Dr. Audrey Atkin

Dr. Audrey AtkinGenetics, Cellular & Molecular Biology (GCMB)

Contact Information

Research & Teaching Focus:

  • Molecular Genetics and RNA Biology

How many years have you been at UNL?

  • 18 years!!

Undergraduate University/ College:

  • University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. 

Undergraduate Degree and Major:

  • B.Sc. Microbiology, Co-operative Education. (The co-operative education program is a work study program where we had four paid work terms that alternated with academic semesters. In our work terms, we had the type of jobs we would be qualified for when we graduated.)

Graduate University/ College:

  • University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Graduate Degree and Major:

  • Ph.D. Genetics
How did you know you wanted to be a biologist? 

I became interested in microbiology when I wrote a paper in high school on the deep sea vents. I was intrigued by the idea that living organisms could adapt to and form a successful community in such a different habitat. I learned that I wanted to do research though my co-operative education experience where I had the opportunity to work as a microbiologist in labs ranging from quality control to basic research. I learned that I really liked research and that I wanted to be the one making the decisions about what research questions to pursue.

What were you like as an undergrad/grad?

I was motivated by the classes that challenged me the most in my undergraduate program and I liked lab work. Most of my science courses had accompanying labs and I really enjoyed the labs. It was the first time that I had more to do than I had time available so I had to learn how to organize my time more efficiently and study effectively. I liked the contrast between the academic semesters and the work terms. My favorite work term was at the National Research Center in Ottawa, the capitol of Canada. I also did do an undergraduate research project, but my one regret is that I did not start the project earlier. I graduated with the intent of going to graduate school and then working in biotechnology.

My Ph.D. thesis research was on the construction of yeast tryptophan tRNA suppressors. As a graduate student, I immersed myself in research and graduate courses in genetics. I also taught for the first time. I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching. It was that realization that caused me to change my plans and lead me to pursue an academic career.

What was your favorite class as an undergrad/grad? 

  • Genetics and Molecular Genetics

What is your favorite research project? 

I have two favorite research projects:

  1. The first is our work on the regulation of wild type gene expression by the nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD) pathway. This pathway was originally discovered by its role in monitoring the integrity of mRNAs that are being translated. The NMD pathway rapidly degrades mRNAs that cannot be completely translated because they contain a premature termination codon. We have contributed to a more complete understanding of this pathway by showing that it also plays an important role in degradation of specific wild type mRNAs as well. We have identified two new signals in wild type mRNAs for rapid decay by the NMD pathway (Kebaara et al., 2003; Kebaara and Atkin, 2009) and developed a bioinformatics approach for identifying genes that are co-regulated by NMD (Taylor et al., 2005). Currently we are studying three wild type mRNAs with NMD targeting signals that evade NMD with the goal of identifying the mechanisms that are responsible for protecting these mRNAs from rapid decay by the NMD pathway. This work is important because in humans approximately one third of the known genetic diseases result in abnormal mRNAs that code for truncated proteins. Currently strategies are being developed to manipulate the NMD pathway for treatment of these diseases. Therefore it is critically important that we understand how the NMD pathway also regulates wild type gene expression to identify and minimize the potential side effects of therapies that modulate NMD.
  2. My second favorite research project is on the role of Candida albicans quorum sensing in morphogenesis and host pathogen interactions. This project is a collaboration with Dr. Ken Nickerson, a microbial physiologist in the School of Biological Sciences at UNL and Dr. Thomas Petro, an immunologist in the University of Nebraska Medical Collage. C. albicans is the most common opportunistic fungal pathogenic of humans. It is normally found in the gastrointestinal and genitourinary tract and to a lesser extent on the skin of most people. However, given the opportunity, it can cause systemic infections where it spreads throughout the body and then forms fungal masses in the kidney, heart or brain. Ultimately systemic infections frequently cause death. It has the ability to grow and interconvert between different cell shapes (morphological forms). The ability to change morphological forms is regulated, in part, by the quorum sensing molecule farnesol. Farnesol is synthesized by C. albicans and it blocks morphological changes in response to most, if not all, inducers of the morphological change. Farnesol also acts as a virulence factor for systematic Candida infections in a mouse model, and the response to farnesol is unique to C. albicans because it does not block the morphological change in the other dimorphic fungal species we have tested. We are determining how C. albicans interprets signaling by farnesol at the level of gene regulation and expression, and then executes this regulation through changes in cell structure, dynamics and function (Kebaara et al., 2008; Langford et al., 2013). We are also determining how farnesol affects the interaction between C. albicans and its host (Hargarten et al., submitted). This work is important because it will help us understand how this fungus controls its morphology and causes systematic infections. This, in turn, will provide a series of new targets for the design of novel drugs to treat C. albicans infections. There is a need for these drugs because the current drugs are not always very effective and as a consequence too many patients with systemic Candida infections are still dying.

How do you balance teaching and research? 

I try to integrate my research and teaching as much as possible. This works both ways. In some cases, I incorporate my research into the teaching. In other cases, things I have learned through teaching have informed our research.

What do you do when you aren’t teaching or in the lab?

  • Spend time with family and ride my horse.

What has been your proudest moment as a scientist?  

I am proud of the overall research record established by the past and present members of my research group rather than any one particular moment. We have established a solid research program by a focus on meaningful questions and doing high-quality work. I am also proud of how their hard work has enabled them to follow their own unique career paths.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? 

Finding balance between work and raising a family (I have three children – a daughter just finishing grade 8 and twin boys just finishing grade 5).

What do you enjoy most about working with students? 

I enjoy seeing students realize their potential. I deliberately create opportunities to challenge my students to apply their knowledge in new and creative ways. The “ah-ha” moment when they realize how powerful this is really rewarding. I also give them opportunities to practice the professional skills used by scientists and I enjoy seeing their confidence grow as they develop these skills.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

If you were not a biologist, what career would you want to pursue? 

Elite Dressage rider and trainer

What three adjectives best describe you?

  • Organized
  • Caring
  • Empowering

April 2014