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Person-to-person: Nicole Hackenbrack

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Person-to-person: Nicole Hackenbrack

Nicole Hackenbrack.

17 October 2018


Nicole Hackenbrack, a Ph.D. student in the Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) program at Penn State, has been working with Susan Hafenstein for the past three years. In addition to studying the various structures that allow viruses to interact with human host cells, Hackenbrack is pursuing a number of other research questions that make use of the cryoEM imaging facilities.

In one project, she is exploring how the protein alpha-synuclein stacks together to form small fibers called fibrils that disrupt brain activity in patients with Parkinson’s disease. In another project, she is investigating the structure of a partitivirus that infects pepper plants.

“The Krios allows me to push the data in ways that I was not able to do with previous technologies,” said Hackenbrack. “The partitivirus has 60-fold symmetry, which means, in terms of reconstructing a 3D map, you essentially have 60 versions of the same view that can be averaged to form an image. That gives you a much stronger signal. But if you want to visualize something that’s only happening at one of those 60 sites, you really do need a high-resolution image. The Krios can give me that.”

Much of Hackenbrack’s time is spent screening samples to ensure that they will produce good-quality images when using the microscope.

“There’s a lot of ways that the software has become more user-friendly, but at the same time we’re finding that there are tricks to get the best sample preparation,” she said. “Our lab is screening different conditions for imaging certain proteins to see if we should add certain ingredients or do something a little differently.”

Hackenbrack’s interest in biological structures was sparked by an instructor’s enthusiasm during a course she took as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The course, called The Structural Basis of Disease, explored imaging techniques like X-ray crystallography and examined the intricacies of drug design.

“We learned why it takes so long to make a drug and how you get a drug to where you want it to go in the human body,” said Hackenbrack. “And to understand all those things, you have to understand how proteins change when the patient has a disease and how proteins interact with drugs. I started looking at protein structures and was hooked.”

Hackenbrack also serves on the Eberly College of Science Climate and Diversity Committee, where she has worked with other graduate students to identify commonalities among student experiences across the college’s departments as well as challenges students may face.

After completing her Ph.D., Hackenbrack hopes to pursue a career in science education or science communication.

By Gail McCormick.