For the Love of Derby…I mean Biology

By Abena Watson-Siriboe

Who I really am-

I grew up in a family of scientists. My grandmother obtained her pharmacy degree when few women or even women of color were involved in the field. My grandfather was a Korean War vet and dentist deeply entrenched in his community. My mother is a biologist and father a chemical engineer. You can say that science was in my blood. Growing up, my family made sure to foster my interests by providing me with science kits and even a rat to dissect when I was too young to handle a scalpel. In middle school, I received a microscope that probably dated to the late 60s, but I loved it. I searched my house for things to inspect and was even tempted to take my own blood sample but eventually chickened out. Little did I know that as an adult, I would be inspecting and showing off x-rays of my ankle broken during a roller derby game. Not only am I a scientist, I’m a roller derby player who goes by the name Norah P Neffrin. You can take the nerd out of the lab but you can’t take the science nerd out of the girl.

How I got here-

When I first started my undergraduate degree, I was a philosophy major with aspirations of going to medical school. As my studies progressed and I took courses such as cellular biology and neuroscience, I realized that medical school wasn’t in the cards. I wanted to be a researcher. So, much to my parent’s pleasure, I changed my major to Biological Sciences and decided on a minor in neuroscience. One of my teachers expressed to her class that she was looking for students to conduct research in her neuroscience lab. I immediately jumped at the chance and was immediately smitten. My research involved the response of a brain region called the Supra Optic Nucleus (SON) to dehydration in rats. Most of my days were spent treating, sacrificing and preparing rat brain tissue. I would go home and my mother complained that I smelled like rat, but I loved every minute of it.

My time conducting research during undergrad inspired me to get a Masters degree, but it also required moving across the country away from family. I continued to work in the neuroscience field but my work focused on a smaller scale. My work focused on a transporter responsible for sequestering molecules such as serotonin and norepinephrine into vesicles. Small changes in the genetic script of this protein have been linked to mental conditions such as bipolar disorder. It was my hope to provide some insight into the role this protein plays in such a complicated condition. During my MS, is when I started roller derby, hence the derby name, a play on norepinephrine. Oddly, most people don’t get it.

What I do now-

Currently, I work in a biophysical laboratory at CU, Denver. My lab examines membrane binding proteins, some of which are present in the brain and or pancreas. We use varying techniques to determine what parts and under what conditions does the protein bind to the membrane. Some of the proteins we work with contribute to membrane fusion whilst others prevent it. My protein of interest prevents vesicles that contain insulin from being released by specialized pancreatic cells, potentially playing a role in diabetes. By understanding how this protein works, our work can inform potential drug targets. In addition to my work in the lab, I still play roller derby with a league ranked #9 in the world. But these days I skate under my legal name.

Passion for the subject-

As a kid, I was obsessed with how things worked, especially the natural world. It still amazes me that we’re made of atoms, molecules, cells, organs that all work together mostly in harmony. Even more amazing is how small changes can disrupt an equilibrium and result in conditions such as bipolar disorder or diabetes. It’s this wonder and hunger for answers that keeps me motivated and impassioned.

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