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Biophysicist in Profile

Sarah Veatch

Sarah Veatch

May 2015 // 4600

Sarah Veatch, Assistant Professor of Biophysics at the University of Michigan, grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her mother is a medical doctor and her father, William R. Veatch, was a membrane biophysicist. He was the first to work out the structure of the gramicidin A ion channel in solvents. He later extended his work to use fluorescence to probe membranes containing gramicidin, and used similar methods to probe physical properties of membranes containing cholesterol. William died when Veatch was only five years old. “I was not aware of his major contributions [to the field] until I had decided on my research direction,” she says. Veatch became interested in physics in high school. She decided to pursue physics for her undergraduate studies, and graduated from the Massachusetts Insti­tute of Technology (MIT) in 1998 with her Bachelor of Science degree in physics.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Veatch took a break from academia. “I worked for a year as an electrical engineer, and my main job was to program lighting consoles for use in high school auditoriums,” Veatch says. “While I enjoyed this job as I was learning how to do it, I realized that what I really loved was the learning part and not the application of my knowledge.” With this realization, she decided to go to graduate school in physics at the University of Washington to pursue a career in academic science. She decided to study biophysics. “I liked the idea that I could pursue physical ques­tions in systems with real-life applications,” Veatch explains.

“She looked at our badges once, then again, and said, ‘Veatch…and Keller? VEATCH AND KELLER?! I’ve read all your papers! They are great!’ I felt like a rock star.”

Veatch settled on her research area after a recruiting talk by newly hired University of Washington professor Sarah Keller. “When I started graduate school, I was fairly sure I wanted to pursue some biophysical research project, but was unsure as to the specific area. Once I met my graduate mentor Sarah Keller, my path was clear. She was inspiring, and her research really excited me,” says Veatch. She joined Keller’s lab as Keller’s first graduate student. Veatch struggled during this time with being confident in herself and her work. “I left college not knowing that I had what it took to survive as an academic scientist. I overcame this through my graduate work, where I began to get very excited about my science and could see that others believed that I had things to contribute,” she says. Indeed, others in her field were taking notice of Veatch’s work. Keller recalls one of the first Biophysical Society Annual Meetings the two attended together: “Sarah and I were talking in the poster hall. A young woman approached, asking for directions. She looked at our badges once, then again, and said, ‘Veatch…and Keller? VEATCH AND KELLER?! I’ve read all your papers! They are great!’ I felt like a rock star.”

During Veatch’s time in Keller’s lab, “Sarah [Veatch] wrote a series of groundbreaking papers on model lipid membranes that phase separate into coexisting liquid phases. She was the first to map the mis­cibility phase diagram of a ternary membrane by fluorescence microscopy and the first to quantify tie-lines,” Keller says. “Her work continues to have huge impact. Web of Science lists 575 citations for her first full-length Biophysical Journal paper.”

After completing her PhD in physics in 2004, Veatch undertook a one-year postdoc with Bob Hancock at the University of British Columbia. She worked with cell-penetrating peptides in Hancock’s lab, and also worked with Jennifer Thewalt at Simon Fraser University examining the effect of fluorescent probes on the miscibility transition by 2H-NMR. Veatch then moved to another postdoc posi­tion with Barbara Baird and David Holowka at Cornell University. She was able to build upon her PhD work exploring the miscibility transition in purified membranes to better understand phase separation in iso­lated biological membranes. At Cornell, Veatch observed that plasma membranes isolated from living cells were poised surprisingly close to a mis­cibility critical point, a special composition where thermal motions can drive large composition fluctuations at equilibrium. “At Cornell I also began to explore ways to quantify the nanoscale distribution of proteins and lipids in intact cells, first through scanning electron microscopy, and then using super-resolution fluorescence localiza­tion techniques. I have built upon both of these scientific directions into my independent labora­tory,” Veatch explains. “This was made possible in part from a K99/R00 award from the NIH (NIGMS).”

Following her postdoc, Veatch was hired to her current position as an Assistant Professor of Bio­physics at the University of Michigan. Her lab is generally interested in exploring how cells exploit the mixing of plasma membrane lipids to accom­plish biological functions. “We are probing the structural and functional consequences of mem­brane heterogeneity in intact cells, focusing on the B cell receptor signaling pathway as a model system,” Veatch details. “We are also excited to follow up on our recent observations that some liquid general anesthetics alter lipid mixing in ways that are surprisingly well correlated with their anesthetic potency. We are investigating if the ion channels responsible for anesthesia might be allosterically regulated, at least in part, through interactions with local lipids.”

“I attend the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting every year and think of it as a reunion of my extended scientific family. ”

As Veatch has pro­gressed, her challenges have changed. “Since starting my indepen­dent laboratory, my partner and I have welcomed two sons into our family, and I still struggle with balancing how to be a mom while trying to prove myself as an early career scientist,” Veatch says. “I would not say that I have figured out a way to over­come this, but am trying to find ways to accept that there are not as many hours in the day as there once were for me to spend on research, so I have to find ways to use them more efficiently.” Though she used to spend her time outside of the lab playing and coaching rugby and remodeling her house, Veatch now spends whatever time she can outside of work with her family.

She also looks forward to attending the Biophysi­cal Society Annual Meeting each year, where she reconnects with friends and colleagues. “I attend the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting every year and think of it as a reunion of my extended scientific family. I get to catch up with nearly everyone I have worked with in the past, I get to share and hear about the latest results with my field, and it’s a great place for me to seek out mentoring,” Veatch says. “I also love being able to bring my own students, to give them the opportunities I enjoyed and to see them thrive in this environment.”

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