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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Leidamarie Tirado-Lee, Driskill Graduate Program

Leidamarie Tirado-Lee

Leidamarie Tirado-Lee, a sixth-year PhD student in Northwestern University’s Driskill Graduate Program, combines her physics, biology, math, and chemistry skills to study dysfunctions of calcium release-activated calcium (CRAC) channels in the laboratory of Murali Prakriya, PhD, associate professor in Pharmacology

Tirado-Lee completed her undergraduate degree in biology at Clemson University. She did a brief internship with the FBI Mitochondrial DNA forensics unit before pursuing her graduate studies at Northwestern. 


Where is your hometown?

This has always been a difficult question for me to answer, since my family moved around quite a bit during my youth. I was born on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico but moved stateside at the age of three. I spent much of my youth in Patterson, New Jersey, before moving to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where I attended high school.

What are your research interests?

During my first semester as a graduate student, I was introduced to the research field of molecular biophysics in my quantitative biology class. I developed a keen interest for this unique interdisciplinary field that blends physics, biology, math, and chemistry to address biological processes such as ion transport. 

Currently, I work in the Prakriya lab, which focuses on Ca2+ signals generated from a type of Ca2+ channel known as the calcium release-activated calcium (CRAC) channel. CRAC channels are widely expressed in the plasma membranes of virtually all mammalian cells and are activated in response to decreases in the calcium concentration of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Dysfunctions in CRAC channels are associated with a variety of pathologies, such as severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome, myopathies, and bleeding disorders, highlighting their importance for human physiology. Our lab utilizes a powerful combination of electrophysiology, structural approaches, and genetically modified mice to understand the mechanisms of activation, regulation, and the functions of CRAC channels.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My thesis dissertation has been focused on understanding the structural basis of CRAC channel activation. CRAC channels are composed of the proteins STIM1, the ER Ca2+ sensing unit, and Orai1, the plasma membrane pore forming subunit. These two proteins are located in separate compartments but must come together to form an active CRAC channel. Using a combination of biophysical and biochemical techniques, I am examining the importance of various structural features of the Orai1 channel involved in binding to and activation by STIM1.

What attracted you to the PhD program?

The diversity of research focus areas at Northwestern was the biggest appeal for me. As a young graduate student with many research interests, it was invaluable to test the waters and find out what my niche should be. I was also very impressed with the amount of available professional development opportunities available to Northwestern graduate students. By choosing Northwestern, I would have access to all the necessary tools to become an independent scientist and a successful professional. 

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

The relationships I’ve built with my fellow graduate students have been the highlight of my graduate career.  I feel a sense of community with my colleagues, whether it is to exchange scientific ideas or provide a helping hand during tough research days.

What do you do in your free time?

I spend many weekends mentoring and engaging Chicago-area youth in hands-on STEM activities. I currently direct a Spanish- based program, Jugando Con La Ciencia (Playing with Science), whose main purpose is to encourage Latino youth to appreciate science as a part of their daily life and learn about the variety of career opportunities available to STEM professionals. 

When not in lab or mentoring, you can find me at Archery Bow Range Chicago, where I am training to become a competitive archer. I tried archery two years ago and have been hooked ever since. Stop by the range and I might even be your instructor during one of the “Intro to Archery” clinics!

What are your plans for after graduation?

From a young age, I’ve always displayed a great deal of curiosity and loved exploring new topics I was unfamiliar with. However, it wasn’t enough to just learn about these topics, I also felt compelled to share my knowledge with others. My favorite way to do this was to write stories incorporating the information I had learned. Following graduation, I am looking to combine my passions for writing and science into a career in science communications with a focus on marketing.