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Sandra Gabelli on Protein Structures and Pasta


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Sandra Gabelli on Protein Structures and Pasta

Interviewed by Catherine Gara

Sandra Gabelli on Protein Structures and Pasta

Sandra Gabelli is an assistant professor of biophysics and biophysical chemistry and of art as applied to medicine. The long-term goal of her work is to design targeted therapies to help better treat diseases like cancer.  

How did you get to where you are now?

GABELLI: My path as a biomedical researcher was definitely not linear. I was a computer science major as an undergraduate in Argentina. For my senior thesis project, I worked on writing software to visualize electron density maps of proteins in a structural biology lab, where I was surrounded by biomedical scientists. The biomedical questions began to interest me, and when I moved to the States shortly after, I decided to become a biomedical researcher using some computational methods. I got my Ph.D. in biophysics here, at the school of medicine, under Mario Amzel’s mentorship.

Tell me about your research.

GABELLI: The long-term goal of my work is to design targeted therapies. Once a protein molecule has been chosen as a target because it is involved in a disease—cancer progression, for example—we aim to inhibit the signal that the molecule fires. We study the shapes and sizes of the molecules we want to target. One of the techniques we use is called X-ray crystallography. It can give snapshots of a protein interacting with an antibody or a protein interacting with a drug, like aspirin. We can then get an idea of how the protein works as a three-dimensional minimachine and where it would be best to put a wrench in it, if we’re trying to stop it. Without this structural information, drug design is a bit like playing darts blindfolded: You don’t know where to aim. Precisely targeted drugs are not just more effective, but should also have fewer side effects, because they can be tailored to interact exclusively with a target and leave similar molecules alone.

How did you get involved in the Art as Applied to Medicine program? 

GABELLI: About 11 years ago, I was asked to co-teach a class for medical illustration students with Virginia Ferrante, a biomedical illustrator. The Department of Art as Applied to Medicine needed someone to teach the students about macromolecules: DNA, proteins and sugars, and how to best illustrate them. You can’t accurately illustrate a biological process without comprehending it first, so my role was to teach them about molecular shapes, sizes, interactions and motions. It sounded interesting to me, so I took it on. It’s been a great experience. The art students have a totally different way of viewing biology and life, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Not only have I gotten to share my experience in science with them, but they have also helped me bring my science to others.

What do you like to do outside the lab?

Gabelli prepares food Gabelli preparing a spiral vegetable cheese pie

GABELLI: I read a lot of fiction, mostly Latin American and Spanish authors, and I am part of a book club with my friends.

I also love to cook. I guess it’s in my genes. My great-grandfather was Italian, and his family owned a pasta factory in Italy. When he immigrated to Argentina, he opened a new factory there, and I used to work there when I was young. I also think that biochemistry and cooking share a lot in common. Somewhat jokingly, I always ask new trainees if they can cook, because then I know they’ll be able to handle the bench work.