Interview with Dr. Linda Hicke of Northwestern University

If anyone knows about cells, it’s Dr. Linda Hicke.  Former Assistant Professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology, Dr. Hicke is now Associate Vice President for Research at Northwestern University.  Cell biology has been her entire career.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Hicke’s research interest is the role of ubiquitin in regulating protein traffic in eukaryotic cells, a subject that she has published about widely in journals such as Cell, Molecular Cell, The EMBO Journal, Nature Cell Biology and the Journal of Cell Biology.

Today, chemistry and biology students throughout the world regularly conduct experiments with HeLa cells.  Their heartiness and ability to reproduce indefinitely makes them ideal for study in the classroom when teaching students about mitiosis (the process of cell division).

Dr. Hicke talks a little about her research and Rebecca Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Why did you pick science as a career?

My parents claim that it was because of the moon landing.  But the culture in my house was one that appreciated and talked about science.  I’ve always been analytical and curious about natural problems.

Can you tell me a little about your study of ubiquitin?

Ubiquitin is a very small protein (one of the smallest known) that has been found in almost all tissues of eukaryotes.  It can bind to proteins and label them for destruction or these tags can regulate the location of the proteins sitting on the surface of the cell.  It’s very versatile and helps in cell to cell communication.  When Ubiquitin isn’t regulated, this leads to cancers.

Do you work with HeLa Cells?

I don’t, personally, use HeLa cells.  But I’ve been a cell biologist entire career.  They are a type of cultured cell that most people know or have heard about.

If there were no HeLa Cells, how would research be different?

There would be some other cell type coming from another cancerous tissue.  The cells would have a slightly different genetic makeup, but serve the same role.  But, it just so happens that Henrietta’s cells were the first cells that could be grown in culture.

What is the books biggest message for you?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an amazing story.  Skloot persevered in getting to know the Lacks family.  It really opened up the personal side of science.

The book also sets science and experimental science in a societal context.  Science is a human process and she sets the science into this context.  Skloot shows how science is done for those unfamiliar with the process.  She also talks about problems with HeLa cell research, like when significant issues were raised when researchers first fused HeLa cells with mouse cells.