“If someone asks me if I want to do this or that, I always think: why not both?” says Dr. Liana Lareau, professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley. This philosophy has defined much of Lareau’s professional journey, and she now leads a thriving research lab at the intersection between biology and engineering.
Halfway through Lareau’s postdoc, the lab she worked in shut down. Rather than find a new lab and start afresh, Lareau chose to finish her project. She gained her own funding and two graduate students to co-advise, which served as a trial run at being a professor and helped Lareau determine the type of science she would later pursue. She explains, “Because I had done a postdoc in a biochemistry lab, I came out thinking, ‘OK, here are these really cool biochemistry questions’ … But in terms of where my unique contribution comes from, it turned out I’m not actually a biochemist.” Instead, Lareau decided she is a bioengineer.
The Lareau group is interested in understanding how information stored in DNA affects RNA and using this basic science to engineer therapeutics. In cells, DNA is first transcribed into RNA before interacting with cellular machinery to make essential proteins. Lareau’s work shows that the specific sequence of the DNA can change the RNA that is transcribed, which in turn alters the protein. Knowing why this occurs and the fundamental rules underlying how RNA is controlled is vital for developing RNA therapeutics, which have recently come into prominence with COVID-19 vaccines.
Although Lareau didn’t expect to end up in bioengineering, she notes that she always had an “engineering, ‘let’s see if we can make this happen’ mentality.” For the past decade, in fact, she has been involved in an Oakland-based art collective that creates sculptures for Burning Man, including a Dance Dance Revolution rig that bursts into flames if the player—dressed in a fire-proof suit—makes too many mistakes. In this creativity lies Lareau’s talent: combining her seemingly disparate interests, whether they be science and art, or RNA biology and clinical therapeutics.
Sierra Lear is a graduate student in bioengineering
Design by Chenyu Zhang
This article is part of the Spring 2022 issue.
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