Allison Williams, a graduate student within Penn State’s Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology Program, was recognized as the 2021 recipient of the Richard L. and Norma L. McCarl Graduate Scholarship
Each year, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, selects one doctoral student to receive the award. It is given to the student who is an outstanding student within the Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program. Each student defending a doctoral dissertation is automatically considered for the award.
Allison currently works in the Bevilacqua Laboratory, under the mentorship of Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Philip Bevilacqua. The goal of the Bevilacqua lab is to study RNA at the interface of chemistry and biology. The lab works across the spectrum of chemistry and biology-oriented research. Allison’s project sits right in the middle of using chemistry to understand biology. Within the laboratory, her research focuses on the study of RNA structure and G-quadruplexes in biology.
Over the past 10 years there have been significant advances in technology, and much progress in the development of research methods, that have enabled scientists to gain insight into how RNA functions. Even with this advancement and progress scientists still know very little and seek to understand the RNA Structure-Function Paradigm. Once scientists, like Allison, can unlock the secrets behind the paradigm not only will they gain more understanding of biology in general but will also gain understanding in how to use RNA as a tool.
Allison’s research specifically studies RNA in a test tube to better understand what it could be doing within a cell. “My role is to study a specific RNA structure and understand how different components of a cell may change its fold or behavior,” says Allison. In a recent paper, published in Biochemistry, she highlighted her discovery that G-quadruplex structures can aggregate in the presence of the biological molecule spermine in biological salt concentrations.
Her discovery marks an exciting time within the field of RNA research because this phenomenon was thought to be sequence specific, meaning that not all RNA G-quadruplex structures were able to do this. Because of Allison’s discovery, that there is some selectivity within RNA G-quadruplex structures, researchers may now be able to better understand why some RNA molecules in a cell can undergo a similar phase separation.
Where does Allison’s research progress from here? Well, the next step within her research is to identify what happens when different biological molecules are added to G-quadruplex structures. “We want to know if we will see something similar or if biological molecules can dissolve, or cancel out, the results we saw with spermine,” says Allison.
Allison, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is in her sixth year within the BMMB Program and hopes to graduate during Summer of 2022. “I have really fallen in love with RNA biology through working with Dr. Rita Mihailescu as an undergraduate and with Dr. Phil Bevilacqua in graduate school,” says Allison. She is currently identifying postdoctoral positions and hopes to stay in RNA biology in one form or another, whether it be by running her own laboratory within academia or working in industry.