Small particles, big implications
By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)
Patricia Turpin (B.S.’17/H&S; B.S.’17/LS) credits her high school math teacher, Mr. Kaiser, for teaching her to appreciate the certainty that came with math and science.
“When I’d write an English essay, there was always room for answers to be partially correct,” she says. “But with math, there was always one true answer, and I really liked that.”
Turpin enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University after high school, following a trend that began with her grandfather William H. Turpin. He served as director of VCU’s mass communications school, known today as the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, and as professor for 16 years. Her parents, Gregory (B.S.’87/GPA) and Cheryl (B.S.’88/E), also met and graduated from the university.
“Listening to my family’s stories about [VCU] definitely had an impact,” Turpin says. “I fell in love with campus and the feel of the city the moment I got here.”
Turpin took an interest in computer programming and immersed herself in classes that taught programming languages, quantitative analysis and statistical modeling.
“[Patricia] was an exceedingly bright student driven by a deep curiosity about how things worked” says Tarynn Witten, Ph.D., professor and director of research development in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity at VCU Life Sciences . “She was also exceptionally ardent, and her work was always top of the line.”
In 2017, she graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, one in statistics and the other in bioinformatics, and soon after landed a laboratory technician position at the California Institute of Technology in the lab of Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology. There, she’s working alongside one of the lab’s postdoctoral fellows researching the link between the causes for retained introns and genetic disorders and cancers.
RNA, a nucleic acid present in all living cells, acts as a messenger to carry instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins. RNA is composed of two types of sequences, introns and exons. While introns typically remain in the nucleus of a cell, exons are eventually turned into proteins. “Occasionally introns attach themselves to proteins and leave the nucleus, and there isn’t a commonsense answer as to why they do,” Turpin says. “We’re hoping to figure out why by suppressing certain genes that we think affect these retained introns” and then see if there is a link to genetic disorders and cancers.
After Turpin’s yearlong position at Caltech ends, she plans to start a doctoral program in bioinformatics, though she is still deciding on whether to pursue a career in academia or go into the professional industry.
“[VCU] gave me the confidence to say that I actually know things,” she says. “I’m not sure of my exact path just yet, but I know my time at the university has prepared me for anything.”