Scientist Spotlight – Lara Mahal, PhD

Although Lara Mahal always thought science was fun, she never thought that she’d be a scientist. She originally had set her sights on becoming a lawyer, starting with an undergraduate degree in chemistry. Both she and her chemistry professors recognized her scientific abilities, and, with a little encouragement, she enrolled in grad school at University of California, Berkeley. Ultimately, she “fell in love with sugars”, their chemistry, and how they fit into the bigger biological picture.

“I look to see how sugars, which are part of our information systems, tell us about what’s going on in various diseases and how we can use them to create new methods to address diseases.”

In her postdoctoral years at Sloan Kettering, she started thinking more like a biologist and saw a need for carbohydrate chemistry to join the emerging age of “omics” along with the growing fields of genomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics. She also envisioned what she perceived as missing from carbohydrate chemistry: the field would need to overcome the limitations of mass spectrometry technology and existing methods for carbohydrate characterization. She began conceptualizing the use of lectins in a microarray format, seeing their potential as an incredibly powerful tool for identifying carbohydrate substructure, facilitating faster acquisition of systems biology data, and enabling the larger scale studies needed to advance the field of glycomics.

“People have to get over the perception that lectins are non-specific. Carbohydrate binding proteins only bind 2 to 7 carbohydrates and have very specific recognition elements, making them incredibly powerful.”

While carbohydrates are not as perfect in specificity as are antibodies, Lara suggests that they are quite powerful in the microarray panel format. As the first to publish lectin microarray technology in 2005, her microarrays enabled researchers to compare hundreds of samples, enable follow-up experiments, and establish a new method for high-throughput glycomics. Today her lab’s updated non-commercial arrays, which include 120 lectins and antibodies from Vector Labs and other vendors, are used in collaborations around the world.

“In my current position as a CERC—Canada Excellence Research Chair—in Glycomics, the Canadian government and the Government of Alberta honored me with an award of $20M to take our glycomics work to the next level…As academic scientists, we really get to be explorers at the most fundamental level. It is such a privilege…”

Dr. Mahal began her chair and Professor of Chemistry position at the University of Alberta in September after working at New York University, and is currently operating out of a temporary lab with a capacity for 8 researchers until her new 24-person lab is ready next May. Where previously she excelled at scrambling for funding, often from non-traditional sources, she can stop worrying about funding for most of her 7-year CERC appointment. She can instead focus on expanding her lab, students, and research interests, including examining the effects of microRNA control methods on glycosylation, the role of glycosylation enzymes, carbohydrate motifs, and carbohydrate binding proteins. This chair offers a unique opportunity that encourages ambition, and Lara looks forward to changing the face of glycomics and using this trailblazing honor to expand its reach further into the biomedical research sphere.