Awardee Spotlight

Four Letters Create the Diversity of Life

Diana Libuda, PhD, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Oregon Institute of Molecular Biology, is a creative young scientist who is making important contributions to the understanding of how DNA repair and recombination mechanisms ensure fidelity of genome inheritance during reproduction.

The Early-career Investigator Award recognizes her innovative discoveries that have become an important focus in the meiosis field and genetics research, as well as her commitment to teaching and mentoring the next generation of scientists.

Can you briefly discuss your background, and what you do in your current role?

Libuda: My scientific background is in molecular genetics, neuronal development, transcription, chromosome structure, DNA repair, and meiosis with multiple genetic model systems (fission yeast, budding yeast, worms, zebrafish, and mice) and cell culture. I am currently an Associate Professor of Biology and a member of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Oregon. My research lab studies the molecular mechanisms behind how DNA breaks are formed and repaired in developing sperm and eggs to ensure faithful genome inheritance and fertility. I’m incredibly honored and privileged to mentor a dynamic and interactive group of postdocs, PhD students, undergrads, and research assistants. They inspire me every day. I also teach undergraduate and graduate courses on molecular genetics.

When did you decide to become a professor? Were you inspired by someone (or something)?

Libuda: Originally, I was preparing to pursue a music career, but when I took a summer school biology course, my career focus changed to science. I always loved how different combinations of musical notes can evoke and emulate a diversity of emotions, but when I found out that there were four letters that created the diversity of life around us, I was absolutely captivated. I decided to get a degree in molecular biology, but becoming a professor with my own lab never crossed my mind. While doing summer research on DNA replication in Susan Forsburg’s lab at the Salk Institute, I realized that I loved asking “Why?” and “How?” and figuring out how to answer questions about genetic inheritance. Toward the end of the summer, Susan pulled me aside and asked me what I was “doing for the rest of [my] life.” She then told me that I could get a PhD and become a professor with a research lab if it was something I wanted and loved. Research science was (and is) something I loved, and because Susan told me that I could do this, I decided to become a professor. How I approach science and mentor my trainees are indelibly shaped by the incredible mentorship I received as an undergrad (Susan Forsburg, Karen Lyons, Wayne Grody), PhD student (Fred Winston), postdoc (Anne Villeneuve), and the meiosis and genetic model organism research communities (too many to list!) – all of them have been inspirations to me.

Your nomination includes the research you’ve conducted and published. What drew you to this field of research? What do you wish to achieve with your research?

Libuda: As I mentioned above, how the four letter code of DNA enables the incredible diversity of life and how we maintain its integrity was captivating me since my first biology class. When I was a PhD student, I found that repeated DNA elements could be used to make new chromosomes required for viability. This discovery fueled my growing interest in how chromosomes identify and recombine specific DNA sequences among a sea of sequences and how this process maintains genomic integrity. I decided to investigate these questions in the context of meiosis, where finding specific DNA sequences for recombination is central to promoting faithful genome inheritance and fertility.

What discovery are you most proud of? Can you describe what you felt when you made that discovery?

Libuda: This is a hard question. If you had asked me this question before starting my lab, I would have said my Libuda et al., Nature 2014 paper. Faithful inheritance of chromosomes in developing sperm and eggs requires crossover recombination events, which also help create new combinations of genetic information. Over 100 years ago, it was discovered that crossovers actually inhibit other crossovers from forming nearby on the same chromosome, a well-conserved phenomenon known as crossover interference. The question of “How does crossover interference occur?” was pursued for over a century. I found evidence that the synaptonemal complex, a meiosis-specific chromosome structure, regulates crossover interference. This discovery reinvigorated studies of crossover interference. It’s so captivating to see how researchers are now thinking about the biophysical mechanisms of interference along the length of a chromosome.

Today, my proudest discoveries are not my own but my trainees’ discoveries. When my trainees come to my office and tell me they found something really exciting, my whole being bursts with excitement, joy, and pride. The best part is brainstorming with them about the greater impact of the discovery and where to go next. Their discoveries and excitement surpass any excitement I ever felt with any of my own scientific discoveries.

The Excellence in Science Award also celebrates your contributions to the broader scientific community (such as leadership in professional organizations, university service and leadership, and public outreach). What have you most enjoyed/found the most meaningful about such service?

Libuda: I love advocating for and bringing positive attention and support to the great science going on in my field. Most importantly, I love helping amplify the voice of anyone who struggles to be heard or recognized.

What does it mean to you to receive the Excellence in Science Award?

Libuda: The FASEB Excellence in Science Award is incredibly meaningful and profound to me. It is recognition of the mentoring I was honored to receive and the trainees I’m now privileged to mentor myself. My career, science, and mentorship style has been shaped by several incredible mentors. I wouldn’t have received this award without them or the amazing trainees I’ve had the privilege to mentor in my own lab. Success in science takes a village – and this award recognizes my past and present village.

What advice would you give to young women entering this field?

Libuda: There’s a saying, “Those who say it can’t be done, shouldn’t interrupt the ones doing it.”  Be ambitious and surround yourself with a network of peers and mentors who will support, elevate, amplify, and push you during your endeavors, periods of self-doubt, and highs and lows.  Don’t ever let someone else, yourself, or disappointment tell you that you can’t do something.  Let your love of science and the positive support of others be your driving force to power forward and to answer the seemingly impossible questions.

Diana Libuda, PhD, is a member of the Genetics Society of America, a FASEB member society.