Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Nora Kory
Nora Kory is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini’s lab working on mitochondrial metabolism and transport, where she is also an HHMI fellow of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. We sat down with Kory to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.
What do you investigate?
I’m studying mitochondrial metabolism. Mitochondria are organelles that produce energy and metabolites for the cell. They are an integral part of the cell, but they used to be their own organisms; they were a kind of bacteria that got absorbed by the early ancestors of multicellular life. It's really interesting to study how they transferred some of their functions to cells and how cells became dependent on them. In particular, I’m studying how mitochondria produce metabolites that cells need in order to proliferate and carry out all of their functions.
I’ve been interested in the spatial organization of metabolism since I was an undergrad. We've known for decades what the main metabolic pathways are but it’s not that well understood how cells compartmentalize them, how this compartmentalization helps metabolic reactions to occur, or how flux through these pathways is directed. Overall, we don't fully understand yet what metabolism really looks like. One thing that I've become interested in is the mitochondrial inner membrane. Mitochondria constantly need to exchange metabolites with the rest of the cell and this happens through transport proteins in the inner membrane. In many cases, we don’t really know how transport happens and how it’s regulated. It's clear that there is a lot of substructure in the inner mitochondrial membrane, and there's probably a lot more that we don't see—but we have techniques now that can give us a better look. For example, in a recent paper I had the chance to show that a transporter we identified is located specifically in the mitochondrial inner membrane. I collaborated with a friend of mine from grad school on this work who does super-resolution microscopy, and she was able to stain for the protein and show that it really is in the inner mitochondrial membrane. On top of that, we saw that the protein is not homogeneously distributed but instead it's present in specific foci.
What led you to Whitehead Institute?
I actually first came to Whitehead Institute, to David’s lab, a while ago as a master's student. That was in 2009-2010, and I returned a few years ago after finishing my PhD. I have to say that it's an amazing place to work. We have great support staff and core facilities. As a postdoc you have to worry about very little other than your own research, and that's great. Working with David and everyone in our lab is wonderful, they're just fantastic scientists, and I love the questions that we're studying.
What’s the culture of the Sabatini lab?
Everyone always says, and I'll say too, that our lab is pretty intense. We have a group of people who care a lot about what they are doing. You see the people around you succeeding, and that environment encourages you to work harder and also succeed. It can be stressful, but it’s also fun, especially when you reach the stage where the things you are working on succeed. I also think everyone in our lab is so interesting, and I have learned a lot from them. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to work with the smartest and most interesting people from all over the planet in our lab.
What have you learned from people in your lab?
We have lots of discussions. One of my colleagues is Palestinian, and I'm actually half Israeli (and half Austrian), but I've never learned as much about Palestine before as I have here, or about Saudi Arabia, where another colleague is from. For me it's been a way to learn about the world. Another big topic in the lab is food, diet, and exercise. I think our lab is very much into the health thing and interested in how you can stay healthy up until an old age. Our lab is also very into fitness. A lot of people go running together.
When did you decide to go into science?
I'm from Germany, where after high school you have to decide what career to focus on in your studies. I loved science classes in school but I always did lots of things — sports, music — so it was very hard for me to imagine doing one thing for the rest of my life. Still I decided to study science, and once I learned more about biology and cells, I just got hooked. I wanted to understand how these things work. And I'm happy to say that even in such an intense career, it's still possible to do other things as well. For example, I also sing. At the moment I mostly sing with the Boston Symphony in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
What's your favorite piece to sing?
It's probably something by Schubert or Brahms. Opera is really fun too. With the choir we recently did Mahler Symphony No. 2. The choir has a very small part, only in the fifth movement of the symphony, but it starts very soft and by the end you're kind of screaming at the top of your lungs, so it goes through this whole evolution, and it's very emotional. That's fun to sing and for me it’s also a spiritual experience where you connect with something greater out there and with the people you’re making this music with and for.
What's your favorite part of your job?
There are so many. One thing that’s really fun is that we get to solve puzzles. It's kind of addictive when you get results, little pieces of the puzzle, and you get to put them all together into a comprehensive story. I also love mentoring. I've had some awesome master’s students working with me, and I've discovered that I really enjoy figuring out how to help them grow as people and as scientists. And I love that my day-to-day job is so diverse. I get to do experiments, analyze data, read, think, and talk to smart and knowledgeable people. There’s no set schedule, and I get to come in and decide what I want to do. You really have the freedom to make of this job what you want.
What's your least favorite part of your job?
It's definitely very frustrating when things don't work. While you’re working on a research puzzle you can never really be sure if you are going to solve it. It's like swimming in the ocean and not being sure which way to go to reach the shore. Thankfully once you have experience and you’ve been through some failures, you realize that in the past you’ve been able to get over those failures and get things moving again. So that's one positive I find now as a postdoc, that I don't get as upset when things go wrong and I have a better plan for how to get back on track.
What about being a researcher is different than people might expect?
I think non-scientists often think that we do really complicated things, but a lot of what we do is actually not complicated at all. A lot of it is manual work that doesn't require that much thinking. I could probably teach anyone to pipette a PCR. But then I also think many people have very little concept of what it means to work on a project over several years and how often things don't work — that it's almost more normal that things don't work than that they do. Still, I talk to a lot of non-scientists, and I sometimes wish I could awaken their interest in biology. I definitely try to do that! A lot of the things we're studying, especially as biologists, are actually quite accessible.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I hope I'll have my own lab and be studying the roles of organelles in metabolism in an exciting research environment like Whitehead Institute.
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