binding domain,” she explains. “The mechanisms by which these two domains coordinate to achieve ligand-specific tran- scriptional outcomes is poorly understood. Small changes in ligand structure will often lead to large, unintuitive changes in transcriptional activity. The goal of my lab is to combine mo- lecular dynamic simulations with biophysical and biochemical experiments to understand how ligands achieve transcrip- tional control in nuclear receptors.” Tracy Hei Yan Yu was the first graduate student to join Okafor’s lab at Penn State. “Our lab studies allosteric signal- ing in nuclear receptors. And my project is to investigate the mechanisms of allosteric regulation in Farnesoid X receptor, using a variety of biochemical, biophysical, and computational methods. In particular, I am interested in studying how ligand structure, coregulator recruitment and promoter specificity contribute to allosteric regulation in Farnesoid X receptor,” she says. “The most memorable quality of Denise is that she makes you feel like you are not alone (and this is the major reason that I joined the lab). I have had this feeling since I rotated with her. There was nothing established in the lab, and I was the first student to start setting up the equipment and doing some simple experiments. She was always there working with me. Even though we have more people working in the lab now and she is very busy with her work and a new- born baby, she is always approachable and willing to help you when you have any struggles.”
The most rewarding aspect of her career is seeing her ideas attempted successfully. “All the ideas do not always work as anticipated, but it is a rush like no other when they do. A close second for me has been seeing the members of my lab (postdocs and students) adopt the research ideas I have put forward, develop their own passion for the questions and drive the work forward. It has been very rewarding to see them put their own spin on the research ideas and it gets me excited about the potential we have to contribute meaningful- ly to the field.” Okafor has very clearly seen the importance of mentoring in her own career, so her advice to those just starting out in biophysics is to seek out good mentors. “They can really make all the difference. You want people who will be responsive and unselfish in their mentoring. And you should also look to pay this mentoring forward to younger scientists,” she says. “Don’t be resistant to unsolicited advice, because you don’t know what you don’t know. Instead, run it all through your judgment filters, save the advice that is valuable and toss the rest. Finally, I would say try to stay focused. Biophysics is a broad field that provides a nearly overwhelming wealth of tools to answer any given question. I’m learning that it is important to stay focused on my scientific goals and try to not get distracted by the latest, flashiest thing. But this also applies to focusing on our own careers: it is very easy, but also very unproductive to compare our paths to other people’s. Stay focused.”
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