University of South Florida

From cellular enzymes to life, keynote speaker is an authority on resilience

Kim Orth, PhD, paused in mid-Zoom to reach for a plaque behind her that contains words to live – and practice science – by.

The distinguished biochemist and microbiologist from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center earned the award in 2003 from the Beckman Institute as a junior investigator and assistant professor. And it contains a quote from late chemist and inventor Dr. Arnold O. Beckman that she embraces to this day.

“It reads, ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation itself,’ ” said Dr. Orth, the keynote speaker Friday at USF Health Research Day. “You really need to have a balance.”

That philosophy has served the heralded professor of microbiology and biochemistry well in her career. As an Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Dr. Orth runs the Orth Lab, is a W.W. Caruth Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research and holds the Earl A. Forsythe Chair in Biomedical Science. Her many honors over the past 20 years include a place on the Celebrating Women Wall at the UT Southwestern Medical Center (2022), being named an American Society of Microbiology Distinguished Lecturer (2021-23), and a Merck Award in 2018. In 2020, Dr. Orth also was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive.

But early on, Dr. Orth learned about the need for moderation, and balance, the hard way when she began graduate school at UCLA. She was equipped with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from Texas A&M and big dreams to chart her own path – much to the consternation of her family back home in the Lone Star State.

Unfortunately, she found herself unprepared for the culture shock of life in Los Angeles, and despite her success in labs working with fruit flies, Dr. Orth pushed herself past her limits. Wanting to enhance her graduate-student income, she took a second job working the night shift in a dorm. In short order, she found herself mentally and physically burned out – and dropping out of school altogether.

She returned home and went to work as a secretary for her father, who had not been keen on his daughter’s scientific pursuits – as she chronicled in a 2018 personal essay about her life and career challenges in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.  It is a story she tells to give inspiration – and hope – to young scientists.

“When I went to graduate school at UCLA, I didn’t have any tools,” she explained during a recent interview. “I didn’t know you were supposed to sleep so many hours a night, and nobody was telling me these kinds of things – like ‘Make sure you eat and exercise and get your sleep.’ So you go out there gung ho and don’t have any of these checks and balances in your brain. At the time, there was no Internet. And there wasn’t anybody telling me, ‘You need to be responsible and do these things.’ ”

Of course, Dr. Orth eventually found success by striking a healthy balance and not entirely allowing moderation to guide her at all times. While learning to take better her of herself, she re-set her sights and pushed hard to excel, leaving her secretary job to work as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute technician with a solid salary at the Protein Chemistry Core, UT Southwestern Medical Center.

It was the first step in what became a prestigious lab career, which saw her earn a PhD, marry a loving and supportive fellow scientist, Ron Taussig, complete four post-doctoral research projects while becoming pregnant and giving birth to the couple’s two children, and learning how to balance science and motherhood.

As she wrote in her essay, “I fortunately had the opportunity to spend time with other women scientists, some of them moms, during a once-a-month ‘ladies’ lunch. This was not only a very valuable ‘tool’ for my sanity, but I learned about many practical tools that helped to make ‘things’ work. Throughout my career, I continue to interact with other female colleagues on regular bases for many of these same practical reasons. All in all, my scientific productivity did not suffer as a working mom, but my efficiency did increase.”

There is far more to Dr. Orth’s story and fascinating research. But one example of that research offers a window onto the balance theme.

“I’m a biochemist by training and so I basically try to understand how, at the molecular level, bacterial pathogens are talking to our host cells and basically manipulating them,” she explained. “But what happened was we uncovered a new way for molecules to manipulate each other. We realized that a particular enzyme wasn’t only found in bacteria but also animals.”

Wondering what effect it had in animals, Dr. Orth and her colleagues studied the enzyme in flies. What they learned was that the cells one has for a lifetime are forced to recover after undergoing stress. “We found that if we got rid of a gene in flies, their eyes could not recover normally,” she said.

Next they experimented on mice. Removing the gene made it impossible for them to recover from stress.

“So we’ve uncovered this mechanism that’s like a rheostat,” she said. “It allows us to deal with daily stresses all the time. These cells that we use our whole live in our brain, our eyes, our heart muscles, whatever, they have to have the resilience to handle the daily stresses and then recover.

“If you don’t have this ‘rheostat’ mechanism, it appears that you can’t recover as well. What I can tell you is that when the cells in your body get hyper-stressed, they shut everything down. And to recover, they have to rebuild all of those things that were there before. This mechanism allows you to have a buffer, so everything isn’t shut down.”

That would take a toll on a body over a lifetime. It’s another reminder that moderation and balance are far preferable – even when it comes to cells.

Dr. Kim Orth, Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, will deliver the Roy H. Behnke Keynote Address at #USFHealth Research Day on Friday, March 3 at 9:00 a.m. in the USF Marshall Student Center Student Oval Theater.

— By Dave Scheiber for USF Health News 









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