Nicholas M. Riley is a graduate student from Louisville, KY, who attended the University of South Carolina as an undergraduate. He currently works with the Coon Research Group.
- Tell us about your research.
My graduate research focuses on building technology to better study the proteome, which is the collection of all the proteins in complex living systems. Our genome provides the blueprint for how our cells function, and proteins are products of this blueprint that actually carry out all necessary cellular functions. Technology to study the genome is relatively well developed, but we are still limited in our ability to characterize the proteome for a variety of reasons. This ultimately hinders investigations into and understanding of regulation and dysregulation of cellular processes at a molecular level. As an analytical chemistry graduate student, my research emphasis is on developing the instruments and technology to access information about the proteome that will enable the next wave of biological insights into the roles proteins play in many aspects of human health and disease.
- What led you to the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
I knew I wanted to pursue graduate research with a focus on mass spectrometry, so I looked at several programs with strong mass spec research. UW-Madison has a number of professors leading the field in mass spec instrumentation and methodology for uses in bioanalytical applications, so it was high on my list before I came for a visit. During my visitation weekend, the quality of research and the resources for pursuing interesting questions were thoroughly impressive, but the excited graduate students I interacted with and vibrancy of Madison sealed the deal. I knew UW-Madison was a place I could thrive both in and out of the lab, and it has absolutely lived up to that expectation.
- When did you decide to pursue chemistry and why?
I originally wanted to pursue chemistry because I saw the potential of its real-world application through (admittedly fictional) shows like CSI when I was young. Also, my AP Chemistry class in high school was challenging and engaging, and I found myself wanting to know more. With that, I pursued chemistry and psychology majors at the University of South Carolina while also minoring in criminal justice, hoping to build my own path toward forensic science training. During that time, however, I was drawn more toward understanding the analytical instruments themselves and how they worked rather than their use in the forensic laboratory, which started my interest in mass spectrometry that led me to UW-Madison.
- Tell us more about yourself.
Not that it is particularly unique, but I fall in the category of people who are always looking to be engaged in the communities they interact within. I was one of those hyper-involved undergraduate students that spent more time working on my commitments with various campus organizations than I did on my coursework, and I was hoping to find opportunities to channel that energy in graduate school. UW-Madison has been a great place to get involved, and I feel fortunate to have participated in a number of on-campus activities, from the Graduate Student Faculty Liaison Committee to WARF Ambassadors to the Junior Science Café at the Discovery Building. Admittedly, I focus the majority of my efforts on my research endeavors these days compared to how I allotted my time in undergrad, but I think the opportunities for campus involvement are a great thing to highlight about being a graduate student at UW-Madison.
- Please describe your research and the lab for which you work.
My research for the Coon group focuses on developing novel mass spectrometry instrumentation and methodology to improve proteome characterization. The majority of my efforts revolves around the development and application of ion-ion reactions and related modes of tandem mass spectrometry to characterize proteins and their post-translational modifications in complex systems. One interesting post-translational modification I have worked on recently is protein glycosylation, which is an incredibly complex but ubiquitous modification that occurs mainly on proteins at the cell surface. Glycosylation affects how our cells communicate and interact with their environment, but it is difficult to study because it is highly heterogeneous. My work on a technique called activated ion electron transfer dissociation has proven particularly useful for characterizing glycosylated proteins, and I have used it to explore the how glycosylation can vary across the entire proteome (rather than having to investigate a single protein at a time).
- What are your plans after graduation?
I will start a postdoctoral scholar research position in Prof. Carolyn Bertozzi’s lab at Stanford University in August 2018. There I will investigate new ways to study and modify cell surfaces in cancer cells to understand tumor progression. Through chemical tools to label and engineer mucin-type proteins and sialosides in the cancer glycocalyx (i.e., the collection of cell surface glycoconjugates), I hope to understand the role of glycosylation in cancer metastasis and how to develop new therapeutic strategies based on this knowledge. I am incredibly excited to start down this new research path, where I can use my mass spectrometry research background while acquiring a new chemical biology skillset to further cancer research.
- Do you have any mentors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison you’d like to mention? If so, how have they helped you, or changed your understanding of research?
This is a dangerous question to ask for a short response format, because I could write a book about the many mentors I have had and how they have helped me. I will keep it brief, though. First of all, Prof. Josh Coon (my PI and research mentor) has provided fantastic resources and training to help me achieve my goals. He knows I am pursuing a tenure-track professor position at a big research institution, so he made sure to provide ample experience with grant writing and opportunities for me to travel to conferences, share our work, and network in the field. The Coon lab in general has been a great support system and all members deserve recognition, but I will give special acknowledgement to Dr. Mike Westphall and Dr. Alex Hebert for their help. Members of my committee (Prof. Lingjun Li, Prof. Ying Ge, Prof. Lloyd Smith, and Prof. Dave Pagliarini) have also helped guide my perspective on research and have been great resources along the way. Prof. Audrey Gasch and Prof. Marv Wickens have been very helpful, too, especially in shaping my views on science/research education, and I appreciate the time they have put in to support me. Countless others in the Chemistry Department and other organizations on campus have also helped support me during my time here. To put it in very ineloquent terms, I owe a lot to a lot of people.
- Have you won any awards during your time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
I have been very fortunate to receive several awards during my graduate career. From our Chemistry Department, I received the Peng Wang Graduate Fellowship when I started my graduate work and also received the Roger Carlson award in 2017 and the Richard and Joan Hartl Award for Research Excellence in Analytical Chemistry in 2018. I received two fellowships as a graduate student as well: a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2014 and a National Institutes of Health Predoctoral to Postdocotral Transitional Award (F99/K00) in 2016 that funded the last two years of my graduate research (and will provide up to four years of funding for my postdoctoral research). Other awards I have been fortunate to receive include: the American Society of Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) Graduate Student Award (2015), the Marg Northcott Student Award (2016), the Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies (FACSS) Student Award (2017), and several outstanding poster/oral presentation awards and conference travel awards. The environment at UW-Madison played a significant role in helping me compete for these opportunities, so I am very grateful for all of the support I received from the department, my PI (Prof. Coon), other professors on campus who wrote recommendation letters, and my research group.