From Backyard Biology to Pituitary

Professor Lori Raetzman joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2005. Since joining, the Raetzman group has produced highly impactful work regarding the development and function of both the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus. Over the past 14 years, students from the Raetzman lab have won many prestigious awards and training grants, and have gone on to careers in academia, government research, pharmaceutical development, and clinical medicine. 

In addition to her success as a principal investigator and a research adviser, Professor Raetzman has been committed to ensuring that UIUC continues to be an institution that promotes academic excellence through her roles on several groups, such as the Toxicology Training Program Executive Committee, the LAS Courses and Curriculum Committee, and the MCB Distinction Committee. In recognition of her contributions to the MIP department, and the School of MCB, we took the opportunity to speak to Professor Raetzman about her journey as both a scientist and an educator.

How did you first get interested in science?

Professor Raetzman recalled that her interest in biology stemmed back to her early childhood. The home she grew up in was located near a small creek, and using DIY nets and jars, she would catch and inspect an assortment of wildlife, such as frogs and liver flukes. Despite this early intrigue, Professor Raetzman admits that throughout high school, the idea of becoming an experimental biologist never crossed her mind. However, during her time as an undergraduate, she took the opportunity to complete a summer internship at the Mayo Clinic, which she jokingly admitted was partly motivated by the fact that "it paid more than working in the bakery, which is what I had done for the previous summer.” Despite this humorous, but very relatable, rationale for taking the summer internship, Professor Raetzman’s time at the Mayo Clinic would reignite her childhood interest in biology, and ultimately start her on the path to becoming a biological researcher.

How was your doctoral and postdoctoral experience?

After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Ripon College, Professor Raetzman went on to Case Western Reserve University for her graduate studies. Under the tutelage of Professor Ruth Siegel, she received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience, which was primarily focused on the development of the cerebellum. Reflecting back on her time as a graduate student, she emphasized the impact of having a strong female adviser on her development as a scientist, “Seeing her navigate the waters and being one of the few women in the department and seeing how she succeeded in that environment inspired me to do my best.” After her Ph.D., Professor Raetzman completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in theaboratory of Professor Sally Camper, who served as yet another source of deep inspiration, “She was the first woman department chair ... and had established one of the first transgenic animal facilities in the country.” Ultimately, her experience in the Camper lab led her to a career-long focus on studying pituitary development, function, and disease using transgenic mice.

When did you decide to become a professor?

During her time as a graduate student, witnessing the commitment of the departmental faculty members to developing well-rounded student-scientists is what first sparked Professor Raetzman’s interest in becoming an university educator. “During my postdoc is when I think I really settled on the fact that what I loved doing is mentoring students,” said Dr. Raetzman. When the opportunity arose to join the MIP department at U. of I., she knew this would be the place where she could fulfill her passion for trainee development, “For me this is perfect ... I like teaching, I like dealing with the students in my lab, and now I like being the director of graduate studies.”

What’s an average day in the life of a PI?

Just listening to Professor Raetzman’s schedule was enough to make your head spin. A summary looks something like: teaching classes, holding conference calls with the Endocrine Society, lab meetings, individual student meetings, various committee meetings, writing grants, reviewing current literature, reviewing ongoing projects in the lab, and providing expertise to other collaborators. While she does get the opportunity to occasionally do some specialized experimental techniques, such as extracting pituitary glands, Professor Raetzman did admit that one of the harder parts about being a PI is having to move away from the bench. When I asked her if she could envision a time when she could get back to doing experimental work, she laughingly replied, “I would love to do that, but I bet
if you asked anyone in my lab they would be horrified, because I wouldn’t know where anything was and I would rearrange stuff immediately.”

What is your latest scientific focus?

One of Professor Raetzman’s primary areas of interest is the molecular regulators of pituitary development and how the differentiation of cells is controlled, “I’ve always been interested in pituitary stem cells and how they make fate choices” (Raetzman, Cai, and Camper, Dev. Biol., 2007; Edwards and Raetzman, Biol. Reprod., 2018).

She explained that “The new stuff I’ve been doing is how stem cells sense hormonal signals and respond with the appropriate amount of proliferation and the correct directed differentiation.” Further, in collaboration with other U. of I. labs, Professor Raetzman has also been investigating how in utero and prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A (BPA), can alter cell specification within the pituitary gland (Brannick et al., Biol. Reprod., 2012; Eckstrum et al., Endocrinology, 2018). She stressed that due to the increased rates of maternal exposure to these endocrine disrupting chemicals, it is critical to understand their impact on the developing pituitary gland, “These chemicals might change the fate of stem cells in the pituitary and thus setting up for a disease later in life.”

How did your earlier work lead to this new area of research?

Since joining, Professor Raetzman has continued to build off her postdoctoral work regarding the various roles of the Notch signaling pathway in the pituitary gland. This work then gradually branched out into her more recent projects investigating hormonal regulation of pituitary development and how endocrine disrupting chemicals interfere with this signaling axis. To continue to grow as a scientist, she felt it was necessary to diversify the portfolio of her lab, “I really wanted to start one thing that was very distinct from what I had done.”This desire eventually materialized into a project that has primarily focused on the development of the hypothalamus, which has now passed through the hands of several Ph.D. students.

What advice to you have for young scientists and trainees?

As a trainee, I was particularly interested in hearing Professor Raetzman’s thoughts about what would be the secret to make graduate school experience enlightening, productive, and a time of overall personal growth? Professor Raetzman emphatically replied, “You need more than one mentor ... and I think I was very lucky that I had that.” Professor Raetzman further elaborated that the varied life experiences of different mentors can also serve as an invaluable resource when guidance is needed on issues such as career choice and maintaining work-life balance.

What do you most enjoy outside of the lab?

“I absolutely love cooking!” When I inquired about whether she has a preference for any specific cuisine, she replied, “No, whatever is fresh at the market, I used to go with a recipe ... but now I just pick the freshest thing there and then I play with trying to make something.” I believe this mindset perfectly captures the inescapable fact that Professor Raetzman is a researcher through and through, always trying something new, forever an experimentalist.