Emma Yates Sukdao
BA (Princeton), MPhil (Cambridge), PhD (Cambridge)
Hailing from South Florida, I did my undergraduate degree at Princeton University, where my original intention was to pursue medicine. However I soon found myself enthralled with organic chemistry. Notions of reactivity intrigued me, as did total syntheses that were beautiful in their simplicity. Indeed, while at Princeton I was involved in the total synthesis of derivatives of Pleuromutilin, a natural product with activity against tuberculosis, and developed new synthetic methods to make this possible. I soon came to believe that an area of great excitement and innovation was in the development of small molecule drugs which could - rather than broadly inactivate a protein which is associated with a disease state but which also performs other essential functions - target exclusively the interactions between proteins which are frequently associated with disease, while leaving its other functions intact.
A Churchill Scholarship brought me to Cambridge for an MPhil, where I studied early events in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. While I developed a new chemical probe which revealed multiple dimensions of information about these protein aggregation processes, I began to think about a more basic problem. Part of the reason for limited success in the development of new therapeutics for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and indeed many other diseases in which protein-protein interactions are involved, is that this requires the assessment of the ability of candidate molecules to disrupt these interactions, which are frequently extremely fragile and transient. Traditional measurement approaches generally involve steps which risk perturbing the interactions under observation. In particular, sensitive measurement approaches generally involve the installation of fluorescent labels to permit detection, but this can affect the interactions under observation.
To address this problem, during my PhD at Churchill College I developed a new approach for biomolecular characterization called latent analysis. Latent analysis allows highly sensitive measurements of a labelled system to reveal the behaviour of the physiologically relevant system, before it was labelled. It does this by combining synergistically tools from synthetic chemistry – the ability to have a molecule’s fluorescence `turn on’ upon reaction with a certain chemical group – with fluid physics, where a biomolecule’s spatial position in a microfluidic channel can be used to determine some property of interest about the biomolecule, such as its size or charge.
During my Research Fellowship, I plan to apply the latent analysis paradigm to the complex biological systems which motivated its creation. In parallel, I will pursue the design of new methods which use synthetic and physical tools to elucidate aspects of the molecular mechanisms of human disease.
Outside of science, I am rather an artist at heart, and am interested in photography and art history.