Gwen Thomas explains her research during a poster session at the Protein Society meeting in Boston in July. (Photo Raquel Lieberman).jpg

Since she received her first National Institutes of Health research grant in 2011, Raquel Lieberman and her lab have published 30 papers about the protein myocilin, which is linked to childhood glaucoma. 

Lieberman, a professor and Sepcic Pfeil Endowed Chair in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and her Ph.D. student Gwen Thomas are celebrating recent research successes — including new funding from NIH. Both are also crediting new inclusive initiatives at Georgia Tech and within the broader national scientific community for supporting those successes.

Lieberman is grateful that she’s had so much time to study the protein, and advance the field’s knowledge of how it contributes to disease. 

“I do consider it a feather in my cap to have succeeded in working on the molecular aspects of how this protein myocilin misfolds in the eye for as long as I have,” she said. “The project is a little like eating an artichoke. We are taking one leaf off at a time until we get to the heart of what‘s really going on.”

Lieberman has reapplied twice to continue working on myocilin misfolding. Through an incredibly competitive process, she has succeeded in securing renewals funds because of the progress she’s shown over the last 12 years. She has also secured supplemental funds tied to another passion beyond the mysteries of myocilin.

“As someone who is still often one of few women in a room full of men, I am very committed to the idea that we need as many different voices in science as possible, so that any group of scientists gathered reflects the makeup of our society,” she said.

The College of Sciences Center for the Promoting Inclusion and Equity in the Sciences (C-PIES) shared an NIH supplement opportunity that recognized excellence in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility mentorship, specifically for investigators who have a single award known as an RO1, as Lieberman does. Her new supplement is issued through the NIH’s National Eye Institute, who also funds her R01.

“I was awarded the maximum amount, the equivalent of an extra year of funding for my lab,” she said. “The award allows us to pursue some new research directions that are adjacent to our main project, things we would not be able to pursue without these funds.”

While Lieberman is charting those new research directions, Thomas, in Lieberman’s lab, recently gave a presentation at a major scientific conference in Boston this summer. Thomas’s achievements so far are tributes to her research skills, and are also supported by IDEI initiatives at Georgia Tech and through the American Chemical Society.

ACS Bridge adds new voices to science

Lieberman first met Thomas at a 2018 scientific conference, when the latter was an undergraduate at another school. “I remember we chatted at her undergraduate research poster that dealt with a coronavirus protein,” Lieberman said. “Boy, was she way ahead of her time!”

A year later, Thomas applied to be Lieberman’s research technician in her lab. “I've always dreamed of being a scientist and making an impact on the world, and now with the guidance of my mentor Raquel Lieberman, I am able to realize that dream,” Thomas said. “Since my time as an undergraduate, I have always wanted to study protein structure and function as it relates to infectious diseases.”

When the pandemic hit, Thomas volunteered to keep working on an in-home polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kit project. “She made a key protein ingredient in the final formulation, an RNAse inhibitor, all on her own — at all hours of day and night,” Lieberman said.

Thomas then decided to work on a master’s degree in chemistry at Georgia Tech while taking advantage of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Bridge program, which the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry joined in 2020. The Bridge program is designed to boost the number of chemistry Ph.D. degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities by offering resources and mentors. 

ACS Bridge program mentors helped Thomas work on her thesis side project: the study of a plastic-degrading enzyme, LtPHBase. She published a paper detailing how she solved the structure of the enzyme, and that won her a “Best 2022 Paper” award from the Protein Society

This past July, Thomas traveled to Boston, where she gave a presentation on her enzyme project at the Society’s annual meeting. 

“Gwen has grown so much as a scientist over the past few years,” Lieberman said. “Gwen was amazing in Boston! I can’t wait to see how she flourishes now that she has matriculated into our Ph.D. program.”

The search for answers to childhood glaucoma continues 

Thomas will also keep working with Lieberman with the myocilin research, which has yielded breakthroughs. “We have discovered the molecular level differences between disease-causing variants of myocilin and those that are benign,” she said. “That means if a new mutation in the gene encoding for myocilin is discovered, we can predict with decent confidence whether it is pathogenic or not, without any clinical data.”

Lieberman and her colleagues have also learned more details of how pathogenic variants cause disease, and have identified ways to interfere with that pathogenic process. “We have worked out the molecular structure of key parts of the myocilin protein, which give us new clues about what the protein is doing when it is not causing glaucoma — a mystery for more than 20 years,” she said.

That research won’t keep Lieberman’s from pursuing more inclusive success for Georgia Tech, including through her role as the inaugural chair of the Sepcic Pfeil Ph.D. Faculty Endowment Fund, designed to increase the number of women in chemistry in the School. The Fund is established by Kelly Sepcic Pfeil, a chemistry alumna and College of Sciences Advisory Board member. Lieberman has also served as the first chair of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry DEI Committee.

For Lieberman, it’s a new year of adding new voices to the School — and one more year of research progress and support. With any luck it will continue past 2025, with another renewal.” 

For Thomas, it signals the start of a rewarding career in chemistry research. “If I were to tell my younger self about all the opportunities that I have access to now, she wouldn't believe me,” Thomas said. “The Protein Society has been a great avenue for me to meet other junior scientists and get their perspectives on how our generation can shape the world. I am really looking forward to sharing my science.” 

Raquel Lieberman