With Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Department of Microbiology
Dr. Kristin Farley is a postdoctoral fellow in the Vanderpool Lab in the Department of Microbiology. Farley is credited with establishing the Microbial Early-Career Researchers Association (MicroERA) in 2019 alongside other graduate students and postdocs from the department of Microbiology and with the help of Cari Vanderpool, director of the Microbial Systems Initiative. She now serves as one of two postdoctoral advisors for MicroERA and is profiled here as part of last month's spotlight on the inaugural MicroERA Executive Board.
Tell us a bit about your research.
I am researching fundamental gene regulatory mechanisms mediated by small RNA molecules during transcription in bacteria. In E. coli, we have found that a particular mRNA is targeted by premature Rho-dependent transcription termination within its 5’ untranslated region (5’UTR) and that distinct small RNAs modulate this termination to regulate the mRNA in a positive or negative manner. Since bacterial small RNAs have been found to function primarily at the post-transcriptional level, my work is novel because it provides additional examples of small RNA-dependent gene regulation exerted during transcription. Furthermore, my work highlights the first example of a small RNA acting as a repressor by enhancing Rho-dependent transcription termination of its target mRNA without interfering with target translation. I am now working to learn more about the molecular mechanisms that small RNA co-transcriptional regulators use to modulate Rho-dependent termination and to identify additional mRNAs where Rho-dependent termination and small RNA-dependent regulation intersect. It is critical that we understand the breadth of fundamental small RNA-mediated gene regulation in bacteria if we ever wish to harness its potential for future applications.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I first became interested in microbiology while studying at a community college back home in Georgia. We did this neat experiment that demonstrated that bacterial mutants with different defects in pigment biosynthesis can cross-feed each other with biosynthetic intermediates to fully restore pigment synthesis. I was completely blown away by the power of bacterial genetics as a tool to understand the metabolism and physiology of organisms we can’t even see with the naked eye! I decided that I wanted to become a microbiologist and then transferred to the University of Georgia where I had an amazing undergraduate research experience with Professor Diana M. Downs. It was in Diana’s lab that I decided to continue studying microbiology in graduate school and the rest is history!
How does being part of the Microbial Early-Career Researcher community impact you?
I was lucky to be one of the founding members of MicroERA and it has been a very meaningful experience to help start this organization. Some of us in the Department of Microbiology recognized that other interesting microbiology research was going on in diverse departments outside of our own, so our initial goal was to link early-career microbial sciences across campus. Through MicroERA, I am proud that we have successfully brought together microbial scientists from diverse fields and career levels. We have now held two interdisciplinary microbial sciences symposia and had research talks from our own members as well as from researchers at external institutions. I am excited to now serve as a Postdoc Advisor on the 2021-2022 MicroERA board to continue providing professional and networking opportunities for early-career microbial scientists.
What is your favorite aspect of being a microbial sciences researcher?
I am driven a lot by my curiosity to understand microbial physiology. I want to understand the fundamental mechanisms cells use to just survive and to cope with different environmental challenges. I think it is important that we understand these basic aspects of microbial life, and I LOVE doing experiments. I find bacterial genetics fun and sometimes the genetic problems I need to solve are like puzzles which I really enjoy! Interesting data always renews my excitement and inspires me to keep learning more!
What are your plans for the future?
After my postdoc, I would like to try working in an industry setting either as a scientist or in a project manager type of position. I want to continue to be challenged to learn more about the basic aspects of microbial physiology, just in an industry setting!