By Leo Barolo
There is a flute choir in Madison that meets weekly for rehearsal and performs a handful of times a year. Among the 30 flutists is Dr. Moriah Katt, a material scientist and postdoctoral fellow in the Genomic Sciences Training Program (GSTP). She is conducting her research in Eric Shusta’s lab in the UW-Madison Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
Readers familiar with the Shusta lab may be surprised to learn about a material scientist working in a lab that focuses on protein engineering, blood-brain barrier modeling, and drug delivery to the brain. This question is not strange to Dr. Katt:
“The easy answer is that everything is a material, not just metals and ceramics, but hydrogels and cells are also materials, and their material characteristics are important and can play a large role in their function.”
As Dr. Katt finishes her postdoc at UW-Madison, she is preparing for her new position as an assistant professor in Chemical and Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience at West Virginia University. We asked her some questions about herself and her research.
Where are you from originally?
Albany, NY. Surprisingly similar to Madison.
Where did you get your degrees and what did you study?
I received a B.S. in Materials Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy NY, where I largely focused on metallurgy. I can tell you a rather disturbing number of useful but random facts about heat-treating steels. While I was there though, I started to get involved in biomaterials research, working on designing scaffolds for artificial vascular beds, which is what pushed me towards my graduate studies. I received my Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Johns Hopkins University. At Hopkins my research focused around developing models of the blood vessels in the brain, focusing on what changes might be occurring in neurodegenerative diseases.
What is the main topic of your research?
My current research at UW is in many ways just continuing in the same direction. One of the main reasons that we spend so much time trying to understand the blood vessels in the brain is that they make up what is known as the blood-brain barrier (BBB). This BBB strictly controls transport into the brain, it allows and facilitates the trafficking of nutrients into the brain, while effectively eliminating the passage of almost everything else into the brain. This strictly controlled transport is critical for normal brain homeostasis but becomes a problem when we need to deliver therapeutics into the brain.
The focus of my research is to identify antibodies that target the blood-brain barrier and are able to improve the transport of therapeutics into the brain. To do this I use libraries of antibodies called variable lymphocyte receptors (VLRs), isolated from lamprey that have been immunized with fragments of these BBB blood vessels. We then take and screen these libraries of antibodies to identify individual antibodies that bind to the BBB and are able to penetrate the brain. The goal is to then use these novel VLRs to target and deliver therapeutics to the central nervous system.
How did your participation in GSTP contribute to your success at UW-Madison?
Before coming to UW-Madison I was very much focused on tissue engineering, designing model systems of the human BBB. My transition to protein engineering was difficult, but GSTP was a major contributing factor to my ability to transition and push my research forward. Through GSTP I have been exposed to a wide variety of techniques and more importantly to a new way of thinking and approaching the problems and questions in my research. A lot of science is making sure that you have the right set of tools in your toolbox – GSTP has added a lot more variety to my toolbox, giving me new ways to look at my research.
Is there a single person or experience that most influenced your trajectory to where you are today?
When I was in 4th grade, I had to do a research project about a person who was an inspiration to me. The person that I selected was Sally Ride, the first female in space. As any self-respecting 9-year-old, I wanted to be an astronaut; specifically, I wanted to be the first woman on Mars. Unlike most 9-year–olds, however, this triggered a conversation with my parents about what I would actually have to do to become an astronaut. Sally Ride had a Ph.D. in Physics, which prompted my decision to pursue science or engineering through to getting at least one Ph.D. While I have changed my life goals somewhat, and let my dream of being the first woman on Mars (mostly) go, it was this conversation and this decision that prompted me and continued to motivate me to continue to pursue my trajectory.
What advice would you have for a young person interested in graduate school or research?
Ask questions, when they say there’s no such thing as a stupid question they’re right. Questions show that you’re interested and paying attention and thinking about how what you’ve just learned or heard fits into what you already know. Use the opportunity to push your own boundaries and question how looking through their lens changes your perspective. Don’t be afraid to try something new, learn a new technique, or change research directions entirely.
Dr. Katt will continue her research at West Virginia University on the blood-brain barrier, investigating how transport into the brain changes in different diseases and how that can help design better therapeutic treatment strategies.