Artistic rendition of a sheet and ribbon model of a protein molecule
Kathryn Lilley

Kathryn Lilley, PhD Professor
Department of Biochemistry and Director of the Center for Proteomics
University of Cambridge, England

In some ways, the journey of Kathryn Lilley resembles that of the proteins she studies: The path isn’t always straight, and there’s always more than one job to do.

Proteins are multitaskers

“Some proteins, we know pretty much everything there is to know about them,” says Dr. Lilley, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and director of the Center for Proteomics at Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, England. “But others have a hidden side that could be a significant portion of their function.”

Her primary area of focus is spatial proteomics: specifically, why and how proteins get to the correct place in the cell to allow them to function.

“If there was one thing I’d like other scientists to learn from what we are doing, it’s that you can’t assume you know everything most proteins do and how they do it,” she emphasizes. “In fact, a lot of proteins are moonlighting and multitasking—they have a completely different job in another part of the cell.”

Effectively communicating scientific results is key

Dr. Lilley knows a thing or two about moonlighting. From a very young age, she had a beautiful voice and sang competitively. Growing up, her family assumed she would pursue music as a career. She still sings now and again in local concerts (her favorite opera is Carmen), but Lilley now spends far more time in the lab than on stage.

“I first chose science as a musical escape,” she reveals. “I had always paid way more attention in biology than my other subjects in school, but really I was going through a hard time with my voice, and the sciences were a safe haven for me to leave competitions for a time and avoid taking music academically in further education.”

That experience as a performer ultimately enhanced her ability to both teach and share the results of her research with other scientists. “I’m used to being in front of a crowd, so giving talks and communicating about my work comes easily,” she says. “I try to incorporate my theatrical training and I become very animated when I discuss my research.”

Elucidating a protein’s hidden functions

Interest in proteins began at university, after she conducted an experiment measuring enzyme kinetics using alcohol dehydrogenase. “I suddenly understood what proteins were all about,” Lilley recalls. “They were these machines of the cells that do all the work.”

After moving to Cambridge, Lilley worked on a project mapping proteins to the Golgi apparatus in plant cells. The techniques she and her colleagues developed gave proteins an address in the cell. But as she learned more about where different proteins live, she began to ask a different question: How did the proteins get there?

“I began to wonder how the cell knows to portion out copies of the same protein to different places,” she says. “Those questions led me to think more about the sites where the proteins are synthesized and what really controls this process.”

Her findings  could help inform therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative disorders and various forms of cancer and other diseases. The implications can be profound. For example, if a protein has other functions in a different part of the cell, and a new drug knocks out that function, it may have an unintentional effect.

And as Dr. Lilley well knows, unintentional effects can lead to profound changes. That’s precisely how a remarkable amateur opera singer became a trailblazing scientist.

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