Ann West is the Grayce B. Kerr Centennial Chair in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the director of the National Institutes of Health-funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Structural Biology. She joined the Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships as a faculty fellow in 2018 before becoming an associate vice president in 2019.
West credits her ability to conduct undergraduate research for her discovering an interest in science.
“I was a biology major as an undergraduate and I was fortunate to be able to conduct laboratory research three of my four years at Wesleyan University, and I really, really enjoyed it,” West said. “It was a calling of sorts. The lightbulb went on and I realized that’s what I wanted to do for my career.”
West says that one way she pays it forward is by making sure she always has one or more undergraduate research assistants in her lab to give undergraduates an opportunity to explore research pathway.
“There are probably more undergraduates here at OU hoping for research opportunities than there are labs who accept them, but there are also new innovative programs that encourage undergraduates to get involved in research, particularly at a young stage,” she said.
One such program, First-Year Research Experience, or FYRE, originated in chemistry and biochemistry and now encompasses more than a dozen departments across the university.
“Undergraduates get matched into a research lab the second semester of their freshman year…there’s a strong likelihood that they’ll stay in that research lab through their sophomore to senior years and most likely have accumulated sufficient data and results to write a senior thesis,” West said. “If I had to tell an undergrad what they might do differently, I would say ‘get involved in research as early as possible.’ In addition to the FYRE program, the Honors College and a number of other colleges have undergraduate research opportunities, and that’s a good way to expose undergrads to what the research enterprise is all about.”
For West, she knew a doctoral degree would be necessary for her career aspirations and that she would need to determine which area of biological science specialization would most interest her. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology from Wesleyan University, she took a position as a technician in two different research labs before attending graduate school.
“I worked for a year at the UConn Health Sciences Center in Farmington, Connecticut, in the immunology lab, which helped me realize I didn’t want to go to grad school for immunology,” she said. “Then, my former biochemistry professor invited me to be a technician in his lab. The research was more molecular-based and right in the beginning of the timeframe when recombinant DNA technology was emerging.”
West said she got very interested in the concept of DNA as the genetic code and everything that it stems from DNA, such as RNA and protein. After working in that lab and learning about gene regulation, West applied and was accepted as a doctoral student in Yale’s genetics program.
“I got into Yale, a top-notch genetics program with a mix of faculty doing true clinical human genetics, and other faculty doing more basic research – cellular and molecular-based, which is what I was interested in,” she said. “We worked on a yeast system as a model cell…a little more complex than bacteria, but easy to manipulate. You can manipulate the genome of yeast without violating any policies and recombinant DNA technology at that time.”
After completing her doctorate in genetics from Yale, West furthered her research training in protein biochemistry and structural biology as a postdoctoral fellow of the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research at Rutgers University.
“A good use of a postdoc position is to learn new things,” West said. “At Rutgers I learned that knowledge of the three-dimensional structure of proteins coupled to functional studies of proteins is essential to learning how proteins work.”
“I learned how researchers use X-ray crystallography to determine the atomic-level, high-resolution structures of proteins, which has its historical base in physics,” she added. “As I was applying for faculty jobs and submitting my research plan, I was interested in combining my graduate experience using yeast as a model system with my protein biochemistry and structural biology work as a postdoc to study a system that hadn’t been studied well in yeast – a signal transduction pathway that enables cells to respond to environmental changes.”
Her research focuses on microbial signal transduction and adaptive stress responses, using the tools of molecular biology, X-ray crystallography, to determine structure, and microbiology through her work on microbes and pathogenic bacteria.
“In terms of being a female scientist in a STEM field, I’ve always felt the disparity in gender numbers, that (female scientists) are and have been in a male-dominated field,” West said. “I felt it acutely when I started here as an assistant professor in 1996. I was only the second female faculty member in my department. In 2010, I was the first female full professor in my department.”
“I felt the best thing I could do to help address gender bias was to be a successful faculty member, to be a role model,” West said. “To some extent, I put blinders on in my early career and forged my own path in order to be a successful educator and researcher.”
West said she is a lifelong learner and works to apply what she learns to new research endeavors that include supporting and mentoring colleagues, especially junior faculty.
Ten years ago, West took the lead on applying for a NIH-funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Structural Biology. The COBRE grant is unique in that it primarily focuses on developing junior faculty and enhancing the institution’s research infrastructure in the form of core facilities with shared resources.
“I don’t receive any research funds from the COBRE grant, but as the director of this program, I can help junior faculty further their research careers and provide state-of-the-art core facilities with the instrumentation that would normally cost way too much for a single investigator, and this is also a benefit for the rest of the structural biology community,” West said.
“I was attracted by the focus of the COBRE grant on junior faculty development, so I committed to writing the proposal in 2011,” she added. “The award was a $9.7 million grant for phase one for five years. We were able to hire a number of new junior faculty members at OU who have now progressed successfully through their tenure and promotion stage. Their success is COBRE’s success.”
In 2017, West received a renewal of the COBRE grant for phase two for an additional five years and $10.5 million funding.
“Now we’re looking to compete for phase three, the last phase of which focuses on the sustainment of the core facilities,” she said. “I think we’ve had a successful run, and if we’re able to successfully compete for phase three, we could bring in somewhere on the order of $5 million to support these cores and help faculty carry out their experiments.”
“At the same time, my own research group continues to study bacterial signal transduction pathways,” West said. “We are able to use the outstanding core facilities established due to the COBRE grant, but really the best benefit is seeing the other faculty members, especially the junior faculty members, be successful with their own programs. A large part of the COBRE program is about mentorship; peer-to-peer mentorship can play a huge role in junior faculty development as they maneuver the faculty ranks.”
As for female representation in her field, West said she believes that there has been progress, but notes it is a process and equity isn’t achieved overnight.
“Now about one-third of the faculty in chemistry and biochemistry at OU are women and there is more female representation on committees and in administrative roles than I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Early in my career, it was not uncommon to be the only female on a particular committee or invited speaker at a meetings. Although not yet at parity, I do see a better balance. I’ve seen my department grow and I hope the same is true in other departments.”
West’s research awards include the Joseph A. Brandt Professorship (2008-2015), Edith Kinney Gaylord Presidential Professorship (2001-2008), Irene Rothbaum Award for Outstanding Assistant Professor (2001, College of Arts and Sciences), and a Cottrell Scholar Award (1999, Research Corp.). In addition to her service roles at the departmental, college and university level, West has served on many National Science Foundation and NIH grant review panels and executive advisory committees.