Calcium signals are involved in cell death, heart development, immune response, brain function, and many other cellular processes. A doctoral candidate in biology affiliated with the Institute of NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University, Tovah Honor Aronin studies calcium signaling in yeast using fluorescent probes to track calcium concentration or the activity of calcium-dependent proteins.
Aronin is a graduate student in the NanoBioMed program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is now in her second year. She recently joined the lab of Kyle Cunningham, professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. In addition, Andre Levchenko, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, serves as her co-adviser.
Students in the program spend eight to 10 weeks in a lab rotation, Aronin explained. After four rotations, students choose a lab in which to work. Aronin found a perfect match in the Cunningham lab, stating that he’s laid back and not a “micromanager“ but always there when she does need his advice. Her favorite thing about the lab is the people she works with and her inspiring mentor. “Dr. Cunningham is so enthusiastic about what he does,“ Aronin says.
At the moment, her research focuses on the protein phosphotase calcineurin, which serves as the primary sensor and transducer in calcium signaling. Her research involves monitoring how much of a fluorescent protein is made when calcineurin is activated under different conditions. “Until now, the lab only had been looking at calcineurin activation qualitatively—is it on or off? Now we are trying to take quantitative measurements,“ she says, and Aronin has begun pursuing direct measures of the amount of calcium present in different parts of the cell. She also is monitoring changes in calcium amounts under different cellular conditions.
Aronin is no stranger to lab work. She arrived a Johns Hopkins armed with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Brandeis University and had spent almost three years, including two summers working with David DeRosier, a biology professor there. She began by preparing media and running experiments for others to analyze, but gradually learned enough to conduct her own project, which was begun as a HHMI summer fellow and culminated as a senior thesis that earned the highest departmental honors.
That laboratory experience helped Aronin become accustomed to both the joys and difficulties of laboratory research. “Although graduate school is more difficult,“ she says, “in some ways it is just a continuation of what I had learned to do already.“ Ten years from now, she says she sees herself starting to direct her own research either in academia or industry.
A native of Rockland, N.Y., Aronin lives in Pikesville, Md. with her husband.
Sarah Gubara, freshman pre-major, contributed to this article as part of the Intersession 2008 course requirements of Science Writing for Scientists and Engineers.