By Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry

A graduate student researcher in professor Doug Mitchell’s group, Susanna Barrett is doing a lot of the foundational work to develop a method for identifying lasso peptides that can bind to and change the activity of specific enzymes, a process that could create so many opportunities for more scientific exploration.

“We could identify lasso peptides that act as probes for a specific enzyme to help us understand basic science or identify lassos that target enzymes implicated in human or plant diseases for medical and agricultural applications,” Barrett said. “Basically, once the screening method is set up, we can take lasso peptides in a lot of different directions which I think is really exciting.”

Growing up in the St. Louis area, Barrett had an interest in science as far back as she can remember, from animals, to ecology to evolution. In high school, those interests shifted to the chemistry involved in biology and the evolution of enzymes and organisms.

“My grandpa was a PhD neuroscientist and my dad was a chemical engineer and both were really supportive of me and fostered my love of science. I've known since I was 16 that I wanted to be a college professor and I knew that I needed a PhD to do that,” said Barrett, who graduated with a degree in biochemistry from Scripps College, a small women's liberal arts college outside Los Angeles.

Now, in her third year as a PhD student in chemistry at Illinois, Barrett still aspires to be a college professor and volunteers a lot of her time in the lab and outside the lab as a mentor to other chemistry graduate students.

“I like to think that by serving as a mentor in college and now in graduate school, I am getting to practice those skills which will ultimately make me a stronger college professor,” Barrett said.

Her favorite professors throughout her college career, she said, were often those who not only taught the most challenging classes, but had great mentoring skills and teaching abilities.

“I liked them because I could connect with them, I felt heard by them, and they supported me on my path through college and into graduate school… They were so supportive, showed us respect, and made us feel included in our own learning, so it did not matter that the class was challenging. We were prepared and we excelled because the professors had great mentoring skills in addition to great teaching skills,” said Barrett, who mentors fellow graduate students in her research group and through the Women Chemists Committee.

In fall 2021, Barrett and fellow graduate student Shravan Dommaraju launched a new mentoring program called ADJUST, which they formally proposed in writing to the Department of Chemistry in 2020.

“At the time there were plenty of great mentoring programs run by different student groups but not one that encompassed everyone in the department,” said Barrett, who explained that ADJUST is a one-to-one mentoring program, matching more experienced graduate students with first-year students. “We brought on our third co-leader, Annika Holm, to help us run it for our first year and I think it was a success. Both mentors and mentees have told me that they really liked the program and benefitted from it, so we plan to run the program again next year.”

ADJUST runs through the summer and fall semesters and is designed to help first-year students with their transition to graduate school and connect them into the chemistry community early on in their careers.

In Barrett’s experience, one of the best qualities of a good mentor is the ability to listen well.

“Ultimately, the mentor-mentee relationship is about the mentee and should be guided by the mentee so being able to actively listen and be present during the mentoring meeting is key to being a successful mentor,” Barrett said. 

And what’s the best advice she received from a mentor?

“A post-doc in the Mitchell lab told me this at the beginning of my PhD and it is a bit cliché but is very accurate: Your PhD journey is a marathon, not a sprint, so you need to take breaks along the way and adjust the speed and effort of your research based on your mental state. Otherwise, you will just burn yourself out,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure felt by graduate students, and especially first years, to work all the time and hearing this from an older member of the lab gave me permission to have the work-life balance I needed to be a successful researcher.”

Striving for that work-life balance, Barrett enjoys being outdoors, running, hiking and camping. A recent trip to Indiana Dunes National Park tops her list.

“It was surprisingly empty for a national park and was so nice to be back at a ‘beach’ on the shores of Lake Michigan. The hike to get to the beach was through this really cool wetland and sand dune area with lots of birds. I would absolutely recommend it,’ said Barrett, who also enjoys “string” crafts, like knitting, needlepoint and embroidery, and experimenting in the kitchen.

I love to bake. I try to make something new at least once a week,” she said. “I recently made these earl grey sugar cookies which I seriously cannot stop thinking about. I really liked the recipe because I learned something new. You can steep tea in melted butter to maximize the tea flavor. It was simple, and they tasted amazing. I look forward to experimenting with the recipe with other types of tea like chai tea or mint tea with chocolate chips.”

In ADJUST, Barrett said interests outside the lab and classroom are taken into consideration when matching mentors and mentees.

“We try to make pairings based less on scientific interest and more on identities, hobbies, and non-science interests to help the mentee find a new community at Illinois,” Barrett said. “We figure the mentee will meet a lot of senior students from their area and their labs of interest anyway and hope this helps foster more cross-area friendships.”

Barrett said she enjoys meeting and getting to know new people, and that’s just one reason there is also benefit to the mentor in the mentoring relationship.

“I find it really rewarding to help younger students learn new skills, adjust to a new environment, and support them on their science journey,” she said. “Graduate school is hard so if I can make someone's journey a bit easier than mine was through mentorship then I am happy.”