Ute Wieden-Kothe joined the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 2006 after completing her Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany. Her research focusses on RNA (ribonucleic acid), an important molecule in life that resembles our genetic information, DNA. Dr. Ute Wieden-Kothe is particularly interested in understanding the complex functions of RNA in the cell which go far beyond encoding information. Research in the Kothe group addresses the formation of the cellular protein factories that are composed of RNAs and proteins. Based on her interest in RNA, Dr. Ute Wieden-Kothe is a member of the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI) at the University of Lethbridge, and is organizing every second year the RiboWest Conference which attracts a hundred RNA researchers from across Canada to our university. Her research is funded by NSERC, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions and CFI.
Together with enthusiastic colleagues in the sciences and a number of science graduate and undergraduate students, Dr. Ute Wieden-Kothe established the “Let’s Talk Science” Program at the University of Lethbridge in 2010 and is now the faculty supervisor of this program. Dr. Ute Wieden-Kothe’s commitment to science outreach has been recognized provincially and nationally through the Minerva Mentoring Award of the Alberta Women’s Science Network 2011 and the CIHR Synapse Mentorship Award 2012. The UofL’s “Let’s Talk Science” group of passionate volunteers aims at exciting youth for science through hands-on / minds-on activities. For example, they conduct regular visits to high schools in southern Alberta and participate in the regional and of course in the up-coming national science fair. Through their combined efforts and by investing more than 400 volunteer hours, the “Let’s Talk Science” group has already reached more than 1200 youth in this school year alone. Thereby, “Let’s Talk Science” significantly contributes to strengthening the ties between the university and the local community and to inspiring the next generation for science.
In biochemistry, we are investigating the molecular basis of life. In high school, I was absolutely stunned when I learned that we understand perfectly how glucose is broken down in our bodies to provide us with energy. I was deeply impressed that we can follow the fate of each atom of glucose until it is converted to water and carbon dioxide while ATP, the cell’s fuel, is formed. It is amazing that science allows us to comprehend the world around us on such a detailed level. The idea fascinates me that by understanding cellular processes on such a detailed molecular level, we might ultimately be able to address diseases at their roots, i.e. at their molecular causes, instead of “fixing” the symptoms of a disease. Hence, biochemistry became my passion as it allows me to pursue my curiosity and thirst for understanding while offering the opportunity to influence future treatments of diseases.
My research group studies the early steps of forming large machines in the cell, called ribosomes, which ultimately produce all proteins. Interestingly, ribosomes are composed of both proteins and RNAs which are intricately intertwined. By unraveling the assembly of RNAs and proteins starting at the very beginning, we want to obtain a better understanding of the formation of protein factories. In particular, we are investigating how the cell modifies RNA in order to arm it for its crucial tasks by rendering it more stable and by expanding its functions. Conducting this basic research on the assembly of protein factories is important for the real world in two aspects.
First, these protein factories are highly needed in rapidly growing cancer cells. Understanding how they are built will ultimately help to inhibit this process in cancer cells and thus to find novel targets for cancer therapy. At the same time, it is our goal to identify the molecular cause of genetic diseases affecting formation of these protein factories. Again, knowing the problem on the molecular level will provide us with critical clues how to treat patients suffering from these diseases.
Second, we are learning from this research how large complexes such as the ribosome are assembled of proteins and RNAs. Eventually, this knowledge will guide the construction novel molecular machines with unlimited functions and applications in nanobiotechnology including nanomedicine.
I have received a couple of nice awards which are certainly helpful on my CV; however, celebrating students’ successes together, seeing a student mature and grow and sharing these moments with students is the greatest honour I can receive as it shows me that my work can make a difference for these young people. As a teacher and researcher I have the privilege of participating in a crucial time in the life of many students. It always fills me with joy when I observe how a student, who didn’t quite know where he or she wanted to go, finds a passion and goal in research, science outreach or in teaching to name a few examples. Likewise, I am incredibly proud to help students push their boundaries, take on challenges and achieve more than they ever thought possible. Again there are numerous examples for this ranging from students finding a clever answer to a hard question, conducting a difficult experiment, polishing a conference presentation or a publication until it is almost perfect and of course students receiving awards. In the end, I am at the university because of and for the students, and every day, where I can experience that I have a positive impact on a student, is a good day.
Students are at the heart of my research program. Biochemistry is a highly collaborative and laboratory-intensive field where many sophisticated experiments and procedures have to be performed to gain insight on the molecular level. A principal investigator could never do all this alone. But students are much more critical for the research program than by just conducting experiments. As biochemical processes are often complex, we need year-round thorough discussions of all aspects of the question under study. The daily interaction with my students is thus the most important aspect of my research. I stop by the lab every couple hours to look at data, every day I am sitting down with at least one student to have an in-depth discussions, and the weekly lab meetings and the biochemistry journal club are particularly fun. Together we go over the big questions, the strategies to tackle these, but also over all the basic concepts underlying the many different procedures. These conversations with my students are inspiring, creative, thorough and incredibly rewarding. I would not enjoy being a researcher without seeing how students get trained in research, in thinking logically and systematically and in becoming creative, ambitious and independent. Therefore, I am grateful every day to have a fabulous group of students in my research lab ranging from undergraduate to M.Sc. and Ph.D. graduate students. I am incredibly proud of these young researchers!
First of all, I would support all areas of basic research to allow all of us to follow our imagination, to be curious and creative and to explore new ideas. Basic research allows us to better understand the world around us, and I very strongly believe that this is a worthwhile goal in itself. It is utterly important for mankind to have adventurers who discover new and unexpected knowledge. In basic research, you never know what you may find and how it can be applied, but the chances are pretty good that this knowledge will be useful in the long term. So many of our current technologies are based on basic research in the past where nobody could envision today’s applications. If you just think about the fact that penicillin was found accidentally as a weird fungus growing where it should not… Therefore, I would support any basic research that expands mankind’s horizon without requiring that it provides profitable results in a foreseeable time range.
Second, I would support all areas of science outreach to bridge the gap between research and public, in particularly children and youth. I fundamentally believe that it is our duty as researchers to share with the public what we do and why we do this. Also, by increasing science literacy, we can help to improve the translation of basic research into novel, innovative applications. But I am even more passionate about passing on our thirst for knowledge and our curiosity to the next generation. It is so rewarding to share with the children and youth how we can all use our hands and minds to better understand the world. We need to give children and youth the tools to expand their horizons, to be confident to ask questions and to search for answers.