Exceptional Thesis Award 2017

By Shelby Lyon, CMB Graduate Student
Sarah Neuman headshot
Sarah Neuman

Persistence, discovery, and creativity are important themes to Sarah Neuman, the 2017 winner of the CMB Exceptional Thesis Award. This award is given in recognition of the distinguished work contributed by a student during the completion and defense of their thesis. In honor of her thesis, “Characterization of Hobbit, a novel and conserved regulator of intracellular trafficking during regulated exocytosis” Sarah has received a plaque, $250, and her name on a plaque in the Bock Penthouse.

Sarah is a Wisconsin native who has always liked science. She can trace her specific love for biology back to a seventh-grade assignment on the classification of living things. Even in that early project, Sarah enjoyed more than just the scientific facts. Learning the proper Latin notation and drawing up tidy groupings of organisms appealed to Sarah’s artistic sense in the same way that music had always done. So it was no surprise that Sarah pursued both passions as an undergrad at Lakeland University, where she double-majored in biology and music. Juggling these two distinct subjects forced Sarah to develop the time management and creative thinking skills that would set her up for success in grad school. She completed her first research project studying yeast prions while in undergrad and found she enjoyed the hands-on experience working at the bench. Sarah also had a strong interest in teaching and knew that if she wanted to work at the college level, she would need a Ph.D. Thus, grad school was the perfect fit for her scientific enthusiasm and aspirations.

Because Sarah wasn’t set on any particular research topic, she looked at different biology Ph.D. programs across the country. During her interview trip to Madison, she liked the students and professors she met and could picture herself living happily in the city. But CMB’s major draw was the sheer number of research options. Sarah recalls thinking the program was the only one that “had enough trainers and areas where I could really explore my interests.”

Sarah ended up joining Arash Bashirullah’s lab and began a thesis project studying a previously uncharacterized gene that is conserved across species from yeast to humans. In Drosophila, mutations in this gene resulted in tiny flies. Since the gene hadn’t been studied in any organism before, Sarah got the naming rights. She chose “hobbit,” a moniker inspired by both the dwarf phenotype and her love of Tolkien.

But naming the gene was just the beginning of Sarah’s own scientific journey to discover how hobbit functioned. Sequence analysis didn’t reveal any predicted motifs that looked like any known protein domains, so Sarah had to rely on educated guesses based on the phenotypes she was seeing to design her experiments. Along the way, there were many false starts and promising leads that led to dead ends. Sarah chose to be persistent and kept trying new things, often in the face of her own self-doubt. The support of her lab-mates, PI, and fellow CMB students bolstered her confidence through the ups and downs of that initial hunt for a mechanism. The challenging nature of her search also motivated her to persevere when things didn’t work. Sarah says, “My favorite part of my project was that I got to be an explorer. I actually got to find something that’s both new and really cool.”

After many rounds of genetic interaction and rescue experiments, Sarah had a breakthrough. It turned out that flies with the mutant phenotype had an insulin secretion defect and that hobbit was required for normal, regulated exocytosis. The moment she first witnessed the defect was exhilarating and emotional. Sarah says there might have even been a few tears shed in the confocal microscopy room out of pure happiness. None of these discoveries would have been possible, though, without her determination and Sarah advises other CMB students to develop resilience in response to failure. “The questions that are the most important ones to answer are often the most difficult. So you just have to push through and be persistent in order to find those important answers.”

Sarah’s thesis work is not the only exceptional thing about her grad school experience. Along the way, she’s mentored eight undergrads, traveled to Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan to advise students on the grad school application process, completed an HHMI teaching fellowship (now the WISCIENCE Teaching Fellows program for current CMB students who are interested), and developed a “build your own fly” station for the Wisconsin Science Festival. In talking to Sarah, it is clear that these accomplishments were driven more by her creative interests than ambition. She says, “now that I only play my flute for fun, public speaking and teaching have become my new stage and a way to get that performance fix.” These extracurricular opportunities also taught her to look at science communication as a performance which, in turn, made it easier to craft her own data into compelling stories.

Today Sarah is continuing her research on hobbit as a postdoc in the Bashirullah lab. She eventually plans to transition to a staff scientist role where she can blend her desires to work at the bench, teach undergrads, and contribute to the writing of grants and papers. Unlike most students who choose to remain in academia, Sarah could never be content sitting in an office while others hand her data. Instead, Sarah will do what she’s always done, use her love of primary discovery to explore the difficult, but important questions that remain.