Student Spotlight: Sophia Albanese ’21 Explores Impact of Cellular Stress

Long before starting at Scripps, biology major Sophia Albanese ’21 knew scientific exploration would be in her future. The child of an attorney and a chemist, she “grew up surrounded by science and law,” and in middle school got her first glimpse of how she could pursue this goal at the W.M. Keck Science Center during a tour of The Claremont Colleges. Now on a pre-med track focusing on forensic pathology, the rising senior is delving into scientific research as a summer research assistant with Scripps Professor of Biology Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert’s project studying cellular stress.

As a member of the research team led by Edwalds-Gilbert, Albanese is exploring the impact of stressors at the macromolecular level, namely the gene expression process in which a cell produces a specific protein. DNA will produce RNA, Albanese explains, which will then go on to “translate at the initiation site” to create the protein workhorses required for healthy cell function. But disruptions to that process can occur.

“What Professor Edwalds-Gilbert discovered in her lab is that when a stressor is introduced to a cell—perhaps oxygen poisoning, starvation, temperature change, or chemicals—these RNAs start translation at an earlier initiation site and create an alternate or ‘extended’ version of proteins, which then travel to different parts of the cell,” Albanese says. “The ultimate goal of the project is to understand the implications of these proteins going into an area where they typically would not belong.”

In particular, Albanese is tasked with studying the extended Lsm1 protein which “targets” mitochondria, the energy-makers of the cell. “I’m trying to figure out how LSM1 goes into mitochondria, because there are a lot of different pathways it can take to get there, as well as many reasons that would be its target. I’m also looking at which stressors are creating this extended protein,” she says.

Funded by a Keck faculty research grant, the project involves experimentation using the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an ideal strain for this study because of its conserved genetic pathways and structures comparable to those found in humans. Unsurprisingly, the current pandemic has caused its own disruptions, temporarily pushing Albanese and Edwalds-Gilbert’s team out of the lab and over to Zoom to continue their work. With hands-on testing on hold, Albanese is conducting intensive analyses of relevant scientific papers to strengthen her comprehension of the project—something she calls a “demanding but valuable upside” to being off campus.

Despite these changes, Albanese is hopeful she’ll return to the lab in spring to probe the study’s potential outcomes, especially given the rise of cellular stress as a hot topic in a world grappling with climate change, a pandemic, and other global issues impacting human health. “Cellular stress has been increasingly linked to cancer in humans, metabolic disorders, diabetes, obesity, and other conditions,” she notes. “People are interested in how to reduce or eliminate dysfunction in the cell to mitigate these problems.”

While Edwalds-Gilbert’s research is grant-funded, Albanese’s research role was made possible through an Esterly award. Established in 1949, the Virginia Judy Esterly awards are granted to students who combine the qualities of good scholarship, effective service in student activities, and responsible citizenship for worthwhile educational summer projects. And though Albanese would be the first to tell you her standard approach to “good scholarship” is rooted in finding concrete answers to clear-cut questions, she appreciates that this research is teaching her to stay flexible.

“When I first began this project, I was expecting it to be more directive and ‘A-B-C’—but Professor Edwalds-Gilbert has helped me get comfortable with asking open-ended questions,” she says. “I’ve learned so much, specifically about cellular stress response and mitochondrial import, but more than anything this project has really shown me that nothing is always definite—and that’s not a bad thing. It makes for more exciting possibilities to explore.”