Graduate alumna recognized as trailblazer for RNA research, women in science

Lynne Maquat says she was shy when she first started as a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry, but since graduating with her Ph.D. in 1979, she’s become a force in the field of RNA research. The first person in her family to attend college, she’s earned numerous awards for groundbreaking research and mentoring prowess in her current post as a professor at the University of Rochester.

Photo of Lynne Maquat
Lynne Maquat, biochemistry Ph.D. ’79 alumna and professor at University of Rochester. Photo: Matt Wittmeyer/University of Rochester Medical Center.

Maquat studied with now-Emeritus Professor William Reznikoff. After her Ph.D. she also performed postdoctoral work at the UW–Madison McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research. Her lab currently studies the many roles RNA — particularly RNA processing and decay — plays in human health and disease.

“RNA is so important to our cells because it does so many critical things,” she says. “Most of our genetic material — our DNA — produces RNA. And, there are many types of RNA. One type contains information from which proteins are made; another type is the catalytic center of our protein synthesis machinery; still other types regulate either our DNA or other RNA molecules. All RNA molecules ‘self-regulate’ how long and where they reside in cells depending on their particular sequence and structure. RNA is a very versatile molecule.”

Today, her list of accolades is long. Two recent and highly competitive awards include the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science in 2017 and the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences in 2018. While both honor scientists with a stellar record of research accomplishments, the first also honors those who have made significant contributions to mentoring other women in science. When compared to men, she explains, many fewer women who earn a Ph.D. go on and use that degree in a career, and so it is important to mentor women. One of the best ways to mentor, she believes, is through examples.

“As the first person in my family to go to college, I feel very fortunate and deeply humbled to receive the Wiley and other prizes,” she says. “I have changed a lot from my time as a shy and quiet graduate student in the Reznikoff Lab. Because of my temperament, Bill was a wonderful mentor and overt supporter of female graduate students at a time when many departments had few women faculty. I firmly believe that my rigorous training in basic biochemistry has served me well throughout my career.”

At Rochester, Maquat is the J. Lowell Orbison Endowed Chair in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and the founding director of the university’s Center for RNA Biology, as well as founder and chair of the Graduate Women in Science program. She’s an international leader in the field and is credited with several major discoveries that are informing a new generation of therapies for a wide range of genetic disorders.

“I tell young scientists that it is important not to discourage yourself from taking the next step by looking too far into the future,” Maquat says. “For example, don’t look at someone like me and believe you can’t do it. Success doesn’t happen overnight but in small steps that, at the time, are manageable. This doesn’t mean they aren’t challenging, but they can be accomplished by working smart and getting help when you need it.”

Top left thumbnail photo by J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester.