5 Questions with Dr. Ute Wieden-Kothe

Dr. Ute Wieden-Kothe joined theDepartment of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Lethbridge in 2006 after completing her PhD in biochemistry at the University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany. Her research focuses on RNA (ribonucleic acid), an important molecule in life that resembles our genetic information, DNA.

Wieden-Kothe is particularly interested in understanding the complex functions of RNA in the cell which go far beyond encoding information. In particular, she investigates the formation of the cellular protein factories that are composed of RNAs and proteins. Wieden-Kothe is a member of the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI), and every second year organizes the RiboWest Conference, which attracts hundreds of RNA researchers from across Canada. 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, Wieden-Kothe established the Let's Talk Science program in 2010 and now serves as the program's faculty supervisor.

Ute Wieden-Kothe
Dr. Ute Wieden-Kothe, right, champions the notion of science outreach.

What first piqued your interest in your research discipline?

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 precisely understanding cellular processes, 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.

How is your research applicable in the "real world"?

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 unravelling the assembly of RNAs and proteins, we want to obtain a better understanding of the formation of protein factories. Conducting this basic research is important for the real world in two aspects.

First, these protein factories are essential for rapidly growing cancer cells. Understanding how they are built will ultimately help to inhibit this process in cancer cells and allow us 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. Second, we are learning how to construct novel molecular machines from RNA and proteins with unlimited functions and applications in nanobiotechnology, including nanomedicine.

What is the greatest honour you have received in your career?

I have received a couple of nice awards, such as the Minerva Mentoring Award and the CIHR Synapse Mentorship Award; however, celebrating students' successes together and seeing a student mature and grow is the greatest honour I can receive. 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. Likewise, I am incredibly proud to help students push their boundaries, take on challenges and achieve more than they ever thought possible. I am at the university because of and for the students, and I am very happy when I can make a difference for these young people.

How important are students to your research endeavours?

Students are at the heart of my research program. Biochemistry is a highly collaborative and laboratory-intensive field where many sophisticated experiments have to be performed. This requires a team approach. Also 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, and every day I am sitting down with at least one student to have in-depth discussions. These conversations with my students are inspiring, creative, thorough and incredibly rewarding.

I am grateful every day to have a fabulous group of students in my research lab ranging from undergraduate to master's and PhD graduate students.

If you had unlimited funds, which areas of research would you invest?

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. The chances are very good that this basic knowledge will be useful in the long term. So many of our current technologies are based on such research in the past where nobody could envision today's applications.

Second, I would support all areas of science outreach to bridge the gap between research and the general public, in particular the next generation. We need to give children and youth the tools to expand their horizons, to better understand the world, to be confident to ask questions and to search for answers.

This story first appeared in the May 2013 edition of the Legend. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.