Lindsey Backman

Courtesy of Lindsey Backman

Biochemist Lindsey Backman appointed as a Valhalla Fellow at Whitehead Institute

Lindsey Backman, a biochemist who studies the structure and function of proteins in microbial organisms, has been named a Valhalla Fellow at Whitehead Institute and is the newest member of the Whitehead Fellows Program. Her lab will study the human microbiome, its constituents, and the ways that its resident bacteria protect the enzymes they rely on for survival.

The Whitehead Fellows Program provides highly talented and accomplished recent PhDs the opportunity to launch their own research programs, instead of working as postdoctoral researchers in a senior scientist’s lab. Since its founding in 1984, the Program has become the model for advancing the careers of biomedical research’s most promising young scientists. And its alumni have gone on to stellar research careers and major leadership roles in research, academia, and industry.

“Each Whitehead Fellow brings both a pioneering spirit and an exciting vision for researching important questions in biology,” says Yukiko Yamashita, Institute Member and co-director of the Whitehead Fellows Program. “Lindsey’s work with microbiota will expand the range of our investigations and her perspectives will enrich the Institute community,” observes Yamashita, who is also a  professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an Investigator of  the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI).

Backman received her PhD in chemistry from MIT earlier this year, having earned a bachelor of science in chemistry, summa cum laude, from the University of Florida in 2015. As an undergraduate, she received honors including the University of Florida Presidential Service and University Scholars awards. She also participated in HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) and its Capstone Award program – which both enable students from underrepresented backgrounds to work with a university professor to pursue summer research projects. Through those programs and the MIT Summer Research Program, she worked for two summers as a research assistant in the lab of Catherine Drennan, MIT professor of chemistry and biology and HHMI Investigator, who subsequently became Backman’s PhD advisor.

In graduate school, Backman benefited from multiple programs that provided funding and a supportive community – notably including the HHMI Gilliam Fellows Program, which helps students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM pursue academic careers.

In her Whitehead Institute lab, Backman will continue to investigate the structure and biochemistry of the collection of gut microbes that comprise the human microbiome and that are a key to human health. One aspect she will focus on is how specific bacteria produce unique proteins to metabolize nutrients and repair broken enzymes.

To advance that work, at the outset of her Valhalla Fellowship at Whitehead Institute Backman will be working with the Hung lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to develop some of the genetics tools and methods needed to expand her investigations of bacterial function and to better explore the relationship between bacteria and human health.

One focus of Backman’s investigations will be a particular protein that she and her MIT research colleagues characterized: This “spare part protein” helps repair the function of a broken enzyme that is important to bacterial function. “Ever since my first summer research experience at MIT, I’ve been dedicated to studying this one unique repair mechanism,” says Backman. “We’ve gone from solving the structure of the proteins to now understanding how the mechanism works. But there’s still so much more to learn.” Indeed, she believes that these repair mechanisms may operate in other enzymes too, which could have significant implications for understanding and treating many human diseases.

“I’m very excited to have the opportunity to pursue the next steps in my investigations, and grateful to be able to do so with the Valhalla Foundation’s support and in the very special environment that Whitehead Institute offers,” Backman says. “The Institute’s commitment to helping young researchers pursue their scientific visions – and to providing the tools, training, and collaborative support needed to push the boundaries of current thinking – is empowering."


Lindsey Backman, a biochemist who studies the structure and function of proteins in microbial organisms, has been named a Valhalla Fellow at Whitehead Institute and is the newest member of the Whitehead Fellows Program.



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