Meet Professor Wu Orr!

Image source: Amherst College Faculty & Staff Page

Professor Wu Orr is a new Biology Professor who joined Amherst College this year. She is teaching Biochemistry this fall and will be teaching BIO-191 Molecules, Genes, & Cells in the Spring. I spoke with Professor Wu Orr to learn more about her research and her experience so far at Amherst.

What motivated you to pursue a career in biology?

“There was never a moment where I was like ‘Yes, I want to be a biologist right now.’ I think it was just a series of ‘this seems fun and I will keep doing it until it stops being fun,’ and it has not stopped being fun yet.

I think it first started in high school when I enjoyed my biology and chemistry class, and I heard about biomedical engineering. I did not know much about it, so I applied to multiple different biomedical engineering programs and ended up going to Johns Hopkins. After doing biomedical engineering for a year, I realized that it was not what I enjoyed. There was a lot more of a focus on medical devices and less focus on genetic manipulation, so I switched to biology. I took a class called “Epidemics and Pandemic” where we read popular science books about how epidemics and pandemics spread, not realizing that years later my life would be strikingly similar to the Spanish Flu back then. It really made me think about disease and that is where it probably got started. At every point along the way, I thought ‘oh this seems cool’ and continued to do it.”

Do you have any tips for people looking into academia?

“I don’t know if I have a single tip. I guess I would say ‘check it out first.’ Volunteer in a lab and spend time with academics. A tip I give anyone looking at a career path: find someone who is really happy and loves their jobs and ask them what they hate the most about it. Once you have gotten enough points of view to determine whether or not what they hate is a dealbreaker for you.

You have to love the fact that you basically don’t know what you are doing and never really know what the answer to the question is going to be. You have to be okay with that almost certain failure you will face with each experiment because once or twice a year you will find something that only you will know.”

Could you provide a brief overview of your research?

“Very broadly, I want to know how bacteria respond to their environment. If there is any sort of change (temperature, acidity, external stress), how do they cope with that stress, so they do not die. I am particularly interested in how these bacteria utilize these small proteins that were previously overlooked in order to mediate a response to what is happening outside. The thing I am investigating the most right now is antibiotic resistance. There is this small protein that is involved in regulating the activity of this pump found on the outside of many bacteria. This pump is what ejects the antibiotics out of the bacteria. I want to know how that mechanism works and other small proteins involved in cellular response in the hopes that if we understand how they work better, we will be able to better target treatment for antibiotic treatments.”

What techniques do you use in your research?

“There are different ways the laboratory would detect antibiotic resistance. There are minimal inhibitory concentration assays where you grow bacteria in different dilutions of the antibiotic and look at the differences in growth. There are assays where you can look at the gradient to determine susceptibility.”

Are there any genetics techniques used in the lab?

“The two main techniques would be {unintelligible} and some selections. I have taken this small protein and looked at what amino acids are important and what residue might govern its function. From that, I have generated ‘genetic mutants’ where a section of the protein spin is randomized with different amino acid sequences, so I can ask which ones render the bacteria more drug-resistant and which ones render them less drug-resistant. One of the students in the lab is taking DNA from a different species that lack the small protein but conserves the efflux pump and generating genomic libraries to see which ones can rescue the loss of that small protein and discover new proteins involved in regulating antibiotic resistance.”

How has it been working at Amherst so far? What has been the biggest difference between working in a lab here and from working at the NIH?

“It’s hard to tell because I am working here during Covid, so how much of that is covid and how much is Amherst is hard to tell. I would say the biggest difference is that it is all undergraduates here whereas in the NIH most of the interns were Post-Bacc, grad students, or postdocs.

I think that the diversity of interests within the faculty is very fun because before this I was in mostly molecular biology. At the NIH, I was with a bunch of people who did bacteria work. In my Phd program, it wasn’t just people who did bacteria research or plant signaling or other species, but it was still very molecular. Now I have colleagues who do a lot of organismal stuff which is fascinating, so the fact that I get to interface with people who do very different research from what I do is awesome.”

Do you have any hobbies that are not necessarily pertinent to your research?

“I love to cook. My son is six, and I have spent the pandemic trying to get him skilled enough to cook us dinner. He can make creamed spinach and can almost make cong you bing but he is afraid of the oil spatter.

I also like to knit and crochet. I don’t like to embroider, but I keep trying to like embroidery. I have realized I have a hobby of downloading running apps and then not running. I am not sure if it counts as a hobby, but I do spend a lot of time doing that.”

Amherst is excited to have Professor Wu Orr here. It is not too late to run to sign up for Professor Wu Orr’s spring Bio-191 course!