BMMB Features: Grace Usher
The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department is fortunate to have a multitude of graduate students within its Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program dedicated to developing their research and teaching skills. Our students are making discoveries and generating independent knowledge through their research within our labs.
Meet Grace Usher, a graduate student working towards earning her Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program. She has been broadly interested in science for as long as she can remember. Her desire to continue to study the physical sciences stemmed from the high school introductory and AP chemistry classes she took at Champlain Valley Union High School.
Grace attended college at Clarkson University and was on a pre-medicine trajectory. Like most undergraduate students her interests shifted, and she quickly realized that it was not the path for her. “While I wanted to advance science and medicine, I did not want to practice medicine,” says Grace.
As an undergraduate student, Grace continually engaged in research and teaching opportunities to aid in jumpstarting her career in academic research. “My interest in biomedical research arose from a summer research internship in a chemical biology lab at The Scripps Research Institute,” said Grace. “There I became acquainted with the tools and techniques that allow the study of macromolecules that contribute to disease.” Grace graduated from Clarkson University with her bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
Grace chose Penn State, and the BMMB Program, because she wasn’t sure which subfield in the broader fields of biochemistry and molecular biology would best suite her interests and future career. She felt that the BMMB Program’s breadth of research options afforded her the best opportunity to find the subfield that would satisfy her interests. Grace found the clever application of biophysics to complex biological problems being utilized in the Showalter Laboratory to be exactly the niche she was looking for.
Grace conducts her research under the mentorship of Scott Showalter, professor of chemistry, and of biochemistry and molecular biology. There she strives to understand the molecular contributions to certain types of diabetes. The particular protein factor she investigates, Pdx1, is tasked with the increase of production in insulin within the pancreas.
If Pdx1’s function becomes impaired, the cells in the pancreas cannot maintain appropriate blood-glucose levels. By studying Pdx1 on the molecular level, and its interactions with other factors within the cell, Grace is working to better understand how Pdx1 works within both healthy and diabetic individuals. Through her research, and the biophysical approaches that she is employing, she is making an impact on the public health system by improving the understanding of both the progression of diseases as well as how they can be combated.
Outside or her work in the laboratory, Grace also serves as an advocate for the use of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in “humanizing” scientists, and making their research more accessible to the general public. She actively manages her own Twitter account where she posts both science and non-science related content in an attempt to further bridge the scientist/non-scientist gap.
When not using scientific instruments, Grace enjoys using instruments of the musical variety. She plays the guitar, piano, ukulele, bass, and others, and is also a talented singer. Spending time with her cats, and doing crafts such as wood-burning and cross-stitch, are among other activities she enjoys doing. An avid board-gamer, she is always up for a good game night, and also makes a wonderful addition to anyone’s trivia team.
In light of recent events, Grace is encouraging anyone, who is able, to donate funds to groups that strive for justice for black communities. “I support the Center for Black Equity, due to their mission which centers around ensuring economic, social, and health equity for the black LGBTQ+ community,” says Grace.