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Dr. Mary Jo Ondrechen is Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Reed College, and she was awarded her PhD in Chemistry and Chemical Physics from Northwestern University. Afterwards, Mary Jo completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago and subsequently a NATO Postdoctoral Fellowship at Tel Aviv University in Israel. She joined the faculty at Northeastern University in 1980. Mary Jo was awarded the Outstanding Native American Student Mentor in 2018 from the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and she has been dedicated to advocacy and activism for underrepresented communities in science and society, as well as conservation and stewardship of the Earth. In our interview, she shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:38)
When she’s not at work, you can often find Mary Jo out running, tending to her vegetable garden, and cooking. She is also interested in herbs, spices, and medicinal plants, and she has enjoyed engaging in advocacy for science, tribal communities, and the environment.
The Scientific Side (5:15)
In the lab, Mary Jo uses theory and computation to better understand how molecules work. In particular, she works on enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. Mary Jo and her team also develop methods and theories to interpret genomic data, and they work on the computational side of drug discovery, helping medicinal chemists develop new drugs, treatments, and diagnostics.
A Dose of Motivation (6:09)
“There’s light above me, there’s strength within me, and there’s security beneath my feet.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:57)
In the 1950’s, Sputnik 1 garnered a lot of attention, and there was a heavy emphasis in pop culture to get kids interested in science. Mary Jo always thought science was cool and interesting, but it was a particularly talented high school chemistry teacher who showed her how fun chemistry could be. During college, Mary Jo knew she wanted to be a professor, and she knew she needed to get a PhD to achieve this goal. At the time, it wasn’t as common for women to pursue careers in science, and not all professors were accepting female students in their labs. Fortunately, Mary Jo found a great advisor at Northwestern University who encouraged and supported her. After finishing her PhD, she furthered her skills as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago and then at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Working abroad as a postdoc was an adventure, and so was applying for faculty positions in the U.S. while she was in Tel Aviv. Mary Jo was thrilled to get an offer at Northeastern University, and she has remained there ever since.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (16:59)
Mary Jo has experienced a variety of challenges throughout her career. Sometimes grant projects ultimately turn out a bit different than what they originally proposed because the science may take them in a different direction. As theorists, they use computational and theoretical approaches, so her group doesn’t conduct experiments at the bench in the lab. However, they often work in collaboration with experimentalists, and they have had projects where their colleagues ran into challenges purifying the proteins they needed. In addition, Mary Jo has had the unfortunate experience of discovering something wonderful, but having another research group publish the same findings before she could. Being in science requires persistence, but for Mary Jo, most of the time things go really well, and the work is fun.
A Shining Success! (19:53)
One really exciting project in Mary Jo’s lab resulted in the discovery of a way to predict which amino acids in a protein are biochemically active. This method has numerous potential applications because it works for any protein where the three-dimensional structure is known. With the genome sequencing project, the 3-D structures of thousands of previously unknown proteins have been reported, many of which have unknown or uncertain biological function. They are now characterizing and trying to determine the biological functions of some of these proteins, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, they used their method to look at alternative targets on proteins from the SARS-CoV-2 virus where molecules could bind.
Most Treasured Travel (24:42)
Some of Mary Jo’s most memorable trips for science have brought her to the cities of Aarhus in Denmark, Zurich in Switzerland, and Budapest in Hungary. In 2021, she had an opportunity to travel to Budapest for a sabbatical on a Fulbright Fellowship. Each morning, she enjoyed a scenic walk to work along the Danube River. Mary Jo learned a lot of new things, had a lot of fun, and continues to collaborate with her amazing host there. One thing she will never forget is the music scene in Budapest. There were so many excellent concerts, orchestras, and live musicians at restaurants.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (27:16)
Chemists are a fun bunch of people. Mary Jo recently attended the Spring 2023 Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis, and she had a great time. At these meetings, they have a person dressed up in a costume of a mole in a lab coat as a play on words for the commonly used unit of measurement in chemistry (1 mole = 6.02×10²³ of something). She and other attendees enjoyed getting their photos taken with Professor Molenium at the meeting.
Advice For Us All (30:57)
Believe in yourself, and keep going. If you are interested in science, you should go for it.
Mary Jo’s research deals with understanding enzyme catalysis, inventing methods to predict the function of proteins from their 3D structure, developing design principles for novel enzymes, and the molecular modeling aspects of structure-based drug discovery. Some of her current projects include using machine learning for functional genomics, understanding how coupled amino acids contribute to enzyme catalysis, developing probes to detect diseases of the central nervous system, and studying SARS-CoV-2 protein targets. A member of Mohawk Nation and an advocate for STEM diversity, she was the 2011-2013 Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and is a co-PI on the 2014-2024 AISES project “Lighting the Pathway to Faculty Careers for Natives in STEM,” an initiative to provide guidance and support to Native STEM students who want to become faculty members at colleges, universities, and tribal colleges. She also co-directs an Inclusive Excellence project, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, at Northeastern University. In 2021 she was on sabbatical leave as a Fulbright Faculty Research Fellow at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, performing research on a cancer-associated kinase. Outside of science, Mary Jo’s hobbies include running, cooking, and geocaching.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by LAMPIRE Biological Laboratories.