University of Lethbridge biochemist Dr. Ute Kothe has never been shy about taking science to the community – or better yet, bringing the community into her lab. As a staunch promoter of science outreach activities to local youth, Kothe is an ideal selection as the opening speaker for the 2017/18 PUBlic Professor Series.
Her presentation subject, From the Beginnings of Life to Modern Medicine: Why RNA Matters (Thursday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Lethbridge Lodge), is dear to her heart as one of the lead scientists in the U of L’s Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI). And while the importance of RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) will be the focus of the evening, an undertone will be the science outreach activities Kothe leads in southern Alberta and the opportunity to expand both RNA research and outreach as the University’s Destination Project nears completion.
“I really want to get the message out about RNA. RNA is the hidden gem of biomolecules because it’s been overlooked for a long time. Many people don’t know about it, but it’s so important!” says Kothe. “This is a great opportunity to tell the story of the basic science and understanding of this fascinating molecule and how it matters to the new approaches in medicine that will become therapeutics in the next 10 to 20 years.”
Kothe came to the U of L in 2006, having just completed her PhD studies. She quickly established herself in the RNA field of study and then tapped into another passion, science outreach. In 2012, Kothe was recognized by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) with the Synapse Mentorship Award for her efforts to expose young people to science education and career possibilities. In 2014, the U of L recognized her with the Distinguished Teaching Award and just recently, she was elected to The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists by the Royal Society of Canada.
Her passion for RNA is undeniable, but it is an overall love for science and the doors it can open for fertile young minds that drives Kothe and is apparent in the outreach activities she and her Let’s Talk Science team coordinate.
“I always had a thirst for knowledge and understanding as a child, and later in high school I realized how much science can explain, and that was really fascinating,” she says, crediting a high school teacher for dabbling in biochemistry as part of the curriculum.
A simple explanation of how the food you eat is converted into energy in your body had her hooked.
“I was stunned that you could see exactly what happened to a glucose molecule until it was combusted into energy in your muscles. That was just mind-blowing to me, and then I wanted to know more. That’s why I started studying biochemistry,” she says.
Her science outreach activities allow her to experience that joy all over again, only from a different perspective.
“In every group I work with, there will be this one student who asks me a question I didn’t expect. Often, I can answer it for them and the student is surprised by my answer. They get this aha moment and there’s a leap in understanding of what science can do and what science can explain,” she says. “This effect, seeing this spark in their eyes, is the best reward ever, and in science outreach, I get to experience it over and over.”
She revels at getting the opportunity, through PUBlic Professor, to demystify her beloved RNA. Often overshadowed by its kin DNA, Kothe explains that the scientific world has just recently seen an explosion in understanding the power of RNA.
“DNA stores cell information, which is important, but all your cells contain the same information. So why is it that our brain is so different from our liver? Because the DNA is used to make different RNAs, and the RNAs are the master regulators that determine what happens. They execute the information, and every year there is a new discovery of exciting processes that RNA is regulating.”
She explains only now are the world’s first drugs being developed using RNA and that the field of study is wide open.
“RNA is simple enough that we can already use it now as a tool to influence what happens in our body,” says Kothe. “The first drugs are out that are based on RNA. It is amazing to me that you can go relatively rapidly from the basic understanding of what is happening in the body to influencing a disease with a drug that is based on this biomolecule.”
The PUBlic Professor Series continues throughout the months of September, October, November, January, February and March. Look for upcoming speakers at uleth.ca/artsci/public-professor.