Rachel Wills: Junior Lipid Leaders Interview Series

Posted on July 14, 2022

Rachel Wills

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I completed my undergraduate degree at Thiel College (Greenville, PA) and graduated in 2012. I then began working at the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA) as a technician in the Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism. After that, I applied to graduate school, and I am currently a graduate student in the lab of Gerry Hammond in the Cell Biology program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. I just defended my PhD on July 8th!

I met my now wife in the same program, where we worked across the hallway from one another. We got married in 2020 and have four pets: a dog, two cats, and a rabbit.

Did you always want to be a scientist? Who most influenced you to go down this path?

Actually, I did not. When I was little, I really wanted to be an artist, and I feel like I have accomplished that in a roundabout way as a biologist who uses microscopy. I had always excelled at biology and majored in that in college but had no idea what I was going to do when I finished. During my time at college, I applied for and was selected for a Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Pitt and I immediately fell in love. I went back to Thiel and told two of my professors, Dr. Joyce Cuff and Dr. Kathryn Frantz, and they truly started pushing me in the research direction from that point on.

What drove you to focus your attention on researching lipids and PIP2, specifically?

I had the opportunity to rotate in three different labs through the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Graduate Program (IBGP) at Pitt. I rotated with Gerry Hammond and loved the lab. The approach that the Hammond lab takes to study lipids at cellular membranes – genetically encoded lipid biosensors coupled with microscopy – was both fascinating and clever. When I first rotated with Gerry, he had a project in mind for me to start working on and that was understanding PIP2 homeostasis. The rotation project raised more questions than answers, and the combination of exciting methodology and the opportunity to uncover fundamental understandings about this essential lipid had me hooked.

What are the future implications of understanding this signaling pathway and the regulatory mechanisms associated with homeostatic control of PIP2?

There are many future implications, but during my PhD I was focused on class I PI3K signaling. PIP5K (the enzyme that produces PIP2) has been implicated as a driver in several cancers, including breast cancer. PIP5K1A is amplified in 18% of tumors and is found independent of class I PI3Kα mutations in 9% of these cases. We have shown that amplified PIP5K results in increased PIP2 levels and that this linearly drives PIP3 production: more PIP2 equals more PIP3. However, the downstream impacts of this signaling are not yet known. Understanding normal homeostatic regulation of PIP2 and aberrations in its metabolism can lead to a better understanding of tumor biology, as well as a potential druggable target(s) or biomarkers for tumor identity.

What would you consider the greatest breakthrough in lipid research?

I might be biased but, I think that one of the greatest breakthroughs has been the ability to visualize lipids with live-cell imaging. Seeing changes in the levels or localization of specific lipid species following chemical or genetic manipulation can show you what is happening in living cells in real-time. This methodology continues to be expanded and refined, with new biosensors under development to identify other lipid species.

What would be your dream job after finishing your PhD at the University of Pittsburgh?

Presently I am seeking a post-doc to continue doing research for the time being. Ultimately, my goal is to teach at a smaller college or university and inspire students with a love of science that I was so fortunate to experience.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do outside of the lab?

As a stereotypical science nerd, I love to play board games and D&D with my friends. I also love to experience food and drink in different cities, and this includes Pittsburgh. My absolute favorite thing to do in my free time is to be outside. My wife and I love camping and hiking. Our present goal is to visit and hike in every National Park in the US.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone about to start their graduate studies, what you tell them and why?

I think the biggest piece of advice that I would give is to be open and honest with your friends or family during these periods of difficulty. Too many times there are people who feel that they are completely isolated in their feelings during their PhD. But it is more than likely you’re not alone. During my third year I went through what felt like a whole year of failed experiments and really was feeling quite down emotionally, as a result. When I finally disclosed how I was feeling to a friend he said, “Oh wow, I’ve been feeling the same way and I thought it was just me.”

Graduate school is challenging, but you’re not doing it truly alone.