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First Person Science: Stephanie Tucker, Ph.D., Wayne State University

Encouraged by her parents and inspired by the gift of a beginner’s microscope, Stephanie Tucker was fascinated by science at an early age. Today, Dr. Tucker is a Research Associate in the Bioactive Lipids Research Program (BLRP) at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, where her work has included the study of cancer regulation in response to pro-inflammatory lipids that also affect numerous diseases, and the use of Raman spectroscopy for prostate cancer detection and biomarker discovery.

Tucker was raised in an intellectually curious household. Her father had a keen interest in chemistry and photography, and was among the first students of Harris Tuttle, part of the Eastman Kodak team that pioneered home movies in the 1920s. The elder Tucker engaged his daughter in helping to develop and print large-format photo paper (“to my mother’s dismay,” says Stephanie) and later persuaded her to take on projects such as repairing the clutch on her Fiat and learning DOS commands on early-model computers. “The man just loved science and all things photographic or mechanical,” says Tucker. “He would have made a fantastic professor or scientist, but life called him in a different direction.”

Stephanie Tucker, Ph.D., Wayne State University Photo by Mary Jane (MJ) Murawka, Wayne State University

Question: What first inspired your interest in science?

ST: My parents, particularly my father, emphasized the joy of learning at an early age. When I was five, he taught me how to recrystallize salt by suspending a weighted piece of string in a peanut butter jar of saturated salt solution on top of the fridge. Every day we’d check for crystals.

Eventually, a microscope found its way under the Christmas tree. Together we’d look at plant cells from onion membranes, diatomaceous earth, and the hairs on small flies. I was hooked! It only emphasizes that what we do with our children, even very early on, to encourage curiosity and analytical skills can make a lasting impression. It’s really rewarding to see the creativity that gets unleashed by kids who get STEM, business and cultural exposures in grade school.

Question: What are bioactive lipids and why is it important to study them?

ST: These are very interesting molecules that are still underappreciated. Most of us think of the structural function of lipids in membranes. However, lipids originating from diet and cell metabolism mediate an amazing diversity of functions. They can be both pro- and anti-inflammatory and can regulate everything from pre-term labor and development to cancer and cognitive function. When we consider solving the riddles around us, these metabolites belong in the molecular toolbox right next to proteins, nucleic acids and carbohydrates.

Question: What has been the most rewarding part of your research experience?

ST: The personal enrichment from the interactions with people, who love creatively contemplating a good science puzzle as much as I do, has been priceless. Zany creativity isn’t reserved just for the arts. I have been very fortunate to have the benefit of [being exposed to] some beautiful minds. Beyond the science lessons though, I’ve taken away many unique life lessons from these experiences as well.

Question: What surprises you most about science and technology today?

ST: After attending an excellent imaging camp sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, I was determined to apply some of the technology to my own work and so found myself drawn to Raman spectroscopy for biological applications. Despite the fact that reports have been around for a number of years, Raman has taken a long time to go mainstream, which is surprising. Spectral imaging in combination with other platforms is so powerful. I think it will make an immense impact on the rate and types of discoveries we can achieve.

It has been very exciting to see silos coming down as more inter-disciplinary research gets embraced, especially as we become more comfortable speaking each others’ languages. My favorite part of the day is when I get to interact with my physicist friends to find novel applications of their material science “toys” to a biological problem.

Question: What profession would you like to pursue if you weren’t a scientist?

ST: It’s hard to imagine being anything else, but a profession that would allow you to independently conduct business anywhere in the world would have been interesting. That kind of freedom from geographic or infrastructure restraint is enviable.

Reach Dr. Tucker at [email protected]. Learn more about her recent work in the September 2015 Spectroscopy Magazine article “Agricultural and Environmental Management with Raman Spectroscopy,” with co-authors Rachel E. Kast, Kenneth V. Honn and Gregory W. Auner.