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World Traveler Studies Sub-cellular Rush Hour

Lizabeth Allison
Lizabeth Allison is a Hamilton Professor and chair of William & Mary's Department of Biology. She recently received a third renewal of NSF funding to continue her studies of the trafficking of proteins. (Image credit: Joseph McClain, College of William & Mary)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

For proteins in each and every cell of your body, it's always rush hour. Specific proteins have the job of traveling from the hinterlands of the cytoplasm into the nucleus — the cell's downtown.

These proteins, called signaling proteins, have important business downtown: Their mission is to bind with DNA (the building blocks of the genome) and facilitate gene expression. William & Mary molecular biologist Lizabeth Allison is a lifelong traveler herself. (She even started walking at eight months!) Amid journeys across the globe, she has been working to track the routes and signals of intracellular traffic. She and her lab are helping to explain the mysteries of the comings and goings of proteins. They were the first to report that one protein involved in hormone signaling — the thyroid hormone receptor — leaves the nucleus and heads back into the `burbs of the cytoplasm. They don't know why. Yet.

Name: Lizabeth Allison Age: 53 Institution: College of William & Mary Field of Study: Subcellular Trafficking of Nuclear Receptors

What inspired you to choose this field of study? Family legend has it that I started walking when I was barely eight months old and thus began my passion for travel and exploration. I planned the itinerary for many a family summer road trip, relished the views of the western states from the backseat of our station wagon, and later in life explored such places as Alaska, New Zealand, Cambodia and Antarctica.

It follows that this fascination would also extend to studying travels in the cellular world. As a graduate student, I initially focused on gene transcription, but then became drawn to the intricate pattern of intracellular trafficking of a small, but crucial, RNA (a transitional molecule between DNAs and proteins) molecule involved in protein synthesis. My graduate work launched me into the study of nuclear import and export mechanisms and how this highly regulated traffic control impacts regulation of essential genes. I have remained in this field ever since.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Each day I am repeatedly reminded of how fortunate I am to be in a profession that brings such great satisfaction. My daily activities are all motivated by a deep love of learning that began when I started kindergarten and asked my teacher for homework the first day of class — this has been the overriding theme of my life.

I got to this point because of one piece of advice. I was quite naïve as an undergraduate and had no idea what to do with my passion for learning and discovery. Fortunately, my undergraduate advisor took a personal interest in me and, sensing my lack of direction, told me that I should apply to graduate programs and become a faculty member at a university. So, I did. And he was right. I can't imagine doing anything else.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I spent most of my childhood either reading very thick books or playing in our backyard, which had a creek flowing through it and was flanked by mountains on one side and the sea on the other. I was immersed in nature. I do recall catching a frog in the creek once and experimenting with how it liked living in my doll house. The conclusion: it did not.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? My favorite things about being a researcher are those very rare and breathtaking moments when a routine experiment leads to a completely unexpected discovery. There is nothing quite like looking through the objectives of the fluorescence microscope or seeing an autoradiogram as it emerges from the film processor and realizing that dogma has been overturned.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? I would say the most important characteristic a researcher must have is a combination of the ability to think holistically, while at the same time paying attention to even the most seemingly minute detail. To make progress in research, reductionist and systematic approaches must be taken. But if the results stay in these isolated pieces, then major breakthroughs in understanding might be missed.

What are the societal benefits of your research? The lab is a marvelous place for training the future generation of scientists; it is filled with shiny equipment, bottles of solutions, miniature test tubes and the potential for turning out paradigm-shifting data. It has been particularly rewarding to discover how talented students can rise to the challenge of carrying out independent research. Observing students develop confidence and competence, watching hidden talents emerge, and eventually proudly shaking their hands as they depart for graduate and medical school programs, or to jobs in secondary education or biotechnology, are rewards of my career beyond compare.

Our National Science Foundation funded work contributes to the general understanding of how cellular traffic control is regulated. Delving into the structure and function of nuclear import signals in proteins allows us to refine predictive tools and provides insight into how a dynamic balance between nuclear import, retention and degradation of regulatory proteins modulates the expression of essential genes. How does this benefit society? At the applied level, understanding how traffic control is regulated in normal cells can lead to a better understanding of what goes wrong in diseased cells. For example, research suggests that disrupted traffic control may contribute to the development of some types of cancer.

A comic that illustrates nuclear transport. (Image credit: Joseph McClain/Rachel Follis, College of William & Mary)

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My Ph.D. advisor had the most influence on my thinking as a researcher. She gave me completely free reign to explore new avenues. She emphasized the importance of reading widely and broadly in the literature and thinking across many disciplines in molecular and cellular biology. She let me take risks and make mistakes — and in this way encouraged me to become an independent and creative scientist.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? I think most people imagine that science is a fairly straightforward gathering of "facts" — researchers ask a question, do an experiment, get an answer and that's that. They might be surprised to learn that the answer to one question spawns twenty more.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? I would rescue the sculpture of a nuclear pore complex made from recycled materials by some students in a molecular cell biology class a number of years ago. It is irreplaceable.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? Lab work requires intense focus. In the lab it is hard to find music that isn't a distraction, particularly if the music has lyrics. What one person finds pleasant is another person's "noise." When I'm alone in the lab, I listen to classical music, such as Vivaldi, Bach, Schubert or Debussy.

In the car? Well, I should note that I drive a stripped down 1997 Honda Civic that has a cassette tape recorder only. Needless to say, I am constrained by what is on the radio. When I'm working out on the elliptical machine, the only choice is opera. There's nothing quite like Pavarotti singing "Nessum Dorma" to feel inspired to keep going a few minutes longer.

Editor's Note:This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.