Sara Olson is nearly 31 years into a research career that began at UConn Health in immunology, then transitioned into genetics and genome sciences.
Working in the lab of Brenton Graveley, president of genetics and genomic sciences, for more than two decades, molecular and cellular biology has been her focus. And it’s that trait in her career that has earned her international recognition, in the form of the 2023 RNA Society Outstanding Career Researcher Award.
I am humbled and honored, Olson says. It is a major award that recognizes great work and long-standing contributions to the study of RNA. My boss said, Sara, why don’t you apply for this? I have worked with him for over 20 years and have many articles published in well respected journals.
The RNA Society says its Outstanding Career Researcher Award recognizes the outstanding contributions of career researchers in advancing scientific discoveries in the field of ribonucleic acid, an important molecule in biological systems. Olson was honored for her unparalleled work in splicing and RNA binding proteins in fruit fly and human cells.
We study proteins that bind to RNA and we study something called RNA splicing, Olson says. Biological systems of using RNA require many proteins, and therefore we study these proteins. We can run out of protein in cells and then wonder what happens. This can tell us what the protein does.
Over the counter, it’s a combination of harvesting RNA from tissue culture cells grown in a petri dish or from fruit flies grown in a vial and sequencing the purified RNA from those cells.
Graveley says Olson has contributed to nearly 40 published papers, including 24 in his lab, eight of which have been published in Cell OR Naturetwo of the most important scientific journals, and was the first co-author of many of them.
Sara honestly has a stronger résumé than most applicants for faculty positions, Graveley says. She is undoubtedly the key member of my lab and she has been for over two decades. Sara oversees my entire lab, managing all aspects of its operation, training new students, postdocs and research assistants.
Olson studied molecular and cell biology as a UConn undergraduate, which included a six-month coop working full-time at Pfizer. That positioned her for her first job out of college, in Leo LeFrancois’ immunology lab at UConn Health. Nine years later Graveley arrived and began working in the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology. That would become the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences, which Graveley now chairs.
I saw it as an opportunity to change, to go back to more molecular and cell biology, which I really preferred over immunology, Olson says. So I felt like I was coming home.
As science advanced, so did technology, and Olson found herself, to her surprise, acquiring computer skills, including coding, in order to handle all the data that RNA and DNA sequencing can generate.
When I talk about her with colleagues, I often refer to Sara as my number 1 (Next Generation Star Trek reference), and jokingly (sort of) say we can communicate without speaking out loud, says Graveley. It’s fair to say my lab wouldn’t be the same without you.
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