If humans run out of fuel sources, and bacterial infections are spreading rapidly, who you gonna call? Erika Taylor, Assistant Professor of Chemistry!
The Taylor Lab uses enzymology and organic synthesis of molecules to discover new drugs and improve biomass to biofuel conversion. Though biofuel and medicine may seem like disparate topics, the two projects work well together.
“All the techniques that we use are the same; it’s just a different application of the same sorts of methodology,” Taylor said. “Both projects have some organic synthesis; the biofuels side has more. Both projects are trying to understand how movements of the protein and changes in the structure, because proteins are actually very dynamic, help them to do the chemistry that they need to do. There’s more thinking about protein dynamics on the drug discovery side. So I think about everything for both projects.”
Taylor’s current research builds on her work as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and as a graduate student at the University of Illinois.
“I took organic chemistry my first semester my freshman year, Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 8 a.m.,” said Taylor.
Though Organic Chemistry at 8 a.m. would make most students cry, Taylor said that her professor, Brian Coppola, was inspirational.
“He showed me that organic chemistry was really like those logic problems that I loved from standardized tests, and it intrigued me enough that I wanted to do research,” she said.
Taylor worked in an organic chemistry lab that studied motuporin, a protein phosphatase-1 inhibitor. By synthesizing different forms of motuporin, the lab could discover which portions of the protein were responsible for the favored and disfavored effects. The lab would then chemically modify the protein so that it did all good and no bad.
Taylor enjoyed the experience, but learned that synthesis of organic molecules can be incredibly difficult and is unforgiving of minor mistakes. Therefore, as a graduate student, Taylor got more biological in her approach and began studying enzymes.
“We studied a lot of proteins that did really niche things,” she said. “And I was really frustrated because I wanted to do something that more people would care about.”
Today, Taylor’s medical and biofuel research combines her undergraduate and graduate studies.
“My lab now is a marriage of both of those things,” she said. “We synthesize some molecules so we can make the substrates for the enzymes, or so we can see if a compound is an inhibitor. I have both the chemistry and biology interplaying.”
Chemistry and biology are expected in a laboratory, but art also plays a large role in Taylor’s thought process and research methods.
“I’m a very visual 3-dimensional thinker, as you can see in my beast that I made, and also in terms of thinking about using proteins and thinking about how they work,” she said, pointing to a clay sculpture in the corner of her office. “So I see a very strong artistic link with enzymology.”
Finding a lab that combines biochemistry and art might be a University student’s dream, but landing a spot in Taylor’s lab is competitive.
“[There are] 3 graduate students, and I have 5 undergrads who are officially in the lab, and another 5 who are sitting in on lab meetings trying to get a slot, and 10 more who have contacted me,” she said.
Taylor accepts students from diverse disciplines, so long as they fit her parameters.
“The driving force for me is finding a person with a lot of curiosity, competence, and interest,” she said.
Taylor looks forward to her current and future research.
“I hope to be able to successfully edify some good inhibitors; I’m actively pursuing that,” she said. “I hope that my work, in terms of the biofuels, can be useful for biomedical engineers who are trying to add in genes to bacteria or yeast so that way they can make biofuels from these microorganisms. My hope is that those engineers that are trying to design these new organisms will take some of my findings and use those to impact how they’re designing things.”
Though the lab may not be creating life-saving drugs or helping to create the fuel of the future, Taylor has great advice for all students.
“Do what drives your passion and your curiosity,” Taylor said. “Because if your motivation is to sate your own curiosity, then you’ll always have that, and you’ll learn whatever you need to learn to find the answer to your question.”