Finding [bio] chemistry in the lab
While completing postdoctoral fellowships, Ilka Heinemann and Patrick O’Donoghue didn’t just fall in love with their research projects
By Jesica Hurst, BA’14
You hear about it in songs, read about it in books, and watch it happen on the big screen. The notion of finding love right in front of your eyes may seem cliché to some, but to others it is not far from reality.
While Ilka Heinemann, PhD, found herself falling in love with the research she was conducting during her postdoctoral fellowship, she simultaneously had her sights set on someone else close by—another postdoctoral fellow working on research in the same lab as her.
“When I first arrived at Yale University in 2008 to complete a postdoctoral placement, I thought I would be there for only two or three years. Then I met this guy,” Heinemann said with a laugh, gesturing to her partner Patrick O’Donoghue, PhD.
“It’s funny, because our benches were right next to each other,” O’Donoghue added. “And now look at where we are.”
It’s been eight years since the couple first met. They now have three children spanning the ages of one to six, as well as blossoming careers in the field of biochemistry.
In 2013, the young scientists came to work at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. Heinemann took on the position of Assistant Professor in Biochemistry, and O’Donoghue took on the position of Assistant Professor in Biochemistry, and Chemistry in the Faculty of Science. They have been hard at work developing their lab spaces and research projects ever since.
“There are so many academic institutions out there, and you don’t really know what they are going to be like until you visit the campus and meet your potential colleagues,” said O’Donoghue, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Chemical Biology. “We both liked this environment and received positive responses about our research from potential colleagues. We knew it would be a good fit.”
Even though Heinemann and O’Donoghue work in the same department, their research areas are quite different.
O’Donoghue studies post-translational modifications of proteins, which takes place when proteins are chemically modified in the cell. These modifications can ultimately change what kind of signals are sent inside of a cell, and can turn on and turn off kinases, which modulate their behaviour. When proteins are mis-modified, it can be associated with cancer and other diseases such as neurodegeneration—a process he is trying to understand.
“The greatest part about science is that you discover things you totally didn’t expect—things that no one thought could ever happen. It is a joy being able to share those moments with your colleagues and students, and for us discussions at home often spur new ideas in the labs.” —Patrick O’Donoghue, PhD
Heinemann and members of her lab are focused on more upstream steps in gene regulation. They are interested in the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control the fate of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the role of a family of RNA polymerase enzymes in the process.
“If you have a mis-regulation in the micro-RNAs, you have a global mis-regulation of the amount of RNA that is in a cell, and that can also lead to diseases like cancer and promote viral infections like Hepatitis C,” Heinemann explained.
Even though their research topics are different, Heinemann and O’Donoghue enjoy blending their professional lives. They often have joint group meetings that include all of their lab members, and they take time to discuss their research ideas during their lunch hour and on the way to pick up their kids.
“The greatest part about science is that you discover things you totally didn’t expect—things that no one thought could ever happen,” O’Donoghue said. “It is a joy being able to share those moments with your colleagues and students, and for us discussions at home often spur new ideas in the labs.”
Heinemann agreed, adding that she believes they’ve found the ideal way to blend their personal and professional lives.
“I think being able to share these moments together has made our careers that much more enjoyable,” she said.