Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Beckman Institute researcher Stephanie Ceman proved to be a whiz at biology and that, the hometown folks said, meant she should go to medical school. Ceman took the advice but while in med school she got involved with a research project, found her true calling, and never looked back.
“The summer after my first year of med school I got into a really good research lab,” Ceman said. “It was a genetics lab and I have always liked genetics. I loved that and then I took a leave of absence from medical school to finish a paper. It was then that I decided to get a Ph.D. and never went back to medical school.”
Ceman, however, did end up working at a medical school. As a Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, Ceman teaches medical students at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. But that position hasn’t led to any regrets – it simply has confirmed her life choice.
“When I talk to med students I feel like when you’re in medicine you need to know a lot about a lot of things,” Ceman said. “I prefer getting to know a lot about one little thing. I’m much more interested in a specific problem.”
And that specific problem for Ceman is the fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP).
Ceman’s research trajectory began with a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and postdoctoral fellowship stints at the University of Chicago and at Emory University, where she was introduced to Fragile X research. Her work has blossomed at Illinois, where she studies topics such as the molecular basis of disease, the regulation of RNA expression, and RNA-protein interactions with a main research focus on the molecular basis of learning and memory, using FMRP as a model system.
FMRP is a protein that plays a critical role in nervous system development. Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most common cause of inherited mental impairment and a single gene cause of autism. Ceman, a member of the NeuroTech group at Beckman, had always been interested in understanding disease and disorders at the molecular level but her interest in the vocal phenotype of Fragile X began when she attended a talk by fellow Beckman researcher David Clayton.
“It was an introduction to the power of the zebra finch model,” Ceman said of the talk. “I was just enthralled because Fragile X patients, although they are cognitively impaired, they are often ascertained by speech problems. They look pretty normal so their parents, unless they know Fragile X syndrome is in their family, won’t suspect it.”
Ceman saw an opportunity to tie her interests in the area of molecular and cell biology to a research line that adds to our knowledge of this disorder and could someday lead to interventions for combating it. She approached Clayton, who uses the zebra finch songbird as a model for studying Fragile X, about collaborating with him.
“The speech and language deficits (of Fragile X patients) are remarkable but no one has studied them in a model organism,” Ceman said. “I thought that was interesting and we went on to clone the zebra finch FMR gene from a songbird. We made the antibody to it and we did all the studies and showed that FMRP expression is elevated in a pre-motor nucleus.”
Ceman has also enjoyed working with Beckman Biological Intelligence research theme Co-chair William Greenough, a neuroscientist and veteran Fragile X researcher.
“Bill has been fabulous for introducing me to the neuronal biology of FMRP,” she said. “So thinking about it in the context of neurons and getting Bill’s input on how FMRP functions in the brain have just been invaluable because I’m a geneticist and Bill is a neuroscientist.
“Usually I do all of my molecular biology in tissue culture which are just round cell bags. Neurons are like the Cadillac cell and I’m working with the Zip Car cell,” Ceman added with a laugh.
Ceman is also one scientist who believes in connecting to the general public, demonstrating that belief over the years by speaking often to different Kiwanis groups.
“People know about DNA and chromosomes and stuff but the brain is viewed as the last frontier. So I try to build on those two things that people are normally interested in,” Ceman said. “Then I talk about how the brain is all these interconnected neurons and how they talk to each other at the synapse, and how the proteins that are present there are controlling that. Then I bring in my research.”
Ceman feels it is imperative for faculty members to engage in such outreach efforts.
“I think it is really important, especially since we are employed by the state,” she said. “Our job is education and I think it is really important to interface with the public and tell them what we are up to and hopefully generate enthusiasm. The fun of science is discovery but the next best thing is telling people about it.”