From French Table to the Lab

Emma Luhmann ’18 and the alumni connection that kickstarted her research career

November 09, 2023

Anika Jane Beamer '22

Emma Luhmann ’18 and Lilliana Radoshevich ’04 graduated over a decade apart, but the Grinnellians share not one, but two, undergraduate majors: biology and French.

Despite their coordinated academic backgrounds, it’s hard to say whether their paths would have crossed if Professor of Biology Shannon Hinsa-Leasure hadn’t invited Radoshevich to speak to her microbiology class in spring 2018.

Sérendipité at the French Table

Radoshevich had just completed a postdoctoral fellowship in France and was returning to Iowa to begin a professorship at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. When she visited the Grinnell campus, she spoke to Hinsa-Leasure’s students, including Luhmann, about her research in the growing field of proteomics and her use of cutting edge techniques to study host responses to bacterial infection.

After the class, Radoshevich visited the dining hall to reconnect with her former professors at the weekly French Table. There, she and Luhmann hit it off.

During their conversation — conducted largely in French — Luhmann learned that Radoshevich was looking for a research assistant to help her get her new lab up and running. Luhmann was interested in the role. She’d spent two summers doing biology research, but she wasn’t ready to commit to or rule out a research career. “It’s hard to know in 10 weeks if that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life. I knew I needed the time to give research a fair shot,” Luhmann explains.

Getting in on the Ground Flour

Radoshevich offered her the research assistant position, and Luhmann began working for her the summer after graduation. The two took a collaborative approach to setting up the lab. “We worked together very cohesively, in large part because she knew how I’d been trained. We’d both received that unique Grinnell biology education,” Luhmann says.

We worked together very cohesively, in large part because she knew how I’d been trained. We’d both received that unique Grinnell biology education.

Emma Luhmann ’18

Together, the two developed all the experimental protocols that researchers in the Radoshevich laboratory would need. Their work revolved around an emerging technology known as mass spectrometry, or mass spec, which they used to track changes in proteins in response to infection.

Rather than looking at a single protein in super high detail, mass spec allows scientists to document the proteome — the entire collection of proteins in an organism’s tissue or organ at a given time. “What makes the proteome so cool is it captures a snapshot in time. A genome doesn’t change, but the proteome is constantly changing,” Luhmann explains.

In Radoshevich’s lab, Luhmann used mass spec to examine how infection causes a specific protein, named ISG15 (interferon stimulated gene 15), to modify other proteins. By using proteomics to map all the proteins modified by ISG15 during cell stress, scientists can better understand the role that ISG15 plays in an organism’s response to infection. And because the tools for proteomics are still so new, the work is constantly evolving, Luhmann explains: “Five years ago, our instruments were half as sensitive as they are now.”

Why Would I Leave?

Halfway through her time in the Radoshevich lab, Luhmann began to consider applying to medical school. “I’d reached a hard point in the science where things weren’t working, and I took that to mean I wasn’t cut out for it,” she explains. But when a medical school adviser recommended that she leave the lab and get more clinical experience, Luhmann realized how sad that prospect made her.

“I found myself asking, Why would I leave research?’” Luhmann recalls.

I found myself asking, ‘Why would I leave research?’

Emma Luhmann ’18

From then on, Luhmann knew she was Ph.D.-bound. “At the time, I was surprised by this realization. But looking back, I don’t find it surprising at all,” she says. “I’ve always loved the creativity of science, and then I received years of incredible support and encouragement from Lilly.” Luhmann says that Radoshevich’s mentorship was crucial to developing her belief that she could get into grad school and succeed there once she decided to apply

Luhmann stayed on as Radoshevich’s lab manager for a total of five years, helping the lab grow from its infancy to fully-fledged form. She saw firsthand the effort and patience that goes into scientific research. “This work really gave me an appreciation for time,” says Luhmann. “Science takes time.” 

A Vision for the Future

Currently, Luhmann is finishing up her first of three graduate school lab rotations at the University of Iowa. “Because Lilly and I kind of built her lab together, it’s been an adjustment to be somewhere new, but it’s also nice to see how another lab works.” She’ll spend 12 weeks each in several more labs before choosing where to pursue her Ph.D. thesis research. As for what that might entail, “I have a vision but I’m trying to have an open mind,” Luhmann says.

She wants to continue her work with mass spec but find ways that the technology can be integrated in a clinical setting rather than just in research. “This tool is so powerful, and it’s not being used to its full potential in the clinic.” And if it comes time for Luhmann to start her own lab, she knows where to find a research assistant — at French Table.

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