Dr. Brianna Bibel

Written by Jennifer Porat

Dr. Brianna Bibel may not think of herself as a “sci-commer” in the traditional sense, but her fun, accessible explanations as the Bumbling Biochemist have helped introduce people to concepts ranging from the science behind mRNA vaccines to Trizol RNA extractions. Outside of her social media presence, Dr. Bibel is a postgraduate researcher in Dr. Leemor Joshua-Tor’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) (New York, USA). Her thesis work focused on understanding the regulation of Argonaute proteins through phosphorylation. In her studies (now on bioRxiv) she revealed that the hierarchical phosphorylation of a region in Argonaute (Ago) called the Eukaryotic Insertion leads to target mRNA release, allowing recycling of the Ago/microRNA complex to additional targets. Dr. Bibel speculates that the target RNA interacts directly with casein kinase 1α (CK1α) to help prime Ago for phosphorylation, thereby helping bring proteins together “like a molecular dating service!”

When reflecting on her decision to join the graduate program at CHSL, Dr. Bibel recalls coming across the name CSHL in her undergraduate classes and thinking it “seemed like a magical place steeped in scientific history”. While she mentions the draw of CSHL’s secluded campus, she’s quick to note, “Secluded location-wise that is. Science-wise it was anything but.” With frequent talks and meetings featuring international scientists right on campus, “it was an introverted, city-avoiding geek’s dream come true.” The courses offered at CSHL also introduced Dr. Bibel to Jane Richardson, the inventor of the ribbon diagram representation of molecules. Dr. Bibel considers Ms. Richardson one of her scientific inspirations because of her commitment to helping others learn through open-access software and freely downloadable graphics. “She really sees the beauty in molecules, and helps others see it as well,” Dr. Bibel says. “As if that weren’t enough, she’s mostly self-taught and doesn’t have a PhD.”

“Don’t forget the ‘past you’s’—remember what it was like to be an undergrad or a grad student, and try to mentor those now ‘below you’ in a way that you would have wanted to be mentored. Be kind to everyone and try to help everyone you work with reach their best.”

Dr. Bibel credits her PhD training in Professor Leemor Joshua-Tor’s lab for nurturing her love of structural biology and biochemistry. She says, “I’ve always been drawn to knowing all the details and what better place for that than in a structural biology lab!” Moving forward, Dr. Bibel plans to take her skills to Professor Danica Fujimori’s lab at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where she hopes to learn more chemical biology skills. On her decision to join the Fujimori lab for her postdoc, Dr. Bibel says, “As someone who was constantly running into difficulties trying to tease apart the effects of post-translational modifications of specific sites, I was really intrigued by her research using chemical biology approaches to install site-specific methyl groups.” She also shares advice to incoming graduate students and graduate students transitioning into a postdoctoral position: “Try to [maintain and grow] that passion for science that’s driving you. It will help you power through tough times and will make your experience much more enjoyable.”

And while Dr. Bibel draws inspiration from her mentors, her science communication work as the Bumbling Biochemist has in turn inspired her many social media followers. Dr. Bibel began her journey into science communication the summer after completing her undergraduate degree. “I wanted to tell my family and friends about the research I was doing. I thought it was super awesome, but when I tried to explain it to them, they seemed really bored. I realized that I was talking in scientific jargon that they hadn’t learned.” Armed with this newfound perspective, Dr. Bibel decided to break down and de-jargonize her work so that she could use plain language to share her love of biochemistry with others. This approach also shapes the way she tackles her own research questions in the lab. “The process of deep-diving into experimental details […] really helped me think like a molecule which has helped me reason through confusing results and think up creative ideas to answer tricky research questions.” Sharing her science in an open and engaging manner has also helped Dr. Bibel connect with other researchers like Dr. Alexandra Newton, the President of the International Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB). In addition to helping teach Dr. Bibel the kinase assays that formed a central part of her thesis work, working with Dr. Newton also led to Dr. Bibel’s involvement in the leadership committee of the new IUBMB Trainee Initiative, which aims to unite students and postdocs from around the world (find them on Twitter and Instagram @iubmb_trainee). As for advice to any trainees interested in getting into science communication, Dr. Bibel suggests to simply be yourself. “What’s really surprised me is how many followers I gained just by being authentically me—and super geeky!”

Dr. Bibel’s dedication to explaining complicated scientific concepts in an accessible way has been especially important during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Bibel acknowledges that COVID-19 brought many challenges, “Our lab shut down during a key point in my PhD journey and I was left isolating across the country from my family. It was really hard to stay motivated career-wise, but I took advantage of opportunities to participate in virtual meetings which helped.” Dr. Bibel used her social media platforms to provide accessible information about COVID-19, beginning with a post on how RT-PCR tests work, which was translated into more than 2 dozen languages with some help from the IUBMB. Dr. Bibel says, “That really gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel like I was doing something to help at a time I felt really helpless.” Thankfully for the RNA community, Dr. Bibel has no plans to slow down her quest to communicate science and aims to become a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution. Since undergraduates are often overlooked in academic settings, Dr. Bibel hopes to provide an environment to “help them experience their first research endeavors.”

Dr. Bibel’s favorite RNA is miR200 “because it served at the heart of most of my research—I studied variations in the target RNAs it binds, but this miRNA stayed constant in most of my work and allowed me to find cool things”. Dr. Bibel is active on social media and you can find her on social media on her blog (www.thebumblingbiochemist.com), on Instagram @thebumblingbiochemist, on Twitter @biochem-bri, and on YouTube and Facebook as The bumbling biochemist (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChzTIByeodToYsKiNiwKQrw) (https://www.facebook.com/thebumblingbiochemist/).