Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Penny Beuning sits down with the College of Science Graduate Program staff to talk about her research at Northeastern University.
Tell us about your current research.
My current research spans two distinct but related areas: DNA damage tolerance and understanding enzyme function through protein design. Our DNA is constantly being damaged, by environmental contaminants or from natural processes. Sometimes DNA is intentionally damaged, as is the case with many cancer drugs designed to stop DNA replication. Research in my group aims to determine the cellular consequences of DNA damage, which involves an inherent tradeoff between efficient DNA replication and the risk of mutations. Mutations can cause diverse outcomes including antibiotic resistance in bacteria and cancer in humans. Our focus is on a specialized family of enzymes that can replicate damaged DNA, thereby controlling the outcomes of DNA replication. A second project in my group is the result of a productive collaboration with computational chemist Prof. Mary Jo Ondrechen that aims to understand how nature builds enzymes and to use those insights to design proteins for new functions. One of our longer-term goals is to be able to design DNA replication and repair enzymes that are specific for only certain types of DNA damage, providing new tools for the detection and repair of DNA damage.
What drew you to your field?
My PhD research was to understand recognition of the adaptor molecule tRNA by the enzyme that attaches a specific amino acid to a particular tRNA, which is then used by the ribosome to build proteins. That process is not perfect, and one aspect on which I focused was the error-correction mechanism. This work got me very interested in understanding how cells maintain the integrity of the information encoded in their DNA, which led to my interest in DNA replication and DNA repair.
What do you like most about being a faculty member at Northeastern?
The emphasis on use-inspired research has prompted me to move my research in exciting new directions. The highly collaborative environment here has led to new research connections that facilitated many of these new directions in my work. The dynamic culture on campus makes new initiatives relatively easy to pursue.
What is your favorite part about Northeastern?
My favorite things about Northeastern are my student, faculty, and staff colleagues. There is a great entrepreneurial spirit here at all levels. The activation barrier to try new things is decidedly low.
What is your favorite part about Boston?
There is no better place to be a scientist; with so many seminars, interest groups, and professional organizations, any interest or question can be pursued. Boston is a great place to live, with plenty of culture and nature to experience. It is also really nice to live in a walkable, transit-friendly city.
What advice would you give to new and current COS graduate students?
Take advantage of being in Boston by going to seminars and building your professional network throughout your graduate career, yet remember that your fellow Northeastern students are also part of your network. Take advantage of this relatively safe environment to take risks and push yourself and learn to deal (better) with failure. Remember the adage, “The fastest way to succeed is to fail quickly.” Always balance your understanding of the details of your project with the big picture implications of what you are doing, and convey your enthusiasm to others when you describe your project and its implications.