The Graduate Forum would like to congratulate Morgan Thompson on her recent publication in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Volume 20, Issue 1. Thompson, who defended her dissertation this fall in biochemistry, collaborated on the article with Ernest Heimsath, Timothy Gauvin, and Professor Henry Higgs, all of the Department of Biochemistry, and Dean Jon Kull of both the Department of Biochemistry and the Department of Chemistry.
At Dartmouth, Thompson conducted research on proteins related to cell structure. She used a technique called X-ray crystallography to generate images of protein structures that are too small to see with even the most powerful microscope. Specifically, Thompson was interested in interactions between actin and formins, two proteins involved in facilitating cell movement. Actin molecules combine to form rigid filaments that give shape to cells, and formin molecules interact with actin to control actin filament growth.
In their recent article, Thompson and her collaborators investigated how formins promote actin filament elongation. Their work represents only the second example of a formin bound to actin visualized through crystallography, and the structure they modeled was probably closer to the way the proteins interact in nature than what has previously been observed. The process of crystallizing proteins to create structural images can cause them to act in ways that they would not naturally, explains Thompson, so it can be complicated to get images of physiological interactions. Research on the interaction of these proteins is significant because it increases our understanding of how cells change shape to move throughout the body, which is important for understanding various diseases, such as cancer.
One of Thompson’s main interests while at Dartmouth was in teaching, both undergraduates and younger students. She was a teaching assistant for four terms, for which she won the Graduate Teaching Award. Thompson also taught science to sixth graders in Enfield, New Hampshire, as part of a National Science Foundation Graduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in K-12 Education (GK-12) fellowship. In addition, Thompson led labs in several local fourth grade classrooms on the importance of hand washing, after her mother, a local fourth grade teacher, asked for her help in explaining germs to her students.
Thompson found spending time in the classroom especially rewarding—she recalls the thank you notes that she received from students after she had visited their classes. “One student even wrote me that it was the best day of his life!” she recalls. While she found her work in the lab very interesting, it was this time working with students and witnessing their developing interest in science that Thompson found particularly meaningful. She also feels that it is extremely important for Dartmouth, an institution with such a variety of resources, to contribute to the surrounding community.
As a result of her experiences, Thompson decided to pursue a career in teaching. She now works as a high school teacher at the Pingry School in New Jersey, where she teaches biology to students in ninth and tenth grade and a course in molecular biology methods to eleventh and twelfth graders. She enjoys her job, and, in particular, is excited that she can teach complex molecular methods to her students. Thompson notes that the methods she is teaching her juniors and seniors are “the same ones I used in my lab at Dartmouth.”
Thompson feels that her experiences as a graduate student at Dartmouth prepared her well for her new position in that she was able to develop her teaching skills as well as work on her research. She is grateful to the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) for the teaching support that they provided, as well as to her advisor, Dean Kull, who always encouraged her in all of her teaching and outreach endeavors. Having her dissertation work published in Nature is a satisfying culmination to her graduate career, and Thompson is eager to continue working with students to encourage others to be excited about science.
by Elizabeth Molina-Markham