Dr. Elisabeth Wurtmann

Technically, Elisabeth Wurtmann is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Systems Biology’s Baliga Lab.  However, she describes her role as that of “a professional curious person” with opportunities to explore the ways that cells and the whole world around us really work.

Dr. Wurtmann’s interest in biological study was piqued at an early age.   Growing up, “there was just a lot of biology in the air,” Elisabeth recalls, from frequent explorations of a pond near her home, to talks with her grandfather who was a physician and a surgeon.  He exposed her to scientific articles on the genetics of disease and textbooks that “really unlocked a lot” of content and terminology to solidify her interest in biology.

During her senior year in high school, Dr. Wurtmann entered the lab for the first time through a mentorship program at the University of Minnesota.  While contributing to a project centered on mammalian sex determination there, Elisabeth gained further appreciation for collaborative research.  “Starting to tackle these really incredible questions in biology [and] seeing science actually happening was really a thrill,” she explains.

From there, “one experience really just led to the next experience.”  Elisabeth continued working in labs as she completed her undergraduate degree at Carleton College, where she studied biology and biochemistry, and her PhD at Yale University in their Department of Cell Biology.  At Yale, her focus was on studying how a specific RNA-binding protein helps cells survive stressful conditions.  This led into her projects at ISB over the last three years, where she wanted to “do further work and research.”

In the Baliga Lab, Dr. Wurtmann’s work is focused on transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulation to understand how cells adjust their gene expression in different environmental conditions.  When selecting this area of study, Elisabeth took time to step back and look at “the big picture.”  She explains that choosing a project requires consideration of the knowledge missing from scientific understanding, as well as the available methods and technologies to fill those gaps.  

An important component of this project is the development of a predictive model based on experimental data and mathematical predictions.  Elisabeth creates models to “reduce some of the complexity and to better understand fundamental relationships within the data.”  She describes the process of research as a cycle from experimentation, to model creation and refinement, to the formation of new hypotheses.  In her mind, it’s exciting to use a model to generate “new ideas for how a system is behaving.”

Dr. Wurtmann is also collaborating with Baliga scientists and software engineers to develop a tool for gene regulatory network exploration called Network Portal.  This type of interdisciplinary work is a strength of the ISB community, Elisabeth says.  Whether she is getting feedback from fellow experimentalists or creating models with mathematicians,  “it’s just such a joy to share ideas” and learn from others.  With that in mind, Elisabeth encourages students to acquire knowledge and skills in a variety of subjects.  She believes that “everything ends up connecting in this style of research, so you can prepare yourself by taking classes from a wide variety of fields.”

Elisabeth’s other advice to young aspiring scientists is to “get excited and let the science capture your imagination.”  Though research is very challenging, Dr. Wurtmann hopes that students will “come at it with an open mind and see what’s there - that’s when you’ll really get to learn.”

So what’s next for this curious, talented researcher?  Elisabeth plans to stay in research to continue testing hypotheses produced by her models and looks forward to tackling more of the big questions in biology.  Looking to the future, she predicts working with massive data sets and doing even more work in “collaborative teams of people with all different kinds of specialties.”  Ultimately, Dr. Wurtmann’s passions for science and learning are driving her research efforts; “we don’t know how the cell works, but the incredible thing about this field is that we get to start answering those questions.”