arose not so much from studying textbook material, but from a handful of encounters with real scientists and learning about science from people who were genuinely excited about doing research to understand how Nature works.
I think, it is also important that our presentations help students learn –by introducing interesting science topics beyond school curriculum, explaining scientific methods and ways of thinking, as well as presenting different vantage points for things they may already know about.
From a more “practical” point of view, this project is obviously an immense learning experience for the presenters themselves. Communication is extremely important in science, and many of the same strategies we use in this outreach project will apply when communicating research in clear and exciting ways to non-scientists in general, and even to colleagues working in unrelated fields.
About the Ph.D. Thesis
Combining Biophysical and Biochemical Approaches to Study RNA Refolding by a DEAD-box RNA Chaperone