Lindsey Backman Awarded Gilliam Fellowship

Danielle Randall
August 17, 2017

This article was also featured on the MIT News Page.

Graduate student Lindsey Backman has been selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to be one of 39 Gilliam Fellows of 2017.

Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study are awarded to exceptional doctoral students who have the potential to be leaders in their fields and desire to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences. Students who are awarded Gilliam Fellowships are supported for up to three years of dissertation research.

As a Gilliam Fellow, Backman will be able to meet and network with other Gilliam Fellows and professors at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), connecting with a diverse community of graduate students who share a passion for solving important questions in science and promoting inclusion within STEM fields. This group of students, who are expected go on to become the next generation of influential scientists, will offer one another an invaluable support network throughout their years of graduate school.

As an alumnus of HHMI’s External Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which supported her as an undergrad when she spent 10 weeks of the summer of 2014 working in Professor Catherine Drennan’s lab, Lindsey can already attest to the benefits of HHMI’s supportive programs for students.

“It was during my HHMI EXROP experience that I fell in love with structural biology and also gained the confidence I needed to know I could be successful as a graduate student at MIT,” she says. “I am thus extremely grateful for HHMI’s continued support for me as a scientist, now in the next stage of my career, as a graduate student.”

Backman traces the catalytic moments that formed her interest in chemistry — and science in general — back to her years as a high school student in Tampa, Florida.

“My high school chemistry and biology teachers presented these subjects in such engaging ways, focusing on how each topic applied to our entire lives, and I became especially fascinated by how all forms of life are governed by biochemical reactions and interactions occurring at the molecular level,” she recalls.

Backman went on to pursue her interest in biochemistry at the University of Florida, where she became involved with research as an undergraduate student and received her bachelor's degree in chemistry (with a minor in classical studies).

Today, she is a PhD candidate working in the Drennan lab, where she explores the enzymatic mechanisms of members of the glycyl radical enzyme family, primarily through protein crystallography.

“My research focuses on the structural and biochemical characterization of several new gut microbial glycyl radical enzymes (GREs), unearthing hidden chemical reactions that potentially play critical roles in human health,” she explains. “Learning more about these enzymes will not only add to the field’s knowledge of these critical enzymes, many of which could be promising antibiotic targets, but will also expand our basic understanding of the biochemical reactions that govern bacterial-host interactions in the gut microbiome.”

She was drawn to this area of study due to a fascination with the ability of enzymes to elegantly perform difficult chemical reactions.

“As a chemist, I’m not only interested in the scope of the reactions that enzymes can perform, but also how they are able to accomplish these transformations,” she says. “One of the most valuable approaches to asking such questions about mechanism is to obtain a structure of the enzyme. The prospect of getting a glimpse into the active site of enzyme, and making hypotheses about its mechanism of action based on what you see, was just incredibly satisfying to me, leading me to pursue this field [at MIT]."

After completing her PhD at MIT, Backman plans to pursue a postdoctoral academic position. Beyond that, her goal for the future is to combine her passions for research, teaching, and mentorship by becoming a professor herself.