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Episode Notes

Episode Title: About Majors: What is Biochemistry? With Prof. Dipali Sashital, Iowa State University.

Episode summary introduction: The goal of this series is to serve as a primer for High Schoolers about a Major, through our conversations with Faculty Experts in the various US Colleges and Universities.

We continue this series with Biochemistry, with Professor Dipali Sashital, Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology at Iowa State University.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:

  • What is Biochemistry?
  • A Brief History of Biochemistry
  • Branches of Biochemistry
  • Skills Needed to Study Biochemistry in College
  • Opportunities for Biochemistry Majors

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Introducing Prof. Dipali Sashital, Iowa State University [0:49]
  • What is Biochemistry? [3:13]
  • History of Biochemistry [7:18]
  • Impact of Biochemistry on Humanity  [12:50]
  • Subfields of Biochemistry [17:13]
  • Hot Areas of Research [28:19]
  • BioEthics [36:01]
  • Skills to build in High School & College [38:35]
  • Is Biochemistry for me? [46:15]
  • Opportunities for a Biochemistry Major [50:50]
  • Prof Sashital’s Biochemistry Journey [55:27]

Our Guest: Dipali Sashital is the Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology at Iowa State University. Prof. Sashital is the head of the Sashital Lab at ISU. Prof Sashital has Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Biochemistry from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin Madison. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California Berkeley and The Scripps Research Institute.

Memorable Quote: “...making discoveries, I think, is a very exciting feeling. And, you know, something that if you get to experience that in your career, it can be, it can be quite addictive.” Prof. Sashital.

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.

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Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

<Start Snippet> Prof Sashital  0:14  

To take a very current example the Coronavirus vaccine is, I would say almost every aspect of it is, you know, it was a debt to biochemistry. So you probably, you may be familiar with the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines. These are, these are mRNA vaccines. And while I would say that the understanding of mRNA and how mRNA works is more in the realm of molecular biology, the production of the mRNA, How do they make the mRNA that is actually being injected into us that is really basic Biochemistry.

Venkat  0:49  [Introducing Prof Dipali Sashital, ISU]

That is Prof Dipali Sashital of Iowa State University and the head of the cutting edge Sashital Lab.

Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.

Today’s episode is on Biochemistry, in our special podcast series on “College Majors” to serve as a Primer for High Schoolers.

Biochemistry is relatively young by Science standards. But we have a lot to thank Biochemistry for - The COVID-19 vaccine on one hand, to the dishwashing soap on the other. For those of us washing dishes daily, imagine what our chores would be like without biochemistry!

Prof Dipa Sashital joins us on our podcast today.

In this Podcast, Prof Sashital first explains what Biochemistry is, and then takes us through a brief history of Biochemistry, the different fields, hot research areas, to the preparation needed to study Biochemistry in College and the available opportunities when you graduate with a Biochemistry degree.

You are in for a treat.

So, without further delay, here’s Prof Sashital!

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Venkat Raman  2:25  

Hi, Dipa, welcome to our podcast, College Matters. Alma Matters. It's great to have you talk about Biochemistry today. So thank you for making the time.

Prof Sashital  2:37  

Yeah. Hi, thanks for having me. I'm very excited to be here.

Venkat Raman  2:41  

Yeah, it's, you know, we're trying to get high schoolers, a little schooled on, you know, the different majors that they might be interested in. And I thought, you know, while people know biology and chemistry, they might not know what biochemistry is, and seemed like a great place for us to have a conversation. So maybe diving right in, maybe ask the simple question, what is biochemistry?

Prof Sashital  3:13  [What is Biochemistry?]

Yeah, that's a great question. And I think you're absolutely right, that, you know, a lot of students don't get exposed to biochemistry in high school, because biochemistry really does require a very strong foundation in biology and chemistry. So until you have that foundation, it is a little bit difficult to learn about biochemistry, but what we do in biochemistry is try to understand basically the chemistry of life. So the chemical processes that dictate living organisms on you know, on the cellular level, as well as on the organismal level.

Prof Sashital  3:51  

When you enter college, when you're interested in studying biochemistry, you often spend a couple of years on the kind of foundational classes general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biology and then eventually you get towards learning biochemistry.

Prof Sashital  4:10  

You know, we're very interested in molecular processes. So the basic biomolecules, which are protein, nucleic acids, sugars, or carbohydrates, and lipids, or fats, and how those interact with each other, how they are able to utilize each other in order to actually allow for all of these ordered processes that occur in ourselves and that allow us to, you know, move and to think smell, you know, feel feel things, you know, perceive our surroundings, all of those sorts of things. So it's really a fascinating topic, and a fairly complex topic as well.

Venkat Raman  4:55  

I also hear the most about molecular biology and how different There's that and what is what is that study about?

Prof Sashital  5:04  

Yeah, I mean, I think that, really there are many biological subjects that are very interconnected biochemistry, molecular biology, even genetics, and cell biology. So these are all, I would say, sort of they're they're highly interconnected, but they deal at different levels of detail with the same types of things that are being studied. So, you know, in biochemistry, where I often refer to this as a reductionist approach, we are trying to look at things at a really, really basic level taking, often taking things out of the context of the cell, where it's very complicated to study things, and instead looking at them often in isolation in a test tube.

Prof Sashital  5:58  

Whereas in molecular biology and in genetics, they're looking more on the level of cells, or at the biological outcome of what would actually happen inside of a cell. So these are all very related topics. And most biochemists do also use, you know, techniques that we would associate with molecular biology and even genetics, in some cases.

Prof Sashital  6:25  

I wouldn't say that there's a hard line between any of these subjects, in order to understand biochemistry, you definitely need to have a good foundation in those other subjects as well. And vice versa. I think in order to understand genetics, and molecular biology, it's really important to also understand things at a biochemical level. So even you know, in our at Iowa State, our genetics major does have a very rigorous training in biochemistry as well. So they take actually the same bio chemistry courses that our biochemistry majors do.

Venkat Raman  7:00  

That sounds really interesting and intriguing. So maybe a little bit about how did this discipline came about? I mean, was it happenstance or something that happened... You know, it's obviously two natural things, but unquote, coming together. But how did that happen?

Prof Sashital  7:18  [History of Biochemistry]

Yeah, I would say that biochemistry is a relatively young field. I think that over the last 60 or 70 years, it's really taken off, because of not only discoveries that were made in the field of molecular biology, especially as it relates to understanding DNA, and how information is encoded in cells and how it's, you know, copied and translated into other types of biomolecules that actually do the work in the cells.

Prof Sashital  7:52  

So you know, that that type of information was only discovered in the 50s, in the 60s. And since then, I think biochemistry has really taken off as a field. But it is a bit older than that. So, you know, I think that there was research that we would consider to be biochemistry research going on, in the 19th century, and maybe even a little bit earlier than that.

Prof Sashital  8:22  

Some very classic experiments were done, just by basically taking extracts from cells like he cells, and looking for chemical processes that could actually happen, just by you know, kind of taking the things that are in the cells out of the cells, and looking at conversion of molecules from one form to another. So basically, chemical processes or chemical reactions that are being that are occurring because of the molecules that are present in the cell. And so those types of, you know, I think nowadays, we would consider them to be kind of crude experiments, but at the time really cutting edge research was done, you know, all the way back into the 1800s. And well into the 1900s 1900s and 1940s.

Prof Sashital  9:18  

And then, you know, towards the middle of the 20th century, we started to have more sophisticated techniques that allowed us to purify, you know, proteins and nucleic acids or even synthesize them artificially, and which really allows for very, very controlled and detailed investigations of how they actually work. And then also, technologically speaking, well, that is technology, but, you know, on the instrumentation side, you know, our instruments became much more sensitive and much more powerful in order to allow us to really get into a detailed understanding of how these biomarkers work.

Venkat Raman  10:04  

Yeah, it's it's really interesting to see instrumentation sophistication, and the evolution or growth of physical sciences as well. Yeah. You know, and around that period that you're talking about to make 1900s right now yeah.

Prof Sashital  10:22  

And and really even in the last few years, over the last 10 years or so, there's been a huge advances that have revolutionized biomedical sciences and biochemical sciences and a lot of ways. So one really exciting, recent, technological advance. So this is actually a technique that's been around for several decades, I think about 40 or 50 years, but only over the last 10 years or so has has really become as powerful as it is and has really kind of revolutionized a field of biochemistry that's called structural biology. So that technique is called cryo em or cryo electron microscopy. And what it really allows is for us to look directly at biomolecules like proteins and nucleic acids.

Prof Sashital  11:14  

You may be familiar with this picture of the Coronavirus, yes. where, you know, basically every news article that comes out has, has this, you know, the circular spherical virus with a bunch of proteins sticking off of it. That's actually based on cryo em images of the virus. So it's an artist's rendition. But, you know, the reason why we have that, that level of information, what does the virus actually look like, this is a very, very tiny particle on the order of nanometers in diameter.

Prof Sashital  11:52  

But we can see it because of, you know, this type of technology and electron microscopes have been around, since you know, the earlier part of the 20th century, but only in the last few years, have you actually been able to look at things in atomic level detail, so we can actually resolve what these proteins look like down to an atomic level and see individual bonds within within the protein. So it's pretty, it's a really amazing technology and one, I think that is having revolutionary impact on on the field, and, and really on all of biomedical and Biological Sciences.

Venkat Raman  12:30  

Obviously, the science is fascinating. How do you think biochemistry is empowering all of us, you know, our lives and humanity, so to speak? What is, what is that, you know, bigger mission here?

Prof Sashital  12:50  [Impact of Biochemistry on Humanity]

Yeah, I mean, I think biochemistry impacts us in millions of different ways. You know, just from everyday life, the enzymes that are in your laundry detergent, for example, that's a, that's a result of biochemistry, just the ability to produce those enzymes at the level, the industrial level that's necessary to make those everyday products, that that is the result of, you know, years of biochemistry, love of figuring out how can we produce the protein at a high enough level that we can make tons of it? How can we, you know, easily purify it and make that a process that that, you know, could be industrialized and done on a factory level. So, you know, every, you know, every time you're doing the laundry, or you're washing your dishes or whatever, you can kind of think about the fact that we have like, really, you know, really nice, nice ways of doing this in our modern our modern life.

Prof Sashital  13:54  

But obviously, you know, I think some of the most impactful just in terms of humanity, applications of biochemistry are in two areas, which are in biomedical sciences and you know, therapeutics that have been developed because of biochemistry and in agriculture and you know, the ability to produce food in a sustainable way and to, you know, provide farmers with, you know, with with safe and effective Pest Control management or pest control measures and things like that, these are all also or many of them really are the result of biochemistry.

Prof Sashital  14:39  

To take a very current example, the Coronavirus vaccine is, I would say almost every aspect of it is, you know, it was a debt to biochemistry. So, you probably you may be familiar with the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine. These are, These are mRNA vaccines. And while I would say that the understanding of mRNA. And how mRNA works is more in the realm of molecular biology, the production of the mRNA, how do they make the mRNA that is actually being injected into us, that is really basic biochemistry, the work that was done over the last 50 years or so, to develop the techniques to make the RNA, and also to understand how to modify the RNA so that when it gets into our bodies, we don't have an immune response against it. And that it doesn't just get degraded, as soon as it gets into our bodies. These are all the product of biochemical research.

Prof Sashital  15:43  

Another really important aspect of the of the vaccine is, how is it delivered, so you probably, you know, if you've had the vaccine, you know that you got a shot. But that's not just RNA in that shot, RNA is kind of a notoriously fragile molecule. So when it as soon as it enters into our cells, it would, it would probably just be degraded, it would never actually make it into the cell. So you know, all of that information would just be lost as soon as it got in. But the way that it's delivered, and the way that it can actually get into the cell, is that it is encapsulated with lipids, so with these fatty molecules, that can kind of merge with the membranes of our cells, and deliver that RNA into it. And so the, again, the development of those lipids that can actually be used to deliver RNA molecules is also, you know, a field of biochemistry, and it's really in debt to or, we owe a debt, I think, to the biochemists to who were able to, you know, to develop that as well.

Venkat Raman  16:53  

I was just thinking that, as you were talking about some of the different sub aspects of biochemistry, maybe it'd be nice at this point to sort of give us a little sense of the different areas or different areas of study under biochemistry, if there's some sort of organization or taxonomy.

Prof Sashital  17:13  [Subfields of Biochemistry]

Yeah, um, I mean, I think that there are quite a few subfields of biochemistry. Probably Historically, the some of the biggest subfields have been I mentioned before structural biology. Yeah, so this is the study of the molecular structure, often at we try to get to an atomic level understanding of what the structures actually look like. And the reason why we're interested in that, generally, is that if you can see something, you can begin to deduce how it works, right. So, you know, generally speaking, we are all visual people. You know, I think that it's much easier to understand if you have a diagram of what a an A car engine looks like, you might have a much better understanding of how it works, rather than just, you know, kind of circumstantial evidence for how it might work. So this is, you know, kind of the most direct approach that we have towards understanding biomolecules and their function.

Prof Sashital  18:17  

Usually, when we do structural biology, we accompany this with what we call structure function studies. The structure on its own is, is useful, but it doesn't really tell us anything until we actually do, you know, what I would consider to be just biochemical assays, biochemical experiments, where we can, you know, once we know what the protein looks like, we can predict things about how it might actually work. And then we can make changes to the protein that would allow us to test whether our hypotheses are correct. So if I say this part of the protein looks important, I can make a change to this part of the protein and see if that, you know, alters its function in some way. So any structural approach is also going to have kind of this biochemical side to it, where we're doing the actual, we're carrying out experiments where we're testing the actual function of the protein. And we're somehow having a readout of that function and seeing, you know, often quantitatively, can we measure what that you know what the changes we made to the protein actually do that the function of the protein.

Prof Sashital  19:30  

So, this kind of leads into another area, that's a very, very common area of studying biochemistry, which is something called enzymology. So in general, in ourselves, proteins carry out a lot of the work almost all of it really, and a lot of proteins that do important things in our bodies are called enzymes. And these are basically biological catalysts. So if you kind of remember back to what you hope, you know, your listeners, maybe have learned In their, in their chemistry courses in high school, a catalyst is basically just some type of substances that can accelerate a chemical reaction. And so that's what enzymes do. They're proteins that can basically bind to different molecules inside of cells and use those molecules to carry out a chemical reaction and do that in a really, really rapid manner.

Prof Sashital  20:26  

So let's say that you, you know, have a big lunch, you're going to take all of the sugar molecules that were in your sandwich that you ate, and you're going to somehow convert that into into forms of energy that can actually be used by ourselves. And that is generally done by a series of different enzymes that are present inside of ourselves. And so, you know, we understand a lot of how that works, because of enzymology, because of the field of entomology, where, you know, I mentioned earlier that, in the late 19th century, this is where that field kind of took off. And that was, you know, back then it was often taking extracts from cells and maybe doing a little bit of purification to try and find specific activities that were associated with those cells. But nowadays, we have really, really sophisticated techniques where we can purify individual enzymes and then assess their activity, you know, in in test tubes or even in microfluidic devices. So you can do this in really sophisticated ways that can very, very sensitively measure the activity of these of these things.

Prof Sashital  21:40  

So this is very important, because, you know, a lot of times, you know, in biomedical sciences, for example, drugs that have been developed, a lot of drugs that are on the market are actually inhibitors of enzymes. So basically, these are molecules that would bind to the enzyme and stop it from functioning. And so you can imagine that if an enzyme is doing something important in the cell, it could potentially be a target for a drug that could turn it off and therefore elicit a different outcome and in the cell.

Prof Sashital  22:12  

So those are, you know, I would say that, historically speaking, those are two of the more prevalent areas of biochemistry, but nowadays, there's a ton of different areas. You know, aside from just enzymes, I would say that other proteins are also exceptionally important. For example, in terms of, kind of crosstalk between different cells in our body. So, you know, our we are, we have many, many cells in our body, they have to somehow communicate with each other, like, you just kind of think about how does our, for example, how does our central nervous system cause our extremities to move around this is this is because of the ability of cells to actually talk to one another. And, you know, at a molecular level, the way that that works is usually that there's some kind of molecules that are moving between the cells, and they are being received by proteins on the cell that is being communicated to. So this is a, an overall field called signal transduction. You know, basically, you're transducing a signal from outside of the cell into the cell. And because of that, you're causing some kind of change to happen inside of the cell. And that's a huge area of study, not only in, in biochemistry, but also in cell biology. And even in, you know, other other disciplines as well.

Prof Sashital  23:43  

So, you know, I think that there's, there's, there's many, many different fields, different areas. In my research, I really focused a lot on nucleic acids, and especially on RNA. And so you know, we are very interested in general and understanding all of the different, I think a lot of times that RNA kind of gets lost in the shuffle of, you know, DNA is very obviously important, because, you know, it carries all the genomic information of a cell and proteins are very important for all the reasons I just mentioned. But RNA is also very important as well, it's not just the mRNA molecule, messenger molecule, but it also plays a lot of other roles inside of cells outside, it's, I would kind of almost put RNA into its own field, although there are many subfields within it as well.

Prof Sashital  24:32  

Some of the more modern areas of biochemistry include things like Chemical Biology, which you know, maybe it's its own discipline, but this is a you know, it sounds very similar, right biochemistry, Chemical Biology, but really, it's it's more of a chemistry based approach to understanding biology. So, developing chemical tools that can be used inside of cells off to pinpoint individual events that are occurring, or you know, catalog events that are occurring, and hopefully provide some more context at a cellular level as to how these things works.

Prof Sashital  25:17  

One of the things that I kind of want to emphasize is that, you know, earlier I call it biochemistry a reductionist approach, and, you know, why do we Why do we have to do it that way, we don't necessarily have to do it that way. And I think more and more biochemistry is becoming less of a reductionist approach, and we are able to study things in the context of a cell. But historically, it's been very difficult to do that. And, and the reason for that is that cells are just completely chock full of all different types of molecules. And that's complicated, that is a you know, that really makes it difficult to study an individual protein or an individual, other type of biomolecule. But as we gather more and more information, from reductionist approaches, what are these individual proteins actually do? We can now translate that back into understanding it on a cellular level? And so, you know, I would say, in modern biochemistry, we're, we're kind of taking all of the information that has been gathered over the years and trying to apply it back into the cell. And understand in the context of the style, you know, when you have all of this other stuff going on, how might that alter the function of the, you know, of these proteins that we've, that we've previously studied using reductionist approaches? So I think that's kind of like the modern era of biochemistry and maybe the future of biochemistry as well.

Prof Sashital  26:54  

Sort of like, you know, if you took, I don't know, like, I'm gonna go back to the car analogy, if you took a car part out of the car, and you just kind of investigated on its own, what does it do? What does the transmission do, you can see all I mean, at least in an old car, I'm sure nowadays, it just uses computers. But you know, there's like the fluid that moves from one part of the transmission to another, you can actually see that happening. And then you put that back in the car, and it works in concert with all these other parts of the car, it's very similar to that, you know, within a cell, when it's in the context of a cell, a protein is potentially going to have a lot of more ramifications and what we could really detail just by looking at it outside of that complex, but it is very informative, to study it outside of the context, because we can be a lot more careful and precise, in the way or in our definition of how it actually works.

Venkat Raman  27:58  

Let's talk a little bit about different areas of research and experimentations. that have gone on and what are some of the hot areas, so that, you know, the high schooler out there can get excited. And yeah.

Prof Sashital  28:19  [Hot Areas of Research]

Yeah, I mean, I would say probably the hottest area of research right now is SARS. COVID. to research, um, you know, I think it's so important. It's so important, not only because, you know, obviously the the research that was done to generate vaccines for this is something that's, you know, stuff that's been going on for many decades. I mentioned all the different aspects that have gone into making, for example, the Pfizer, the maternal vaccines, but also the other types of vaccines that are based on other types of delivery mechanisms. All of those are really important areas of research that have been going on for a long time, but specifically Coronavirus research so that we understand how the Coronavirus works has also been going on basically probably since you know SARS, there was a SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. And maybe even before that as well.

Prof Sashital  29:17  

But I think that this area has become obviously very hot over the last year because there's a need to understand the biology and the biochemistry of these viruses better so that we can potentially come up with therapeutics, so we do have vaccines against them, but people are still getting sick with Coronavirus. And so I think it's really important that we actually also have drugs against the virus so that you know we can treat people who are sick. So that's a very important area of research a very hot area of research.

Prof Sashital  29:48  

I mentioned CRYO em. So just in general right now, I think structural biology is kind of undergoing a revolution because cryo em is uniquely capable of tackling a lot of structures. We're not considered to be possible before. So these are generally like really large complexes that do really complicated things inside of ourselves. These are like huge machines basically, inside of ourselves, well, they're tiny, we wouldn't be able to see them with the naked eye. But internally, you know, in comparison to other things inside of the cell, they're quite large. And so, by more traditional structural biology techniques, these were kind of considered to be impossible targets for structural biology. But nowadays, they are fairly routine with cryo em. And so that's a really exciting area. Because every single, you know, week in the biggest journals, there's really exciting structure that's coming out, and everybody, you know, flips or lead on Twitter and gets really excited about it.

Prof Sashital  30:50  

I don't want to toot my own research, but I think that, you know, one very important area of researches is genome editing and CRISPR. So, you know, CRISPR is a, it's actually a kind of a interesting, maybe a little bit, abs are hard to understand why we would be interested in it sort of thing, naturally speaking, it's actually an immune system that's found in bacteria. So it's kind of a weird thing to think about that bacterial infection, we think about bacteria infecting us infecting our bodies, but bacteria themselves are, of course, living organisms, they have everything that is necessary in order for a virus to be able to replicate and, and proliferate.

So bacteria are also subject to viral infection. And in fact, the viruses of bacteria, which are called bacteria, phage, were the first viruses that were ever discovered about 110 years ago. And so they are, you know, very well understood, have been the subject of of study for a long time. But I think that there's been a bit of a renaissance surrounding bacteria and bacteria phage research. And this is in part due to a really important topic, which is antibiotic resistance. So, you know, when bacteria were discovered, or bacteria phages were discovered, it was very exciting, because they were potentially a form of an antibiotic, you could potentially use phages, to treat bacterial infections. And of course, back then there was no way to treat bacterial infection. But you know, with the discovery of, of small molecules like penicillin, that can act very effectively as antibiotics, there was not really a need to use bacteria phages anymore.

Prof Sashital  32:42  

But over the last, you know, 10 or 15 years, now, we have all these strains of bacteria that are very resistant to most antibiotics, most notably mersa. And so as a result of that, it is very important right now, a very important area of research, biochemistry, as well as other areas of biological research is in antimicrobial resistance, and then coming up with new forms of antibiotics. And so as a result of that phage therapy has actually become relevant again. And I think, because of that, this study of bacteria phages, and of how bacteria defend themselves against them, against the phages has also become relevant again. And one outcome of that has become has been the discovery of new defense mechanisms, and this includes CRISPR.

Prof Sashital  33:37  

And the reason why this is important is because, as it turns out, biology is much better at human, nature, I should say, is much better at inventing really useful tools than humans are, at least so far. And so, you know, we've we've long sought, I think, probably, since DNA was really first understood to be this information containing molecule, we've long sought to have a way to manipulate DNA and change DNA, especially inside of cells. So we have, you know, we have very good techniques for being able to manipulate DNA outside of cells. As I mentioned earlier, we can even synthesize DNA fairly regularly. But inside of cells, you know, the genome, the genomic content in ourselves, it would be exceptionally powerful if we were able to actually alter that DNA. So you can imagine that if you had a gene that had some kind of error in it, and that error was resulting in disease, that if we could fix that error by somehow doing, you know, some sort of editing technique inside of the cell, we would be able to cure that disease.

Prof Sashital  34:52  

You know, research, researchers have been trying to develop tools to do genomic For probably for about 40 years or so, and had really made some headway in the last 15 years or so. But then, or I should say more like 20 years now. But then, in 2012, 2013, the discovery of CRISPR. And the way that CRISPR works, really revolutionized, I keep using the word revolutionary, but I think we really are in a kind of a revolutionary time, biochemistry. And CRISPR revolutionized our ability to do genome editing. And it also has a lot of other very useful tech applications so that this includes like, diagnostics for various diseases and diseases, including COVID. So CRISPR is, I think, also an exceptionally important area of research right now. And, you know, of course, that's reflected in the fact that it won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

Venkat Raman  36:01  [BioEthics]

I guess this area also brings up a lot of bioethics related things, which were a separate topic. But yeah, I think that's

Prof Sashital  36:08  

Absolutely a very important, very important area, or a very important thing to for, you know, everyone to, to understand and kind of form their own opinion about. So, you know, scientists can understand art can tell you about the technical details of how CRISPR works, we can tell you about the capabilities of it, the limitations of it, we can't even tell you, you know, if there are any concerns about using it, but ethically speaking, I think that while we can have our own opinions, and we can, you know, we can consult with bioethicists, who consider these sorts of things for a living, that it is also exceptionally important for the public to be involved in those discussions as well. So I'm referring, of course, mainly to genome editing in germline, what that means is, you know, altering the DNA of cells that would be that contain the DNA that would be passed on to the next generation, right, um, genome editing in what we call somatic cells. So these are cells that do not contain germline information, they don't pass on the DNA to another individual. You know, I don't think that there's that many ethical concerns about that, of course, all of the concerns that go into any sort of drug development, making sure that it's safe and effective. And that there aren't side effects, all of those sorts of things are extremely, extremely important. And I'm sure that, you know, the companies that have clinical trials going on or are being very cognizant of those issues. But really, the ethics, the bioethics come into play when we talk about germline editing. And I think, you know, this is a very important topic that, that people should be, you know, becoming educated on and, and kind of coming up with their own thoughts on it.

Venkat Raman  38:06  

Now that let's talk about this high schooler. listening to this getting excited. How, how do you think the students should prepare to study this? Once they come to college? What should, I guess before we even get into the that, What do you what do you think they need as a competency or as a foundation to be able to do this?

Prof Sashital  38:35  [Skills to build in High School & College]

Yeah, so the, you know, the most important competency is in chemistry, a very strong foundation in chemistry, and that includes concepts that would be learned in general chemistry, but also in organic chemistry. So basically, you know, really, obviously, we are organic organisms, most of the molecules that we would discuss in a biochemistry class, and that we would study in a biochemistry lab are organic molecules. There is also some inorganic molecules that are important, but I don't think that it's that important to have a really strong foundation in inorganic chemistry.

Prof Sashital  39:16  

And then in biology, really, a strong understanding of evolution is very important. You know, in biochemistry, you're going to learn biology. So you don't necessarily need to have a huge amount of background in biology. It's of course useful to know the things that you would learn in high school, so you know, what are the kingdoms, domains, families, etc, that sort of thing. So like phylogeny, and things like that, but you know, I think that the individual processes that we would talk about, we're going to talk about those in biochemistry anyway. So

Prof Sashital  39:58  

I think you know, from biology class The main thing to take away, most important thing to take away is evolution and how all organisms are related to one another. And this is a really important unifying concept in biochemistry. And it's also it's something that we, you know, we consider all the time when we're talking about how molecules work, because they evolved to do certain things. You know, what were the pressures that allow them to evolve in that certain way? What is the, you know, what is the cell? Like, you know, why, why do we, why would we see a protein that does a certain thing. So, you know, I think having that kind of foundation and biology is really important as well.

Prof Sashital  40:42  

In addition, you know, for example, the biochemistry major at my university requires a fairly comprehensive training in math, and calculus, and in differential equations, as well as in physics. So a couple semesters of physics as well, because those things also are quite important for, for some of the concepts in biochemistry.

Prof Sashital  41:13  

As a high school student, the best thing to do is really just to kind of prepare yourself for college. I think, you know, taking the classes that are going to best prepare you for, for taking the college level of chemistry, the college level biology is, is the thing to focus on. And then once you get into college, then you know, kind of following that path where in the first couple years, you're aiming to complete your training in general chemistry and organic chemistry and in some biology courses, and then often, starting in the third year, that's when the upper level biochemistry courses would begin.

Prof Sashital  42:00  

I would say I just want to plug my own university here, our our undergrad program actually incorporates biochemistry into the freshman and the sophomore year. So the first two years, because of what I just said, Because biochemistry, the study of biochemistry requires a very strong foundation in some of these earlier classes, we often wouldn't have seen and I think, in a lot of universities, the biochemistry professors don't see the biochemistry majors until they're juniors. And we really want to have a presence in the academic careers of our biochemistry major. So we have courses at the 100 and the 200. And even the 300 level that students take in their freshman and their sophomore years. And as a result of that they actually get exposure to biochemistry early on. And I think one nice thing about it is that they're learning at the same time Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at a, you know, at a lower a simpler level than what they'll learn when they become juniors. But it kind of ties in Why is what I'm learning in this organic chemistry course, relevant to my major, you know, I'm a biochemistry major, why do I need to learn organic chemistry? I think that that helps them to kind of put that together. And, you know, and really drive home the importance of these earlier classes that they're taking.

Venkat Raman  43:29  

You know, you make a great point, because my, you know, as we were talking about the requirements, I was thinking, how does a student even know, you know, quote, unquote, the existence of biochemistry? Yeah, I mean, so by injecting it in the freshman year, they start seeing that. So, you know, I think that exposure really is a, it's a very good reason for them to go explore it more.

Prof Sashital  43:53  

Yeah, I see this a lot, actually, that, you know, when I was a undergrad, I didn't know what biochemistry was, when I started and I, I started off as a chemistry major. So I was lucky that I realized that I was interested in biochemistry pretty early on, because one of the things that I've seen as a professor now is that, you know, students take biochemistry in their junior year, and they realize that they actually find this to be a fascinating topic. It's, it's hard at that point. To switch majors into biochemistry, it's not impossible, but it can be quite difficult because of all of the requirements that like the prerequisites that are required for for these majors. So it is helpful to have a sense coming into college that this might be a topic that you're interested in studying, seeking out if there are any lower level biochemistry courses so that you can get a little bit more exposure to it. And, or even seeking out programs that emphasize biochemistry early on is also you know, something that you might look for when you're looking at Knowledge is, and then, you know, then you can make that decision pretty early on as to whether or not this is a topic that you're actually interested in, or whether you might be interested in some other area of biology. Um, one thing that I want to note is that, you know, I think this is really a personality based thing. You know, I'm, I'm somebody who is very interested in understanding the details of how things work and understanding mechanism. And I like to ask questions at that level at that really, really basic level. But, you know, other people are more interested in a more global picture of how things work, like, you know, how does this, what happens if you alter this gene? What happens to the whole organism? And that that would be more like a genetics approach to to research? And so I think one thing that is really useful as if you're a budding scientist is to figure out, you know, at what level are you interested in? Or maybe you're interested in, looking at all the way down the line, but, but being able to identify that, like, what kind of questions do you want to ask as a scientist, I think is really helpful for identifying which subject area you should go into.

Venkat Raman  46:15  [Is Biochemistry for me?]

[Good] Point, because one of the things one struggles with is, am I going to be good at it? Am I, you know, is this something for me? Is that my calling? Right?

And yeah, obviously, there are no easy answers. But I think the idea of, you know, experimenting, or at least, you know, being able to find in a stepwise manner, whether you're going to be good for the next level, so to speak, I think it's a good way to go.

Prof Sashital  46:52  

Yeah, and along those lines, you know, really important, you know, if if any of your listeners are considering a career in biochemistry, a very important thing is to seek out research opportunities. So, you know, learning about biochemistry in your in your coursework is, of course, very important. But I think, any research opportunity where you get to actually learn the scientific method and apply it, and, you know, learn how to problem solve, learn how to overcome obstacles in your research.

Prof Sashital  47:28  

You know, I actually think that this is useful, regardless of what area you're going to go into following following graduation. Um, you know, problem solving is useful in any field, it doesn't matter what kind of what kind of job you get. But, you know, certainly it is essential to have some experience in research before, you know, just to see is it for you? Do you like doing research before seeking out a career in research? So that's a very important thing, that I would really encourage students to kind of seek out and when you're looking at colleges, you can look to see, are there research opportunities? Or, you know, are there programs for the summer for, you know, my vacation, where I would be able to actually do some research somewhere, maybe at another university?

Venkat Raman  48:21  

Let me ask a question. Any college student would have is this difficult course to study? Is biochemistry hard?

Prof Sashital  48:33  

Well, you know, um, yes, I think it's a hard course to study, as I've mentioned, there are a lot of prerequisites to it. And so, you know, you have to get through all of those courses before you get to biochemistry. But, you know, I think that, seeing everything come together, seeing kind of the culmination of that training and chemistry and biology and having it, you know, kind of synergize together into into one subject is very rewarding. And if you, you know, really kind of retain the information, if you absorb the information from your previous classes, it's not hard, it's, it makes sense. Everything, you know, kind of comes together and, and you can apply the concepts that you learned in the previous classes and, and kind of roll with it and learn biochemistry fairly readily.

Prof Sashital  49:32  

One mistake that I think a lot of people make is, is trying to memorize concepts or memorize not even concepts, but facts, instead of learning concepts, and this is I think, the, you know, the thing that makes it harder in some ways. So, especially in the earlier classes, if all you did was memorize it, and you didn't retain the information you didn't understand the information. And it's going to be harder as you move along. Because you're going to continue to need that information you're going to need to, you're going to continue to need those concepts. And so this is something that I see as a professor that a lot of times, when students get to my class, they have lost some of the important concepts that are really essential for my class. Um, and that makes it hard. I think that makes it very hard to kind of, you know, even get into the subject matter and even have a place to begin a foundation on which to build my you know, my biggest piece of advice is to, you know, to work less on memorization and more on making sure that you fundamentally understand what is what is being taught in class and what your, you know, what you're expected to learn.

Venkat Raman  50:50  [Opportunities for a Biochemistry Major]

So, I get my degree, I majored in Biochemistry, I guess, so what do I do next? What opportunities do I have?

Prof Sashital  51:01  

Yeah, um, so, you know, I can go based on what what we see our undergraduates doing, um, we have a pretty big mix of students who are pre health. So they're interested in attending medical school, or attending dental school, or, you know, some other area related to health. So I would say maybe about 50% of the students who go on to professional school go on to some sort of health related professional school, many of them go to medical school, who are our majors. So biochemistry is an excellent major, if you're considering pre med. I think that it, you know, understanding biochemistry is essential for for physicians. So I strongly recommend anyone who's pre med to consider a biochemistry major.

Prof Sashital  52:03  

You know, the other 50%, I would say, most of that, who go to professional school, most of them go to grad school. So to pursue a PhD, often in biochemistry, or maybe in a related subject. And generally speaking, what a PhD program would be is, you would, you would pursue a research program project, under, you know, under the supervision of a professor, usually often at another university. And he would spend about five to six years working on that project, and then eventually publishing the results of that work. So it's kind of like a full time job, but you're also still training, and you're learning quite a lot. And this is where you really learn some of the things that I was talking about earlier, you know, a lot of skills that I think are translatable to any field afterwards.

Prof Sashital  52:59  

Once you get your PhD, you don't necessarily need to continue on and research you could, you know, a lot of people go on to do many, many other things. I have friends who became lawyers, like patent a patent lawyers, I have friends who went into public policy working in the government, friends who worked in government labs. And of course, I also have friends who want to get jobs at pharmaceutical or biotech companies, or who want to continue in academia, like I have and become professors themselves. So there's many, many different paths that are open to you, if you pursue a PhD, or even a Master's as well.

Prof Sashital  53:42  

But we also, of course, have students who are satisfied with her bachelor's degree and want to just get, you know, get out there and get into the workforce right away. And that is an excellent thing to do. Because I think, at the bachelors level, there are a lot of opportunities for biochemists. So, you know, I live in Iowa, so we have a number of agricultural companies in the area. So a lot of our students go on, to get jobs as, as research assistants at these at these companies. And I think it's, you know, it's a pretty reasonable route to take, you probably make be making a fairly reasonable salary. And, and, you know, it's nice, you know, you're you're right, you're out there in the real world right away and ready to get on with your life instead of this further training that can go on for many, many years. You know, I think generally a Bachelor's in biochemistry can get you really good jobs in various areas of biotech, including, as I mentioned, agricultural research or bio biotech, that's more related to medicine, as well as at pharmaceutical companies. So there's a lot of opportunities and even you know, some of the the types of jobs that I mentioned are the types of jobs names that I mentioned early on. There's a lot of industrial biochemistry. So there may be opportunities as well in those fields.

Venkat Raman  55:13  

I thought before we wind down here, learn a little bit about you. Yeah. Tell tell us a little bit about why or how we got into biochemistry. And yeah, and we go from there are a couple others. Yes.

Prof Sashital  55:27  [Prof Sashital’s Biochemistry Journey]

Yeah. Um, yeah. So I grew up in in Michigan, and I grew up in the Detroit area. So you may have heard of Detroit, because it is the Motor City. Right. So it's the automotive capital of the world, or at least it was in the 80s, when I was growing up. And so I was surrounded by a lot of Automotive Engineers, including my father. And, you know, I knew from a very early age that I was very interested in doing research someday. But my exposure was mainly to engineers. And so I thought I wanted to become an engineer and become an engineer who was in kind of research and development side of things. Um, and so when I was a junior in high school, I had an opportunity to work at Ford Motor Company for the summer, and I was luckily placed in an r&d lab. And that was a very important experience, because it made me realize that I actually wasn't that interested in automotive engineering. And actually, in engineering in general, it turned out that, you know, I, as I mentioned earlier, I'm more interested in understanding discovering how things work rather than in applying, you know, once we know how something works, applying it to, to create a tool or create a, you know, some type of device.

And so, around that time, I started to get more interested in medical research, and thought maybe I would go to medical school, because I didn't really realize that there were other avenues, I guess, to doing research, I thought you had to be a doctor, a physician to do research. So I went to college as a pre med. But almost immediately, as soon as I got there, my, my first chemistry class was an organic chemistry class. And I met a graduate student who was the TA for the course. And she kind of explained to me what a PhD is, you know, and how you would go about doing research, if you were interested in in, you know, just basic science research, like, as it turned out, I was really interested in. And so I started out as a chemistry major.

And I think, after about a year realized that I was actually more interested, as I started to look at research labs, this is where the research angle came in. I realized, as I was looking at the labs, that I was interested in the biochemistry research, and so that's when I added on the biochemistry major. And I started working in a biochemistry lab. Actually, before I had taken any biochemistry classes, I started working in a biochemistry lab. So I actually started to learn a lot of biochemistry by working in the lab. And then that was supplemented later with my actual biochemistry courses that I took the next year.

So, you know, once I got into that lab, and I started doing that research, that was when I realized this is what I want to do this is exactly, you know, filling that that niche that, you know that that area that I was really excited about, which is to ask very basic questions about how things work. And, you know, understand mechanisms and this and make discoveries and making discoveries, I think, is a very exciting feeling. And, you know, something that if you get to experience that in your career, it can be it can be quite addictive. Like it's something that you want to feel it again, once you felt it. So, um, so this is the reason why I decided to, you know, there wasn't anything else that I wanted to do, I wanted to keep doing research. And that's why I continued on to do a PhD and then to do a postdoc, and then eventually to start my own lab.

Venkat Raman  59:12  

How did this happen, that you realize that you were really good at it? I mean, how did you figure it out This is it!

Prof Sashital  59:20  

Yeah, I, that's a really interesting question. I don't know. I don't know that I'm really good at it. You know, a lot of times in science and research, um, luck plays an important role. And, you know, I, I will do my own horn a little bit. I do have some skill. You know, I think I have some skill at doing research at the bench. And that's important. And, you know, one of the skills that I have is that I am not easily frustrated. That's important for doing scientific research. You know, a lot of times things can go wrong, and you just don't want to do it anymore because you know, just It's annoying, it's frustrating. So having some level of perseverance and ability to kind of brush off the frustration is important. And I think I have that. So that's important. But you know, also, just having the attention to detail, just some basic skills with using your hands, these sorts of things are of some of great importance, I guess, I would say, being organized, those sorts of things. So, you know, those skills I did kind of bring into this. But I do want to emphasize that in a lot of ways, I've been really fortunate to work with very, very great scientists who put me on projects that, you know, were, I was lucky enough to make progress on and as a result of that I had kind of the body of work that would allow me to kind of progress in the field or in my career. And since starting my own lab, I've been really lucky to work with really exceptional students who have, you know, I don't do I don't do research in the lab anymore. They do all the research, they, they bring me the results, we discuss the results, and it's a very different way of doing science, something that I didn't wasn't really sure that I would like, you know, I really do like working at the bench and doing the research myself, but it's actually turned out to be wonderful and, and really wonderful to work with students and to mentor them. And again, I've been lucky in that sense that I've worked with really, with really great students who have been completely instrumental in the success of the lab. So you know, in a lot of ways, while I do think that there's a lot of skills that are important, or personality traits, I guess, that are important for, for being good at research, I think that'll also, it is important to, you know, to have a little bit of luck on your side, and you know, hope that you're all you'll get a really good project, one that will, will bear fruit, and that will allow you to, to have the success that that is needed to kind of move forward in your career.

Venkat Raman  1:02:09  

Absolutely. Everyone wants that luck in their little lives.

Venkat Raman  1:02:18  

Now, one of the things I wanted to ask you is, you know, a lot of what you've done and been doing has to do with things across disciplines. And it's pretty amazing, because a lot of times, you know, things have been very siloed. Right. Yeah. And so, how did that happen for you? Is it just happenstance again? Or was it something that you had chalked out in some way?

Prof Sashital  1:02:49  

Yeah, I mean, this is one of the really nice things, I think about being at a university. But there are so many disciplines, in university settings. And as long as you are open and willing to seek out people from those other disciplines, there are opportunities available. You know, one thing I think that often happens at universities is that people kind of tend to stay within their own bubble. And I find this to be especially true at a very large university, like the one that I met, which has, you know, 1000s, of faculties. So it can be a little bit of a challenge, you do have to seek out the opportunities, but, um, you know, on our campus, we have a lot of great groups that allow for that sort of interaction to occur. And that has really facilitated any type of interdisciplinary research that my lab has done.

So, you know, I'm, I'm not a plant scientist at all. Prior to coming to Iowa State. I barely knew anything about plants. I knew they did photosynthesis, that was about all I had ever learned about them. And I got here, and it's a really great agricultural school. So you know, there's a lot of very good, both animal and plant science research going on. And I got involved in the crop bioengineering Consortium, which is now called the crop bioengineering center, because of my interest in CRISPR. And at the time, CRISPR was very new, it had just been discovered. So they were excited to have somebody who had expertise in CRISPR join their group, and I was excited to meet so many great plant biologists who, you know, over the last seven years, I've learned so much about plant biology from and so we've had, you know, some really good collaborations with those groups. And we've, and you know, through that I think it has opened my mind to, I mean, of course, I've always thought that plant research is very important. Obviously, agricultural research is exceptionally important.

But you know, it's really, really opened my eyes to how cool the research is and how, how cutting edge it is and how, unfortunately, we don't pay as much attention to it. Because we have this bias towards things that might be more relevant to humans, I guess. And so, you know, I think that that has been one of the best things about being at this university in particular. And it really did come about because of this, the center that kind of brings together faculty from all and faculty and, and lab members from all over the university.

So we have people who are in sociology there. So we were talking earlier about bio bioethics. So there's, you know, some bio ethicists, some people from journalism, and, you know, obviously, all of the different scientific disciplines or biological sciences, I guess. So, you know, all of the different biology departments, but also agronomy, and, and some engineering departments as well. So it's really great. And there are other groups like this on our campus, as well as campuses all over the world. So I think, you know, the university setting really does facilitate that. I can't speak to industry, because I've never actually worked at a company before. But I would imagine that, you know, this does happen in companies as well, but it depends on who they hire. So they have to have the vision then to bring in the people who are going to bring in different perspectives. And, you know, I could imagine that it's maybe a little bit harder there, because you have to actually seek out the people. And they're not already, you know, not already in a neighboring building or something like that.

Venkat Raman  1:06:50  

Okay, so on final question for you, you know, after decades of doing this, you still sound very excited and jubilant about what is going on. So what do you, what has been the most satisfying part of what you've done so far? I mean, as a researcher, as a biochemist?

Prof Sashital  1:07:10  

That's a really good question. Um, you know, I think it's important to just never be satisfied. You got to keep pushing otherwise. You know, it's a little hard to stay motivated. But, um, you know, I think that there is satisfaction every time that you that you release your work to the public, basically, that you that you make known. So I talked earlier about making discoveries. And the reason why it's exciting to make a discovery is because the way that I often think about it is that we sometimes when something new is discovered, we say new is discovered in biology, it's not new, it's been there for millions, maybe even billions of years. You know, we just discovered it's new to us. And, and that's such an amazing feeling when you when you make that discovery of something that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, and you're the first human to know about it, that's very exciting. But it's even more exciting, I think, to release that information. to, you know, the general scientific public, or the general public and the rest of the scientific community in the form, either of you know, often we give presentations on our unpublished research, at conferences or at seminars, but also in the form of papers. So when we, when we publish our papers, it is a really, really exciting moment, I think, when you are releasing that new information that you've gathered into, into the world. So those are, I think, the most satisfying moments in the field, you know, in the research area aspect of my job. But you know, I'm also now that I'm a lab head and a professor, I teach a lot, and I mentor students. And I think that the other really satisfying aspect of my job now is watching students become scientists become really mature scientists and good scientists, and then graduate with their PhDs and go on to have their own successful careers. And that, you know, that was something when I started my lab, it was hard to ever imagine that that was going to happen. And now that has happened several times. It is a wonderful feeling. And it's really, really satisfying and exciting to watch. My former graduate students go on and, you know, start their own careers. And then just at the teaching level, I think also, you know, it's sometimes it's a little bit of a thankless job, but it can be it can be a little bit of a hard job. But every once in a while you get like, you see progress in a student and that's wonderful. You work with the student really closely. And you see them learning, and that's really a great feeling. Or you, you know, happen to get a nice email from a student. And that's wonderful. You know, I really, really cherish those, those emails. So, you know, for your listeners, if you have a professor or a teacher who, who inspired you or who, you know, you even just think that did a good job teaching the class, send them an email, because I think that they'll, they'll really appreciate it.

Venkat Raman  1:10:26  

Fantastic. So Dipa, this has been truly, truly fascinating. It was a great primer. And I hope the listeners are able to sort of absorb all the wonderful pieces of information that you've given. You've been very generous with your time, I just noticed that we ran on for a little over an hour. But it was just, it was just so detailed and so vivid, so fantastic. So thank you, Dipa.

Prof Sashital  1:10:57  

Thank you.

Venkat Raman  1:10:58  

I hope we will talk again, for now. Take care, be safe. Talk to you soon.

Prof Sashital  1:11:04  

All right. Bye.

Venkat Raman  1:11:05  

Bye.

------

Venkat  1:11:07

Hi again!

Hope you enjoyed our podcast with Prof Sashital on Biochemistry.

Prof Sashital gave us a great overview of Biochemistry, its impact on humanity, the opportunities and what it takes to do undergraduate study in Biochemistry.

I hope this podcast inspires you to learn more about Biochemistry.

For your questions or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] with the Subject: Biochemistry.

Thank you all so much for listening to our podcast today.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

Women in Technology, Biochemistry, Cells, Research, Protein, Molecules, Biology, Enzymes, CRISPR, Chemistry, mRNA, DNA, Pfizer, Moderna, Sashital Lab


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