Emery Usher, a graduate student in the Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program, has received the 2020 Richard L. and Norma L. McCarl Graduate Scholarship.
This scholarship recognizes the contributions of Richard L. McCarl, and the support of his wife, Norma. Richard L. McCarl earned his Ph.D. in Agricultural and Biological Chemistry from Penn State in 1961. He was asked to remain at Penn State, where he served with distinction as a faculty member within the Department of Biochemistry.
Consideration for the scholarship is given to full-time graduate students enrolled, or planning to enroll, in the BMMB program within the Eberly College of Science. Preference is given to graduate students who work with a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology faculty member, or a faculty member conducting biological research.
*Usher was selected based on his work, within the Showalter Laboratory, on spatial and temporal regulation of gene expression through the Pdx1 transcription factor. The Showalter Laboratory makes broad use of solution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, in combination with thermodynamic analysis, chemical biology, and cellular assays to advance understanding of protein function.
Usher’s research focuses on understanding how a cellular factor, Pdx1, regulates how and when pancreatic cells make insulin. When glucose levels in the blood are high, Pdx1 helps to produce insulin that signals the body to store away glucose. If Pdx1 fails to activate insulin production, this can lead to certain types of diabetes.
Usher is working to develop an understanding of how Pdx1 functions in both healthy and disease cases. Instead of approaching the problem from the organismal level, Usher is studying the molecules within the cells that are responsible for carrying out regulatory processes, like glucose response, in the body. He seeks to establish the basic scientific insights into Pdx1 behavior that will ultimately provide new knowledge to the diabetes field for the improvement of public health.
Specifically, Usher is investigating how Pdx1 is degraded when glucose levels in the blood are low. Within this process, there are very important questions that he is seeking to address. First, how is Pdx1 targeted for degradation by another factor, SPOP, and second, how is Pdx1 function regulated by signals through the cell?
The Showalter Laboratory uses magnetic resonance techniques to get an idea of what these factors—molecules, like Pdx1 and SPOP—look like, which can help determine their behavior in cells. Further, the laboratory can use cells cultured in the lab to study Pdx1 function. These methods also allow the laboratory to study mutants of Pdx1 that are linked to diabetes; such studies will hopefully lead to new understandings of the disease and, ultimately, new treatment options.
Usher has been a BMMB graduate student since August of 2016 and became a member of the Showalter Laboratory in December of 2016. Now in his fifth year, he hopes to graduate in the near future. After earning his Ph.D. Usher wishes to continue his research and investigate the cellular factors that contribute to disease.
“Someday, I’d like to run my own lab and research program wherein I can train undergraduate and graduate students in the techniques that will enable us to answer important questions about the molecules that are important to the pathologies and treatments of diseases,” says Usher.
Congratulations Emery on a much-deserved recognition and award!