Biochemistry undergraduate experience inspires alumna to pursue research, position at UW–Madison

Photo of Audrey Gasch
Audrey Gasch B.S. ’94.

Audrey Gasch just couldn’t stay away from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Wisconsin native earned her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry here in ’94 and a decade later became a faculty member back at UW–Madison in the Department of Genetics.

“My undergraduate years in Biochemistry are really what got me started in research,” she says. “I was advised by now-Emeritus Professor George Reed, who introduced me to the possibility of doing laboratory research as an undergraduate, which was rarer then than it is now. He connected me with now-Emeritus Professor Bill Reznikoff and I joined his lab. The rest is history.”

After her undergraduate degree, she was admitted to Stanford University for a Ph.D. in biochemistry and from there went to the University of California, Berkeley for postdoctoral work. It’s there that she began combining biochemistry with genetic approaches like genomics and ended up in Genetics at UW–Madison.

“I grew up on a pig farm and started off being interested in animal science and veterinary science but at some point that shifted to more fundamental molecular biology research, and I think that was in part because of George and Bill and the influential faculty in Biochemistry,” Gasch says. “I would say my experience doing research in the department in the early ‘90s really set the bar for what doing collaborative research in a college department could be like. It’s a big part of what brought me back to UW–Madison.”

She says her current job is broader than she ever thought it would be. In the lab, she uses genomics and systems biology to try to understand how cells sense stressful situations in their external environment and then mount a response to that stress.

Some of her research works to understand the fundamentals of cell function and other parts investigate how to produce sustainable biofuels from plant material in a more applied fashion. She performs this applied research as part of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) housed in the UW–Madison Energy Institute. The diversity and interdisciplinarity of her of research excites her.

Scientific illustration
Illustration of stress-activated signaling networks in yeast. Image courtesy of Gasch Lab.

“In order to do the best science and in order to get the best education, you shouldn’t be shackled by the ideas of what falls into different disciplines,” she says. “The Department of Biochemistry and Department of Genetics are useful constructs for administrative purposes and they do summarize and capture historical ways of thinking, but the best science is done by choosing the perspective and approach that’s best to answer the question your research is asking. Being able to skirt across those disciplines can be really marketable for students, too.”

Along with her research, Gasch is highly involved in teaching and education as the director of the Genetics Training Program. She says she does a lot of thinking about the best ways to train students and foster a great training environment for diverse groups.

Lastly, she also works in science outreach. For example, she works to build networks between schools or community centers and scientists to eliminate barriers that keep scientists from volunteering. One is called Family Science Nights, which aims to bring hands-on science activities into local K-12 schools and community centers to promote science exploration for kids and families.

She adds that the goal of her work — whether that be her research, teaching, or outreach — is to have an impact on somebody or something. While at UW–Madison she’s earned several awards for her work, including a university H.I. Romnes Faculty Fellowship, a CALS Pound Research Award, and the NSF CAREER and Beckman awards. Most recently she received a 2018 Vilas Faculty Mid-Career Award.

“I think it’s human nature for people to be attracted to something they already know,” she says. “My advice to students would be to push themselves to be fearless and try new things.”