Nominata winner shows promise as diligent, groundbreaking researcher

By Deborah Wormser

Dogged determination, a bravery she denies, and really good science earned Dr. Tina Han the 2012 Nominata Award.

The award is the highest student honor bestowed by the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and includes delivering the Nominata lecture. Dr. Han’s May 16 lecture, “Cell-Free Formation of RNA Granules,” provided the UT Southwestern community a chance to be grateful that she chose biological chemistry over anthropology.

Tina Han, PhD

It wasn’t an easy choice, said Dr. Han, a neurobiology graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, who admitted her many interests left her unsure after college of her next move.

So Dr. Han, a Taiwan native who grew up in Plano, sought a job in a lab to make sure she liked it before deciding on graduate school.

She landed a position in 2003 as a technician in the lab of Dr. Steven McKnight, Chairman of Biochemistry, and found it a good fit almost immediately.

“Working in science you never know what you’re going to get into,” she said. “The lab has a lot of activity, a lot of problem-solving. I like puzzles.”

The lab was completing a study of brain proteins and mouse behaviors. As a new technician, she spent a lot of time with the mice and observed an unusual behavior. She reported it to Dr. McKnight, who added the behavior and her name to the study. She became one of his doctoral students in 2005.

Most recently, she was lead author on a study in the May 11 issue of Cell and was co-author of another study in the same issue – a feat few scientists achieve in their careers. The studies Dr. Han did with Dr. Masato Kato, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Internal Medicine; Dr. McKnight; and other UT Southwestern researchers may have elegantly solved two long-standing problems, one in cell biology and another in biochemistry.

For more than a century, scientists have observed small, dot-like RNA granules scattered throughout cells and wondered how these organelle-like structures can organize in the absence of membranes. The second long-standing mystery is the purpose of so-called low complexity (LC) polypeptide sequences commonly found in regulatory proteins.

The studies offer a unified solution to both problems: They found that the so-called “ugly” LC-sequences create amyloid-like fibers that guide and organize the RNA granules and that those fibers can disassemble, unlike the pathogenic amyloid-fibers seen in Alzheimer’s disease, which form irreversible tangles, Dr. McKnight noted.

The team also created a surprisingly easy gel retention assay that will allow further studies of this new line of research. 

“She’s just a terrific, fearless young scientist,” Dr. McKnight said. “Over the last five or six years, I’ve put her onto wild-goose chase after wild-good chase that failed and failed again. I sent her down blind alleys, and she didn’t get discouraged by failure. She learned to think critically and to ignore me when I was leading her in a crazy direction.”

Dr. Han replied, “It’s not called bravery, it’s called ‘you didn’t know any better.’” She added, “Dr. McKnight is really brave. He knows better, but does it anyway.”

She leaves this summer for a postdoctoral position studying RNA localization in neurons at the University of California, San Francisco.

The Nominata Award includes a $1,000 prize and a $100 gift certificate from Majors Scientific Book Store.