First Person is a series of interviews with the first authors of a selection of papers published in Journal of Cell Science, helping researchers promote themselves alongside their papers. Felicity Sterling is first author on ‘ StARD9 is a novel lysosomal kinesin required for membrane tubulation, cholesterol transport and Purkinje cell survival’, published in JCS. Felicity conducted the research described in this article while a PhD student in Kevin T. Vaughan's lab at the University of Notre Dame, IN, USA, and in her own lab as assistant professor at Belmont University, Nashville, TN, USA. The Sterling lab is now investigating the contribution of lysosomal dynamics in rare pediatric neurodegenerative disorders.

Felicity Sterling

How would you explain the main findings of your paper in lay terms?

We identified a new transmembrane kinesin, StARD9, which has an array of functions. Its primary function is driving lysosomal tubulation, which is important for intracellular trafficking of small biomolecules, such as cholesterol. Essentially, StARD9 is like the Patrick Star meme from Spongebob Squarepants, where it takes the biomolecules and takes it somewhere else! Also, StARD9 has a lot of domains that don't often occur together in nature (it is both a motor protein and a sterol-binding protein), much like the platypus, which is a combination of a beaver and a duck! So, if anything, our study is on the platypus of the protein world that makes sure the cholesterol you eat gets where it needs to go in the cell.

Were there any specific challenges associated with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?

The main challenge was working with a protein that had not been cloned before. StARD9 is 4700 amino acids long, so it was challenging to develop assays around the size. In addition, working with a new mouse model had its share of challenges. Namely, it was difficult to keep up with behavioral studies during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another challenge was learning how to work in the scientific world while pregnant with my first son. We have a long way to go in terms of inclusion, but I wouldn't trade the challenge for the world. Now my son goes into the lab with me, and he's learning how to use a pipette at 1.5 years old!

When doing the research, did you have a particular result or ‘eureka’ moment that has stuck with you?

Perhaps the greatest moment of my career was when I made a major breakthrough in my project by writing a research seminar talk and an outreach talk for my church. I made the same presentation but switched the labels for the respective events. However, this was only made possible by a case study that came out of Japan regarding StARD9. Those two moments reminded me of the value of thinking beyond our own circles and truly listening to patient advocates. I thank that Japanese family for their courage and my advisor for allowing me to create such a different sort of research presentation.

Why did you choose Journal of Cell Science for your paper?

When I started graduate school, I found myself reading Journal of Cell Science every month. What I like about the journal is that the papers focus on basic mechanisms behind their questions. I liked that the mechanism would shine through as opposed to the disease or the genetic aspects of the project.

Have you had any significant mentors who have helped you beyond supervision in the lab? How was their guidance special?

Dr Michelle Whaley at the University of Notre Dame. She taught me how to mentor undergraduates, which is what made this project possible. Most of the authors in this publication were undergraduates in our lab that Michelle helped us mentor over the years. Another mentor would be Dr J. Newton at Vanderbilt University. Before becoming a physician, he worked in molecular genetics. From the beginning, I had someone I could talk to about the science that understood me and my unique approach to life.

High-magnification image of lysosomal tubulation.

High-magnification image of lysosomal tubulation.

What motivated you to pursue a career in science, and what have been the most interesting moments on the path that led you to where you are now?

I give my mom a lot of credit for my decision to become a scientist. When I was a week old, she brought me into her research lab. Not once did my mom question my ability to do good science, nor did she let me quit when times were hard. As a mother myself, I see now just how important it is for young women to see that it is possible to be a mom, have a happy family and do good science. Most importantly, she (along with my father) encouraged me in my Catholic Faith as I worked.

Who are your role models in science? Why?

I look up to my parents the most, because they are both scientists who put their family first while still doing great science. After them, I would say Dr Zach Schafer from the University of Notre Dame. He was on my committee, and I loved how he ran his lab. His students always seemed to have a great work-life balance while also putting out incredible publications in the field of cancer metabolism. I plan to make my lab environment like his.

What's next for you? (If you are planning on leaving academia, please tell us why!)

I am now an assistant professor at Belmont University. I am continuing my studies in rare pediatric neurodegenerative disorders while bolstering our anatomy and physiology program. I hope to bring more focus to rare disorders in the future and will continue to advocate for them.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that wouldn't be on your CV

I am neurodivergent – specifically, I have ADHD that was diagnosed in college.

What would you say to neurodivergent women going into the sciences?

I would say to embrace your unique approach to science. Great ideas do not have to come, and often do not come, from the expected path. At times people will question you, but that does not mean that your ideas are foolish, inconclusive or wrong. If anything, fight for your ideas, no matter how out there they may seem. Most importantly, do not let anyone tell you that you cannot have the life you dreamed of. It is up to you to live it out, and no one can stop you. You are not dumb. You are not crazy. You are a highly valuable member of the scientific community. Believe it.

Felicity Sterling's contact details: Sterling Lab, Biology Department, College of Sciences and Mathematics, Belmont University, Nashville, TN 37215, USA.

E-mail: felicity.sterling@belmont.edu

Sterling
,
F. R.
,
D'Amico
,
J.
,
Brumfield
,
A. M.
,
Huegel
,
K. L.
,
Vaughan
,
P. S.
,
Morris
,
K.
,
Schwarz
,
S.
,
Joyce
,
M. V.
,
Boggess
,
B.
,
Champion
,
M. M.
et al. .
(
2023
).
StARD9 is a novel lysosomal kinesin required for membrane tubulation, cholesterol transport and Purkinje cell survival
.
J. Cell Sci.
136
,
jcs260662
.