When Elizabeth May (@LizMayScience on Twitter) first arrived at MCB in 2015, she was a visiting undergraduate in the Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) program, which enables students from other colleges to spend the summer working in MCB labs. Today, she is a G4 in the MCO Program, a member of the Gaudet Lab, and a co-organizer of the SROH program.
“For the SROH program, we really look for students that we think will get the most out of the program,” May says. “We match students with a lab that complements their interests but gives them a different research experience than they’ve had before. The program especially prioritizes accepting students who want to pursue a PhD but for whatever reason don’t have access to as many research opportunities at their home institutions.”
When May started undergrad, the only thing she was sure of was that she “liked science but didn’t want to become a doctor.” Born in Rochester, NY to a software engineer mother and a physicist father, May chose to attend the nearby Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) for college, because it offered a range of excellent academic programs in the College of Science—and it had a good soccer team.
Soccer had been a passion of May’s since she was a six-year-old learning to kick a ball around the yard with her brother. She played all four years at RIT, earning a captain’s armband and an NCAA Academic All-American accolade as a senior. “I see echoes of this [soccer] experience in her graduate work: she has outstanding work ethic, team spirit and resilience,” says MCB faculty Rachelle Gaudet, who advises May now.
Off the field, chemistry was the subject that hooked May on science. At RIT, faculty prioritize teaching rigorous courses for undergraduates first and foremost, and her chemistry professor Scott Williams’ enthusiasm drew her into the scientific process. In her sophomore year, May began conducting inorganic synthesis experiments in Williams’ lab. He also encouraged her to spend a summer at a research-focused university.
“I applied to more than ten REU [Research Experience for Undergraduates] programs at schools across the country,” says May. “I was astounded when I got the acceptance email from SROH at Harvard, and I accepted their invitation pretty much right away.”
May says RIT was the perfect place for her to explore her interests as an undergraduate. The summer at MCB dovetailed with her prior research experience at RIT by giving her access to cutting-edge techniques. “I was placed in Xiaowei Zhuang’s lab as an SROH intern, the year after super resolution light microscopy techniques won the Nobel Prize,” May recalls. She went out of her way to capture an image of the proteins she was studying with one of the Zhuang Lab’s super-resolution microscopes.
“My SROH internship showed me that you don’t have to come from a Yale or a Stanford to be a grad student at Harvard,” May says. “What you do have to do is love science and want to do research every day. That is the message I want to share with people, especially students that come through the SROH program like I did.”
May first heard about the Gaudet Lab through another SROH student and briefly met her future adviser at the end-of-summer undergraduate research poster session. Afterward, May sent a follow-up email to Gaudet to stay in touch, and Gaudet replied with a paper about a family of proteins called protocadherins. It was the first paper May would read on her eventual dissertation topic.
As an MCO graduate student, May contributes to the Gaudet Lab’s effort to understand protocadherin proteins that manifest on the surface of neurons. “One very interesting and complicated question in neuroscience, I think, is: how do all of the many, many projections from all of the cells in the brain know where to go and how to wire up properly?” May says.
Every human cell has DNA instructions for making dozens of different protocadherins, but each individual neuron produces only a few kinds of protocadherins. When these proteins were discovered, researchers thought the unique combinations of protocadherins on neurons’ surfaces could help budding dendrites identify and accurately connect to other cells.
May uses structural biology and biophysics techniques to understand what protocadherins are capable of doing outside the context of the cell. Understanding the biophysical properties of isolated proteins can help disentangle protein activity in living cells. “Neurons close to each other use protocadherins to interact as the cells grow, exploring and sensing who else is around them,” she says. “What I want to understand is, how can protocadherin interactions inform a cell’s decision to stick around with its neighbor (or not)?”
May was especially excited about the opportunity to learn x-ray crystallography, a notoriously time-consuming technique for deciphering protein structures. May’s daily tasks include engineering cells to produce large amounts of protocadherins, cultivating those cells, and purifying the proteins to be grown into crystals or used for other experiments.
“One goal is to obtain an atomic-level picture of the molecules interacting with each other via x-ray crystallography,” May says. “We can carry out experiments to measure the biophysical properties of the proteins’ interactions. We hope that this combination of techniques will teach us about how protocadherin interactions encode the information neurons use to make decisions.”
May’s long-term goal is to become a professor, but she isn’t sure what type of college she’d like to call home. Running a research lab at a large university and teaching undergraduate students at a smaller liberal arts college both appeal to her.
But her Ph.D. is still an ongoing project, and, for the time being, she’s focused on culturing cells and growing crystals.
“Elizabeth already has shrewd research instincts—thinking creatively in developing both hypotheses and experiments to test them,” says Gaudet. “She is also an outstanding experimental scientist and is full of initiative to identify resources to pursue her ideas.”