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Dr. Katie Drerup
Photo: Jeremy Swan

As a student at Bowling Green University in Ohio, Dr. Catherine “Katie” Drerup was preparing to go to veterinary school when she welcomed an unexpected opportunity to change her entire career—and maybe life. Drerup attended an animal behavior class with Dr. Robert Huber, who studied serotonergic modulation of aggressive behavior in crayfish. When Drerup got involved in Huber’s research, she was completely blown away by science. She turned down her vet school offer and joined the Huber lab for a master’s project. And that, she said, is where her story began.

After finishing her master’s degree, Drerup joined the Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University in Chicago for graduate work with Dr. Jill A. Morris, who by that time had already cloned and characterized the infamous Disc1 gene, a mouse ortholog of human DISC1 (Disrupted-in-Schizophrenia 1). Drerup analyzed the functional significance of the zebrafish Disc1 ortholog during development. In addition, she cloned and characterized the Ndel1 and Lis1 genes in zebrafish, which code for the molecules in the dynein/dynactin complex responsible for neuronal migration in the developing cortex. 

Even after a productive PhD experience, Dr. Drerup hesitated to pursue a research career in academia. “Towards the end of my PhD, I was really considering if I wanted to continue in science. My [doctoral] lab was new to developmental biology, and it took a while to get things off the ground, although we had collaborations with wonderful scientists. I was wondering if I was cut out for it, given my struggle accepting the failure rate. My advisor encouraged me to do a postdoc to be sure. My time as a postdoc was wonderful, and my advisor was supportive in so many ways. It gave me the time I needed to grow as a researcher and find the questions that really drive me. After less than a year, I was confident that I wanted to pursue a career in science.” 

For her postdoctoral research, Drerup worked with Dr. Alex Nechiporuk in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Oregon Health and Science University. She continued to use zebrafish as a model organism due to its advantages in genetic manipulations and imaging, and she dug deeper into the molecular and cellular biology of intracellular transport in neurons. Several years into her postdoctoral work, Drerup received the prestigious NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00). 

In addition to striving to be a good mentor and perform high-level research, Drerup also feels a responsibility to represent and support women in science. She serves on the Women Scientist Advisors (WSA) Committee at NICHD to help deal with gender-related issues. One particular area of interest for her is the “drop-off point” that exists for women in science. “Increasing numbers of women are going to graduate school but the same proportion does not progress to the level of principal investigator. The reasons behind this are unclear but need attention.” 

For Drerup, her research track started with the study of behavior and eventually transitioned into the microscopic world of cell biology. Now, she hopes her own lab can encompass all levels. Drerup sees biology in two ways: from a cell biology perspective and a whole organism perspective and hopes to interact with the rich neuroscience faculty at NIH to enhance her ability to bridge this gap. 

Drerup’s research will focus on cargo transport in axons with a particular focus on retrograde movement governed by the dynein/dynactin complex. She wants to understand how unique cargos attach to this single motor protein complex for transport. In addition to being interested in understanding the mechanisms of cargo-motor interaction, she is interested in studying the similarities and differences in this cellular mechanism in sensory versus motor neurons. Even though research is her priority, Drerup is excited about additional professional opportunities, such as teaching and outreach, for NIH investigators.

Drerup is at the beginning of her independent research, but she pointed out that her training thus far has given her the skill set necessary for this career, including accepting the natural experimental failure rate, managing several different projects at the same time, and the high pressure/high paced lifestyle in general. “It becomes natural after a while and you start thinking this is not so hard to manage really…you work because you want to be here. Some days will be miserable, an experiment you were really excited about fails for some inexplicable reason, but it is the underlying questions—they drive you.”