Iryna Pustova, an IPiB graduate student, will be defending her Ph.D. research on July 28, 2023.
Pustova’s research in the Audhya Lab focuses on molecules responsible for transporting proteins to their final destination. Her work has been published in Cell Reports, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Traffic.
The protein TFG is a key component of the process by which many membrane proteins are moved from cellular compartment to compartment after they are translated, folded, and packaged to be transported by vesicular carriers. TFG facilitates the movement of proteins from the endoplasmic reticulum – where proteins are folded into their proper structure – to the Golgi. Mutations in TFG are associated with several neurodegenerative diseases.
“We’re very curious to understand how a mutation in TFG results in neurodegeneration, and why,” says Pustova. “This part of the early secretory pathway happens in all cells, so why does it specifically result in disease in neurons?”
For her research, Pustova used human stem cells which she differentiated into neurons. “What’s great about these cells is that they’re human so I didn’t worry about differences which can exist between, say, rodent models and humans,” explains Pustova. Pustova found that TFG may play additional regulatory roles in human neuronal cells, which have unique characteristics compared to other cells – including their larger size and greater surface area – requiring additional regulatory pathways.
Pustova’s scientific inquiries provided continuity during a period of change and turmoil.
Pustova, who moved to the United States from Ukraine at the age of 20, balanced her work with the early years of parenthood. “I am very fortunate to have an advisor who allowed me to be flexible with my time, as long as the work got done,” says Pustova, whose plan to bring her mother over from Ukraine to help with childcare was delayed by difficulties in the immigration process.
Then, in fall 2021, war was declared in her home country. Her research became a distraction that Pustova welcomed.
“My whole family is in Ukraine,” says Pustova. “I still wanted to go to work every day. But I remember sometimes I just stood there with a pipette, consumed by thoughts about how to help my family.” With wall-to-wall coverage on American news stations, Pustova was able to follow along as her brother’s city was bombed and communication was cut off in her father’s region.
Pustova emphasizes that good working conditions and a supportive environment in her lab were key to her success during this time. “I had to coordinate my mom’s evacuation,” says Pustova, “so I had to be on the phone talking to senators to help get her to Romania. I am so amazed by the kindness there is in the world. And I have a great job, which was important. It drew my attention because it’s experiment-based. I had to be present and working. Just like I did at home with my son, who, of course, didn’t know what was going on.”
After graduating, Pustova will continue her research in the Audhya Lab in a Scientist I position. “I’m so happy to have a job with an amazing boss,” says Pustova. “I will continue to work on my project plus additional projects, and I will be able to help train new graduate students.”
To learn more about Pustova’s research, attend her Ph.D. defense, “Regulation of Biosynthetic Cargo Trafficking in Neurites,” on Friday, July 28 at 1:00 p.m. CT in Room 1211 of the Hector F. DeLuca Biochemical Sciences Building.