January SOTM: Rebecca Toroney

By Pallavi Sirjoosingh

Dr. Rebecca (Becky) Toroney took to biochemistry during her undergraduate years at Franklin & Marshall College. While working under Prof. Ryan Mehl, she helped develop a novel method to increase protein stability using UV cross-linking by incorporation of photoreactive unnatural amino acids. Following undergraduate studies, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. In addition to her interest in all things scientific, Becky was encouraged to pursue graduate studies by a mentor at home. Her sister, Rachel, who at that time was attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, gave Becky the behind-the-scenes on what “graduate school entails”. The state-of-the-art research facilities were great but it was talking to her eventual thesis advisor and mentor, Phil Bevilacqua, that convinced Becky to join Penn State, “He was enthusiastic about his research, and encouraged me to work with him over the summer before I joined graduate school”. Even though her summer research project was focused on studying pKa shifting using NMR, Becky decided she wanted to be closer to molecular biology, and her thesis work was focused on the different structural features of RNAs responsible for regulating protein kinase PKR.

It was in Phil’s lab that I met Becky. Her persistent attention to detail, a quality that also makes her a great scientist, was evident in her meticulous lab notebooks, well-organized lab bench, and a desk that would be the envy of Martha Stewart. One of my earliest memories of Becky is asking her for a plasmid, and watching her retrieve a 10X10 excel spreadsheet map of her sample box to pinpoint the exact location of the tube – I still aspire to this level of organization. In graduate school, I watched and learned from Becky mentor a fellow graduate student, and benefitted greatly from her advice during group meetings and random lunchroom conversations.

After finishing graduate school Becky decided to continue academic research. While attending the ASBMB conference in California, Becky saw a talk by Prof. John Staley at the University of Chicago. Becky wanted to pursue her postdoctoral research on a topic different from her graduate research work, and “splicing was an interesting and established field, and John’s research was unique from Phil’s”. After speaking with Prof. Staley, Becky realized that the research project may entail more genetics but it helped that Prof. Staley “was trained as a chemist”, and that she would still have a “foot planted in chemistry”.

During her tenure at the Staley lab, Becky earned the prestigious NIH Ruth L. Kirschtein NRSA Postdoctoral fellowship, and a postdoctoral research grant by the Chicago Biomedical Consortium, for her research on the U6 snRNA’s role in the spliceosome disassembly. Early on in her scientific career, Becky had watched her graduate school mentor tackle the pressure of obtaining scientific funding. She decided that the responsibility of having “multiple people’s careers and livelihoods depend upon my ability to obtain tricky research funding” was a source of stress that she wanted to avoid in her professional career. Following the completion of her postdoctoral research work, Becky decided to join Abbott Molecular as a Senior Scientist taking on a completely new challenge.

Early on at Abbott, Becky became part of the research team involved in validating a real-time qPCR based assay that helps detect specific mutations in the IDH2 gene in patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The diagnostic assay is a companion to the drug Idhifa (enasidenib, Celgene) that is used for the treatment of adult patients that have relapsed or refractory AML, and both the drug and the assay received FDA-approval recently. Even though she thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual vigor of her academic research work, being a part of the developmental team for this diagnostic assay with direct consequence to the lives of patients, was an extremely gratifying experience for Becky.

When not in the lab, you can find Becky running along the lakefront path on warmer days (she recently completed a half marathon), watching opera at the Lyric, playing the Game of Thrones theme-song on her cello, listening to live music at the Millennium Park, or surprising an unaware friend by her in-depth knowledge of Star Trek.

Fortunately, Becky says, she has not suffered from any obstacles in her research career because of her gender, but she has observed female scientists struggle trying to “maintain a work-life balance” more so than their male counterparts. Her advice to graduate students – “don’t get pushed into working on a project you’re not that interested in- it might make for some uncomfortable conversations with your PI but it’s worth taking ownership over your work”, and “select an advisor who is interested in helping you become the best scientist you can be, not just one who churns out a lot of great papers but only thinks of the people in his/her lab as data collectors.” Becky’s love for science has guided her to different research areas and settings, and she says that loving science doesn’t mean “you have to pursue a traditional academic career path”. She says a large number of trained scientists follow a “non-traditional” path. Becky is not just a scientist but a proponent of science too, and believes that “we need more scientists who want to interact with the public and, especially policymakers, or who want to craft that policy themselves.”

2017 AWIS-Chicago Innovator:
Ramille Shah, Ph.D
Northwestern University

2017 AWIS-Chicago Motivator:
Jini Ramprakash, MBA, M.Sc.
Argonne National Laboratory