Promega qPCR Grant Series #2: Molecular Biologist, Laura Leighton

Our second installment of the Promega qPCR Grant Recipient blog series highlights Dr. Laura Leighton, a trained molecular biologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. Leighton’s scientific journey features a passion for molecular biology and problem-solving. Her path has been illuminated by mentorship, relationships with fellow scientists and a commitment to creativity in overcoming challenges. Here, we explore her scientific journey, reflect on research lessons and foreshadow her plans for the Promega qPCR grant funds.

Dr. Laura Leighton grew up in a rural area in Far North Queensland, Australia, where she spent her early life exploring critters on the family farm. Her upbringing was infused with a deep connection to the environment, from raising tadpoles in wading pools to observing wildlife and witnessing food grow firsthand. Observing the biology around her ultimately piqued her interest in science from a young age. She then began her academic journey in 2011 at the University of Queensland, Australia. She studied biology while participating in a program for future researchers, which led her to undergraduate research work in several research labs.  She dabbled in many research avenues in order to narrow in on her scientific interests all while adding different research tools to her repertoire.

After serving as a research assistant in Dr. Timothy Bredy’s lab, she decided to continue work in this lab and pursue a PhD in molecular biology. During her PhD, Leighton worked on several projects from cephalopod mRNA interference to neurological wiring in mice. The common thread in these projects is Leighton’s passion for the puzzles of molecular biology:

“I also love molecular engineering and the modularity of molecular parts. There’s something really special about stringing together sequence in a DNA editor, then seeing it come to life in a cell,” she says.

Mentorship has been a cornerstone of Leighton’s journey. When asked about guides along her scientific journey, she consider herself fortunate to have several mentors, including current and former supervisors, as well as a network of “science friends” who provide unwavering support and a platform for discussing ideas. In the sometimes challenging and frustrating world of science, she indicates that these relationships have been instrumental in her growth.

We asked Leighton what advice she would give her undergraduate self and she offered several pieces of insight, applicable to researchers at any level. Leighton emphasized that seemingly “wasted” time spent reading Wikipedia articles or acquiring computer skills for no apparent reason is, in fact, a strength. A broad general knowledge of biology is crucial and has helped her along her scientific and academic journey. Leighton also mentions that building relationships with fellow scientists is fundamental in personal and professional development. She states that meticulous record-keeping is paramount and should be cultivated early in one’s career. Finally, she stressed the importance of trusting one’s intuition: sometimes, that gut feeling can lead to groundbreaking discoveries.

Leighton continues to pursue her passion for molecular puzzles in her current role as a postdoctoral researcher at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. In reflection, she stated that after her PhD, she wished to continue molecular problem solving, but with more of a focus on applications that directly help people. Her current projects achieve this exact aspiration: Leighton currently focuses on engineering mRNA therapeutics to target cancer. With the funds from the Promega qPCR grant, Leighton will continue this work to push the boundaries of technology and improve mRNA therapeutics that ultimately improve people’s lives.

Any scientist who has implemented qPCR projects in their lab understands the delicate balance of tinkering that comes with this tool. When asked about overcoming challenges in qPCR, Leighton explained that she has encountered her fair share of bumps in the road. She mentions challenges like dealing with low levels of gene expression, low GC content and complex genomic contexts with secondary structures. But in overcoming these challenges, she cites creative solutions like innovative primer designs or, in some cases, going back to the drawing board. For example, during her Ph.D. project on small RNAs, she discovered that published methods for qPCR analysis of small non-coding RNAs were less than ideal. She then devised a novel method based on adapter ligation to create a non-structured and invariant binding site for reverse transcription and reverse priming. This innovation not only solved the problem but also showcased Leighton’s resourcefulness and problem-solving abilities, particularly during the challenges posed by the pandemic in 2020.

We cannot wait to hear about the qPCR tips, tricks and publications that come out of Dr. Laura Leighton’s Promega qPCR grant and wish to congratulate her again on this fantastic accomplishment!

Keep up with Laura on Twitter @LauraJLeighton and learn more about the Promega qPCR Grant here!

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Anna Bennett

Anna Bennett

Anna earned her PhD in microbiology at the University of Minnesota in 2022 where she studied the microbial communities in hot springs. She joined Promega in 2023 as science writer within the Marketing Services department. When she's not writing, she enjoys being outdoors with her dog, Calvin.