Marie Heffern

Marie Heffern

Vitals

Current affiliation: University of California, Davis

Age: 32

Ph.D. alma mater: Northwestern University

Advice for young scientists: “Embrace your passions and personality, and allow that to influence the way you think about and approach your science. Progress in research is pushed by the diversity of human beings that contribute varied perspectives to solve problems in multiple dimensions.”

If I were an element, I would be: Cobalt. “It doesn’t like to follow rules, and it’s flexible for a given situation. I also worked with it so much in graduate school that I’m pretty sure I’m a larger percentage cobalt now than before I started.”

Marie Heffern’s interests in the lab are as eclectic as the hobbies she pursues in her downtime. She’s proficient in three dialects of ancient Greek, she’s learning to ride a motorcycle, and she loves rock climbing almost as much as she loves being creative in the kitchen.

In fact, Heffern compares her scientific approach to her cooking style: “I like the challenge of seeing what’s left in the fridge and making a dish with whatever is there. And I don’t like following recipes.”

That resourcefulness has served her well in her attempts to understand the role of trace metals in our bodies. As a graduate student in bioinorganic chemistry, Heffern had to employ a mélange of analytical methods—spectroscopy, calorimetry, crystallography, and more—to answer a seemingly straightforward question: How does cobalt affect the function of transcription factor proteins, which turn on or off the genes involved in cancer metastasis?

Research at a glance

 
Heffern is studying how metals in our bodies affect hormone signaling. To track copper’s effects, she engineered mice to produce a luciferase enzyme. When researchers inject mice with the chemical CCL-1, copper in the animals’ bodies converts CCL-1 to luciferin. Then the luciferase enzyme transforms luciferin into oxyluciferin, releasing light (red = high signal). Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

Heffern is studying how metals in our bodies affect hormone signaling. To track copper’s effects, she engineered mice to produce a luciferase enzyme. When researchers inject mice with the chemical CCL-1, copper in the animals’ bodies converts CCL-1 to luciferin. Then the luciferase enzyme transforms luciferin into oxyluciferin, releasing light (red = high signal).
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

After honing her skills studying how metals enable biology at a molecular level, she went bigger in her postdoc. Heffern figured out how to image copper in the body of a live mouse. Then she used the method to track the metal inside mice as they developed nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which causes inflammation and scarring in the livers of an estimated 20% of the worldwide population. She discovered a copper deficiency in the animals’ livers as the disease progressed.

As Heffern begins her independent career at the University of California, Davis, she plans to focus on the role metals play in hormone biology, a field of research she calls metalloendocrinology. Her lab will study how peptide hormones such as insulin and oxytocin use metals to relay their vital messages to organs, as well as how trace metals in our diet interact with our genes to exacerbate obesity and hormone-related disorders.

She’s even going back to old-school literature from the 1940s for inspiration. “There are so many aspects of nutrition—and the roles metals play in it—that we thought we understood but don’t really,” she says. “Finally, we have the analytical tools to take a lot of interesting work from the past to the next level.”

Three key papers

In Vivo Bioluminescence Imaging Reveals Copper Deficiency in a Murine Model of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease” (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2016, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1613628113)

Modulation of Amyloid-β Aggregation by Histidine-Coordinating Cobalt(III) Schiff Base Complexes” (ChemBioChem. 2014, DOI: 10.1002/cbic.201402201)

Spectroscopic Elucidation of the Inhibitory Mechanism of Cys2His2 Zinc Finger Transcription Factors by Cobalt(III) Schiff Base Complexes” (Chem.–Eur. J. 2013, DOI: 10.1002/chem.201301659)

Stories in C&EN about Heffern’s work:

Designer molecule tracks copper’s role in fatty liver disease

Heffern spoke at the American Chemical Society national meeting on Aug. 21 in Washington, D.C. about metalloendocrinology and her scientific journey. Watch as the “maestro of metals” explains why the trace metals in our body are so important and how she’s exploring their role in our health. Credit: C&EN/ACS Productions

Vitals

Current affiliation: University of California, Davis

Age: 32

Ph.D. alma mater: Northwestern University

Advice for young scientists: “Embrace your passions and personality, and allow that to influence the way you think about and approach your science. Progress in research is pushed by the diversity of human beings that contribute varied perspectives to solve problems in multiple dimensions.”

If I were an element, I would be: Cobalt. “It doesn’t like to follow rules, and it’s flexible for a given situation. I also worked with it so much in graduate school that I’m pretty sure I’m a larger percentage cobalt now than before I started.”

Renee Frontiera
Ashish Kulkarni