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Kathy Wilson on the Structure of Nuclei

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Kathy Wilson on the Structure of Nuclei

Interviewed by Catherine Kolf

Kathy Wilson on the Structure of Nuclei

Kathy Wilson is a professor of cell biology. Her lab studies the structure of the cell nucleus, in particular the nuclear envelope that separates DNA from the rest of the cell. 

What does your laboratory study?

WILSON: We study the structure of the cell nucleus. I was attracted to this area as a postdoc because so little was known about it. Textbooks presented the nucleus as just a container, a “wall” that separates chromosomes from the rest of the cell. This wall, called the nuclear envelope, is actually fascinating. It includes embedded proteins that “hold hands” and transmit mechanical force into the nucleus from outside, plus hundreds of other proteins that organize chromosomes in ways that change their gene activity. There are also dynamic networks of structural proteins that support the nuclear envelope and create a flexible “skeleton” within the nucleus. The best-understood types of these proteins are named lamins.

Much of my work is focused on lamins and a few important nuclear envelope proteins that bind lamins and chromosomes. Together these proteins form networks that are protective but also resilient and deformable, and they help the cell turn the right genes on or off during development or in response to environmental changes. 

What are the implications for human health?

WILSON: Small mutations in nuclear structural proteins, especially one called lamin A, can cause more than 15 different diseases. These include common conditions like heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and uncommon diseases, like Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy and the “premature aging” condition called Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome. You can’t treat or cure something you don’t understand, so it’s immensely gratifying that seemingly esoteric, basic research on the cell nucleus is providing important insight that can help children with progeria, for example.

Kathy Wilson and her three sons at Tae Kwon Do class Kathy Wilson takes tae kwon do classes with her three sons.

Besides your research, what else do you enjoy about being a professor here?

WILSON: I really enjoy the teaching we get to do here, both with graduate and medical students. And every summer, we bring in high school and college students to experience life in a lab. Their enthusiasm and energy are inspiring!

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

WILSON: I think it’s really important to love your work and have a life outside the lab. It’s better for your science, for your mind, for your soul. My husband and I have three boys who get us to do all kinds of things we wouldn’t otherwise do, like climbing rock walls and playing tae kwon do.

One great thing about Johns Hopkins is how many of the faculty here are mothers and fathers and love talking about their kids. It’s important for our students to see good examples of well-rounded people.

Katherine Wilson on the Structure of the Nucleus

Katherine Wilson, Ph.D., is a professor of cell biology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Her research is focused on the structural proteins of the nucleus and how they help to regulate gene and protein activity.