Alyssa Hill is a postdoctoral researcher in medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).
A first-generation college student, Hill knew she wanted to go to college but was less sure of the path she wanted to take. Her family moved from California to Oklahoma the year before she started high school. She attended three different high schools before graduating from Ada High School.
“When I was a really young child, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved animals so much,” she said. “Moving to Oklahoma and living a more rural lifestyle – we had horses, pigs, goats, chickens – when the vet would come to visit it felt like more of the same to me, so I wanted something a little different. I wanted to help people. My vision was more medicine at that time. I don’t think I really knew what being a doctor would be like, but that was my goal.”
Hill said that growing up, she didn’t really have an idea of what a scientist really was. But this all changed when at OU, she met Susan Schroeder, associate professor in the OU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
“I think, especially in working class families, the pinnacle of success is to be a doctor or lawyer,” Hill said. "Even as an undergraduate, I had little idea of what it was to be a scientist. Joining the Schroeder lab and seeing Susan be a mentor to me and teach me what that role was was so valuable.”
“I went to OU because it was the big leagues for the state,” she added. “It was a really good undergraduate experience. I joined the Honors College and was able to take courses with really bright and talented young people.”
After completing her degree, she applied to medical school but didn’t get accepted.
“My fallback plan was to do a master’s and reapply the next cycle,” she said. “I joined the Schroeder lab and started a master’s program.”
Schroeder recommended that Hill apply for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
“I ended up getting the award, and when I did, Dr. Schroeder encouraged me to switch my program from a master’s to a Ph.D.,” Hill said. Neither parent had any kind of higher education, so I didn’t really know how to navigate the university experience or the graduate school experience at all, and so for Dr. Schroeder to be there and guide me through all of the milestones was so important for me.
“I don’t think I could have done it without her,” she added. She was a great role model for me; she was just always in my corner.”
Hill’s doctoral studies focused on an RNA molecule that assembles with itself into little rings and assembles with proteins into a molecular motor that sits at one end of an empty virus particle. The motor is responsible for packaging the viral genome, the DNA, into that viral capsid, the head of the virus, prior to the virus being expelled from the bacteria, where it then goes on to infect other bacteria. During her doctoral program, Hill filed a patent, issued in January 2021, related to this work.
“My work focused on that RNA molecule and its self-assembly properties, how it interacts with itself to form these rings,” she said. “Focusing in on one motif of that RNA molecule, a three-way junction that is a major contributor to the assembly of these molecules and has really cool applications in RNA nanotechnology. You can kind of build things out of them, like squares, stars or tetrahedrons. So when we were looking at these three-wayjunctions, we found a few that were very stable relative to one that is widely used in RNA nanotechnology, so that is the subject of the patent.”
She has continued that work at ETH Zurich as well as new endeavors. In 2017, she received a FreeNovation Grant from the Novartis Research Foundation and a Spark grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation in 2019.
“The first 18 months I was here (ETH Zurich), we looked at using these three-way junctions as a potential vector for the delivery of RNA drugs,” she said. The Spark grant was aimed at funding these high-risk, potentially high-reward projects, and so the Spark project also focused on using viral RNA potentially for drug delivery.
“I think very few people get to say that their job is fun, and so I feel so lucky to get to do something I really enjoy,” she said. “It’s so empowering to me now to be the kind of role model for people who were like me maybe just 10 years ago, who didn’t know what a scientist was or couldn’t envision themselves in that kind of position. I think it’s so important, especially right now, to showcase science and scientists, to put us out there and have visibility.
“Growing up, I had this cartoonish white-man-with-crazy-hair idea of a scientist,” she added. “It feels so good to be able to live a kind of different version, but equally valid version, of being a scientist and hopefully be the role model that I didn’t have until I joined the Schroeder lab.”