Focus on postdoctoral fellow Karen Ring

Getting to know Karen Ring raises the question “how does she do it all?” As a postdoctoral fellow in the Ellerby laboratory at the Buck Institute and the founder and co-editor of the Science of Aging (SAGE) blog, Karen cares about science from the micro to the macro level; she is helping raise the profile of the Buck Institute in both regards.

Karen grew up in the Bay Area and received her PhD from UCSF in Biomedical Science. During her graduate research, she focused on the fields of stem cells and neurodegeneration. Inspired by the groundbreaking discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) by the 2012 Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, Karen developed a similar method to directly reprogram mouse and human skin cells into brain neural stem cells. The goal was to develop patient-specific neural cell lines to better model neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Her work was published in one of the top stem cell journals, Cell Stem Cell, in 2012.

After her PhD, Karen crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and joined the Ellerby Lab to further pursue her interests in stem cell research and neurodegeneration. The Ellerby lab is known for its pioneering studies on Huntington’s disease (HD), and Karen is now using human stem cell models of HD to understand why important molecular signaling pathways, such as the TGF-β pathway, are dysregulated in HD.

In her two years at the Buck, Karen has received both the T32 and F32 NRSA postdoctoral fellowships. She also recently presented her work on the role of TGF-β signaling in Huntington’s disease at the Cold Spring Harbor Neurodegeneration Conference. “Right now, I am really excited about how we can use the HD stem cell models developed in the Ellerby lab to understand the fundamental mechanisms of what causes HD in humans,” she said.“By finding out what is altered in TGF-β and other signaling pathways, we hope to identify better therapeutic targets for the treatment or even prevention of HD.”

When not elbow deep in experiments, Karen enjoys communicating and teaching science to the general public. In the summer of 2014, she launched the Buck Institute’s SAGE (Science of Aging) Blog and currently serves as co-editor with another postdoc, Robert O’ Brien. SAGE highlights important scientific research on aging and age-associated diseases conducted at the Buck Institute and by the larger scientific community. SAGE also features interviews of world-renowned academic professors and scientists who visit the Buck to give formal research seminars. While the blog is managed by postdocs, Karen emphasized that everyone at the Institute can write for SAGE. “SAGE provides postdocs and other scientists at the Buck the opportunity to develop their science communication skills. It also globally connects our institute to individuals and communities interested in understanding the fundamental mechanisms of aging and improving human health span.”

Launched a year ago, SAGE already has an international following and citing’s on other scientific blogs and aging-related websites (See FightAging! and The CR Society). While SAGE helps promote Buck science, Karen says a large part of her payoff is personal. “I really enjoy our blog meetings and the fermentation of ideas that happens when everyone shares their suggestions for future blog topics. The enthusiasm for each new topic is inspiring and we have a lot of creative and intelligent minds on Team SAGE. At the end of the day, I always learn something new from reading the final product.” In addition to her efforts with SAGE, Karen is also a member of the Buck Postdoctoral Association (PDA) and specifically chairs the media/communications committee.

Karen strongly believes in maintaining a good work-life balance. To counteract the hours she spends working in the cell culture room and at the lab bench, Karen spends a lot of time being active and enjoying the outdoors. She runs regularly and enjoys exploring the trails behind the Buck Institute with other Buck scientists. As part of her joy for running, she joined the San Francisco LunaChix Run team, which organizes free running workouts and clinics for women. Karen is particularly motivated to be a part of Team LunaChix because of its pledge to raise money for the Breast Cancer Fund, which supports the prevention of breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease. When Karen feels the need for a bit more excitement, she goes indoor rock climbing. She was first reluctantly dragged to this activity by a friend, but it has now become a favorite pastime and way to refocus after a particularly challenging day in lab. She is hoping to eventually try outdoor rock climbing, but scaling El Capitan might be a few years away.

Apparently experimenting during her day job does not fully satisfy Karen’s intellectual curiosity, and she has since extended her experiments into the kitchen. One of her favorite dishes to whip-up is the mouth-watering “pesto mushroom lasagna.” Although she has an Asian background, Karen’s favorite foods to cook are Italian, especially pizza from scratch. She has even tried her hand at the Paleo diet dishes, though they have proved slightly more challenging. She intends to keep expanding her cooking repertoire, potentially creating a few of her own recipes.

Looking to the future, Karen anticipates a career as a scientist pursuing the next generation of neurodegenerative and stem cell therapies. She also plans to continue her scientific outreach through blogging and writing.

Written by Barbara Bailus

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