Faculty Spotlight: 16 Questions with Naomi Sayre, Ph.D.
1) Please tell me about yourself.
I grew up in the mountain desert of New Mexico in the Four Corners Region, the eldest of 6 children. I spent my spare time running around the hills, catching lizards, and climbing trees. I chose to leave my small town to head to upstate New York for undergraduate, at the University of Rochester, where I received my bachelor’s degree in biology. Later, I moved to Boston to get my Ph.D. at Tufts University Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. I have one daughter, a husband, two dogs, and 1 cat-nobody likes the cat but me, but we don’t tell the cat that.
2) What brought you to UT Health San Antonio?
Family brought me to San Antonio shortly after completing my Ph.D., and I was very pleased to find such an excellent institution in my new hometown. I was particularly impressed by the research enterprise and the incredible network of neuroscientists in the region. I joined the lab of Dr. Jim Lechleiter as a postdoctoral fellow, where I received training for approximately 5 years before being hired in the Department of Neurosurgery to start my own independent research program.
3) Tell me about your research interests and why you are passionate about this topic?
My graduate dissertation focused on cholesterol trafficking and homeostasis. I was always very interested in lipid biology. However, I wanted postdoctoral training in neuroscience, and therefore joined Dr. Lechleiter’s lab to improve my neuroscience training and bring my expertise of lipid biology and techniques to study a role for fatty acid metabolism in reducing damage from ischemic stroke. My graduate and post-doctoral training allowed me to develop an independent research interest studying the role of lipoprotein receptors (which traffic cholesterol-laden lipoproteins into cells) in influencing outcome after brain damage. I focus specifically on low-density lipoprotein receptor related protein 1 (LRP1), a fascinating receptor which plays a fundamental role in trafficking a variety of ligands and plasma membrane proteins to the endocytic system for degradation. We think that disruption of LRP1 function can significantly influence cellular response to signals and therefore alter how cells in the brain respond to injury. We use murine models to knockout LRP1 in specific cell types and test the effect after stroke, traumatic brain injury, and aging. Study of LRP1 allows a wide range of approaches and topics for exploration. We have knocked LRP1 out of astrocytes and discovered they become more sensitive to inflammatory stimulus. Removing LRP1 from neural stem cells ablates the ability of the stem cells to migrate toward ischemic lesions. Knockout from each cell type causes wildly different effects, suggesting LRP1 has a context-dependent function. It’s an exciting time, because I am certain this research topic will keep me busy and engaged for years and years. I am optimistic that understanding of LRP1 will contribute to a fundamental understanding of astrocyte or stem cell function in the brain, which in turn will contribute to improved human health.
4) What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?
Currently, the best-known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is expression of Apolipoprotein E4 (ApoE4). Most people carry ApoE3, but about 15% of the population carries ApoE4. Not only are these people more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, but they are more likely to have a poor outcome after brain damage. Several researchers throughout the world have been investigating why ApoE4 specifically is bad for brain health, however the effect of ApoE4 is still not well understood. We think that ApoE4 is detrimental because it impairs the function of LRP1. If our hypothesis is correct, then the ApoE4—LRP1 interaction can be targeted to potentially prevent the ill effects of ApoE4. This could have a major effect on our ability to treat patients, and it also could enhance our understanding of disease processes in the brain.
5) What is your favorite part of your job?
I love the creativity and exploration aspect of it, and I greatly enjoy the opportunity to train the next generation of scientists. It would be hard to say what I like more-I love discovering new things and making scientific breakthroughs. But I also love training students—helping them through the early stages and then seeing improvements during the training to enable them to reach their goals is very rewarding.
6) What is the most challenging part of your job?
Well, research is challenging because it involves a lot of failure and optimization. That is one of the hardest lessons for any PhD student to learn and overcome. This was most true for me as a graduate student.
But, in truth, the most challenging part of my job currently? Grants. Begging for money all the time just to do the cool stuff is the most challenging. I am a bit jealous of my students in that regard, because I know the pipettes at the bench won’t ask me how much of my salary I’ve covered with grant funding this year. The cell-culture flasks are delightfully quiet on the topic of vivarium per-diems, and the microscope only cares about what I am imaging today.
7) What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love that first moment that they discover something new and exciting as a result of their own efforts. Where they went through the trial and tribulation of getting an experiment to work, and the hard work pays off and they are rewarded with a beautiful result and are even more excited about research. I love when a student is just learning how to write like a scientist, and at first comes to me with a hot-mess of a paper, but through hard work and determination gains the necessary skills to become an excellent scientific writer. When a trainee becomes competent and confident to engage with me more as a colleague than as a student.
8) How do you like to spend your free time?
When I’m not acting like a scientist or a mom, I use my spare time to read fiction, play my French horn in a couple of ensembles, and enjoy the friendship of several wonderful people.
9) What is the most helpful advice you’ve received?
Creativity is not an innate talent. It can be learned like any skill, but it starts with ardent curiosity and an adventurous spirit. Cultivate inquisitiveness, do not be afraid to explore the unknown or ask silly questions.
10) When did you start becoming interested in science?
From the moment I had a cogent thought.
11) Growing up, what did you want to be?
I wanted to be a medical doctor, but then I learned a lot of M.D.’s do the same thing everyday and I changed my mind.
12) If you were stranded on a deserted island, what one band or musician would help keep your sanity?
I might be willing to have Jimmy Buffet but only if he promises to bring margaritas and keep his mouth shut. Otherwise I would have to choose the Budapest Symphony playing Mahler symphonies all day.
13) What do you consider your favorite hobby?
14) If you won the lottery, what would you do?
I had this grand idea that I would fund my own research enterprise indefinitely and the university would just have to put up with my studies into whatever I felt like exploring.
15) If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
16) Tell us something about yourself that otherwise we wouldn’t know or guess.
I spend a lot of time sending my sister memes relating to Lord of the Rings. I occasionally show them to my lab members, but they don’t seem to appreciate them very much. Also, I always cry at the end of the Lord of the Rings, movie or book. I once went to bed at 4 a.m. after watching the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings movies. I was crying, and my husband was very worried for me. However, it was just because that part where Aragorn bowed to Frodo at the end and said “Nobody bows to you” really made me verklempt. He was still worried, but for different reasons after I told him about Aragorn.