Aging Autumn 2021

Five Questions

A conversation with Caroline Shamu

3 min read

What work goes on at the ICCB-Longwood Screening Facility at HMS?

portrait of Caroline Shamu
A conversation with Caroline Shamu, HMS associate dean for research cores and technology, faculty director of the ICCB-Longwood Screening Facility, assistant professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, and assistant professor of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital

Its main purpose is to screen large libraries of small molecules to determine their biological activity and whether they might be drug precursors and therefore useful in drug discovery projects. But the facility also allows us to screen large genomic libraries like RNAi libraries and CRISPR libraries to determine their effects on biological activity and function. This screening forms the basis of our translational work.

What is the promise of this work?

Well, we do hope that we will find candidates that can be translated into drugs and therapies. But screening’s greatest value is that it illuminates biological activity and helps us understand function. Drug modulators allow you to study the dynamics of biological pathways. You can add a drug to switch a pathway on or off, then wash out the drug and reverse the action. How the pathway responds to such perturbations can help reveal how components of the pathway work together and whether a small molecule could be the basis for a drug.

How did you end up in this field of research?

After I finished my postdoc training, I was thinking of going to industry. At that stage in my research career, I had set up a bunch of assay systems in different organisms—fruit flies, frog eggs, yeast, mammalian cells—so I felt I had a broad knowledge across many areas of biology. Screening was an emerging tool, and I thought it would be a good skill to gain. An opportunity opened at HMS, so I tried it out. Twenty years later, I’m still working in the field and in academe. High-throughput screening is relevant to academic researchers, and I get to interact with colleagues in industry. It’s the best of both worlds.

Outside of work, what fuels your imagination?

I love to cook and garden. I’ve been able to do a lot of that over the past year and a half! I am also involved in various local initiatives; I feel they ground me by keeping me connected to my community. My mom did volunteer work and was even on the planning commission in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where we lived. When my sons were young, I volunteered with their sports programs and at their school. Lately, I’ve been involved with efforts to build a community pool in the town we live in. I’ve also joined the League of Women Voters to support voting rights and voter education. It’s been really neat to meet women from different fields and different generations and to do this important activity for democracy.

Which famous scientist or thinker would you like to have coffee with?

Shirley Tilghman. She’s a scholar, a renowned molecular biologist, an accomplished academic administrator, and a former president of Princeton University. It would be great to talk with her just to understand how she manages to balance it all.

Ekaterina Pesheva is the director of science communications and media relations in the Office of Communications and External Relations at HMS.

Image: John Soares