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Biophysicist in Profile

Chrystal Starbird

Chrystal Starbird

September 2023 // 1349

Chrystal Starbird was first captivated by science as a second grader, starting a nature club at her school because she was fascinated by learning about animals and the environment. “I think that was really where it all started,” she shares. “However, in between that nature club and my life as a research scientist today there was a lot of uncertainty about what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a professional basketball player, a lawyer, a writer, and, at one point, I was certain I wanted to be President—because why not? But when I look back, it’s clear that science was the subject that most greatly matched both my interests and my talents.”

Chrystal Starbird, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, was born in Tacoma, Washington but grew up in Boston, Massachusetts with her brother and mother, who raised the children as a single parent. “She didn’t finish high school or have a stable profession as I was growing up,” Starbird says, “but my mom has the curiosity that I think is a trademark of all scientists. We were quite poor, but she would do things like take my brother and me to a park and pick up snakes and scoop up tadpoles. I think that’s part of why I always felt so free to explore and excited to learn more.”

Starbird received her bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill after completing some of her undergraduate studies at UNC Charlotte and a North Carolina community college. “I worked in many different fields from undergrad until graduate school, including time off from school working in academic core facilities and industry, but it was in a postbaccalaureate program at UNC that my true love of studying protein structure began, in a lab that studied the molecular machinery that controls bacterial chemotaxis,” she explains. “As part of my postbaccalaureate project, I determined eight structures of a chemotaxis protein, some to 1-angstrom resolution, and I was fascinated at the idea that I could visualize density for individual atoms of a protein.”

After completion of her undergraduate studies, Starbird entered Vanderbilt University, where she earned her PhD in Chemical and Physical Biology.

The biggest challenges of her career took place during these early years, as she dealt with life circumstances beyond what many of her peers were balancing. “I am a first-generation student from an impoverished background. I also had two children before I started graduate school, and my husband and I welcomed another child when I was in my second year at Vanderbilt. Sometimes it felt as if everything was difficult and that achieving my dream of running my own lab was impossible. There were days when I had to take several buses, for example, to get to the lab because we couldn’t afford to fix our car. On some of those days, I didn’t have money for the bus and my personal lunch, so I just went without eating, while always ensuring my kids had what they needed,” she recounts. “It was tough, but I was determined not to give up. No matter what you study in science, you learn to become a better problem solver, and I used all those skills to find solutions whenever they could be found. I asked questions, investigated, and learned to be my best advocate. Because of this, I was often very knowledgeable about resources available to my peers, so I was able to share this information with them on things like local food pantries, what childcare centers offered the best care for a reasonable price, special summer programs for kids, and mental health resources in the community.”

After her PhD, she completed a postdoctoral position in the lab of Kathryn Ferguson at Yale University, where she worked on a new project investigating the structural basis of TAM receptor kinase activation.

Starbird is now a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UNC Chapel Hill. “I am expanding on some of the work from my postdoc to build a clearer picture of how TAM receptors are activated, including their interactions with potential co-receptors,” she explains. “I hope that by using a combination of structural and cellular studies, my lab can help us to get a clearer picture of how TAM receptors form bridging complexes between two cells and interact with co-receptors to promote downstream signaling. Because TAM receptors play a crucial role in the development of various diseases, including cancer, I am also working in collaboration with other labs at UNC with structure-based drug-design projects to develop therapies targeted to TAM receptors.”

As a new principal investigator, she has used lessons learned from her earlier challenges to inform how she supports her own trainees. “I feel like for some of us, when we are young, we dream of running our own labs not only to do cool science, but also to create the environments we wish we had seen (or did see!) when we were training. For me, I felt there were several places my journey to faculty could have been less challenging if the support I received was different,” Starbird shares. “For example, I often speak on social media about the difficulties I encountered with reimbursement culture in academia. As someone from a low-socioeconomic-status background and with children, I went to only one major conference in graduate school despite having independent funding to support it, because I could not afford to wait two months for reimbursement. Not only do I love interacting with students because of their excitement and curiosity for science, but because I can work with them to create a scientific environment that is less about competition and more about enjoying the process of scientific discovery without unreasonable hurdles.”

Starbird believes that going forward, as biophysical methods become more approachable with technological advances, the average biophysicist will become less specialized. “We are seeing this now, with people like me who were trained in one major method (i.e., crystallography) who are now employing other major techniques, such as cryo-electron microscopy and single-molecule tracking. I think the biophysics field will continue to advance such that the average biophysicist feels increasingly capable of using various techniques to answer their biophysical questions,” she says. “I also hope biophysics continues to become increasingly diverse. I remember my first major biophysical conference and being struck by how few people within a very large and thriving community looked like me. Now, when you go to the Biophysical Society meetings, there are several diverse interest groups, and you can go to special sessions such as the JUST-B poster session. Outside of research, helping to inspire increased diversity is what I hope to contribute to science. In my wildest dream, my future research wins me lots of notice and awards such that my picture is in future textbooks and helps to redefine what a scientist looks like.”

Her advice to those just starting their careers in biophysics is to have fun. “I think many of us are aware that biophysics can sometimes seem daunting and a bit ‘old school’ at first, but there really is so much that biophysicists do, and there are constantly new advances being made. I’m always amazed at the conferences and when reading journals to see so many of my peers pushing the boundaries of what we considered possible,” Starbird tells BPS Bulletin. “In vivo crystallography, atomic resolution electron microscopy, and highly accurate protein structure prediction: these were considered nearly impossible dreams just 20 years ago. Imagine what we can accomplish going forward if we give ourselves the license to have fun, to be creative, and to push boundaries!”