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Welcome to Professor Anna Marie Sokac

Professor Anna Sokac

Professor Sokac was one of ten new faculty hires made in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology in the last three years. Sokac is an associate professor of cell and development biology. She is also a SCIALOG Fellow with Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a Master Facilitator/Consultant with National Research Mentoring Network, and a Master Facilitator/Consultant with the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Research Experiences.

Tell us about your lab and your research focus, including how you came to choose or specialize in this area.

My lab studies actin biology in developing embryos. Since the actin cytoskeleton is the architectural driver of cell shape change and morphogenesis, it is absolutely essential to the life and health of eukaryotes. Nonetheless, it remains understudied and poorly understood.

I think actin often gets overlooked because on first glance, it seems simple – maybe even boring: It is a monomeric protein that polymerizes into filaments that act like the bones of cells. On closer inspection, though, one realizes that the regulation and dynamics of actin and the filaments it builds are awesome, making use of an as yet unrealized repertoire of molecular, physical and chemical tricks to give rise to cells and tissues with just the right mechanics and shape, at just the right time, to ensure organismal physiology and health. There are so many lessons to learn about this amazing cytoskeletal system, and the implications are vast. So, studying actin is always rewarding.

Plus, my approach to understanding actin has always afforded me a front row seat to watch cells and tissues change their shapes in real time, inside live embryos. That was the hook that caught me as a graduate student, and remains a joy to me today.

What is especially exciting about this particular area of research, at this time?

It is becoming increasingly clear that actin has more functions than simply shaping cells. My lab and others are learning that actin also influences cellular stress response and nuclear processes including gene expression and DNA damage repair. These new actin functions present a whole new actin frontier with major implications for health and disease.

What interested you the most about becoming a faculty member in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the University of Illinois?

The Department of Cell and Developmental Biology is a perfect topical fit for my lab: We are researchers doing cell biology in the context of developing embryos!

What are your teaching interests?

Graduate student education is very important to me. Of course, I love teaching the expert level science. But I am also incredibly excited about those topics relevant to the “science of science”. What is our scientific language? How do we develop critical thinking skills? How do we write and communicate effectively? Why is it so important to have a professional network from day one? How do we make the most of our mentoring relationships? I have had the pleasure of contributing to a published curriculum that incorporates these topics, called Entering Research. Generating these curricular materials and then implementing them with students has been like my career candy!

If any students (undergrad or grad) are interested in working in your lab, what’s your advice or how can they get in touch with you?

Read several of our papers, then email me.

Tell us about someone who made a difference in your life, such as someone who sparked your interest in biology, who encouraged you to pursue a career in academia or challenged your thinking about a topic.

An anonymous advocate recently nominated me to be a SCIALOG Fellow in the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. I wish that I knew who that advocate was because I would really like to thank them. Participating in the annual conferences for SCIALOG fellows has been so intellectually stimulating and has greatly boosted my confidence in interacting with scientists across disciplines. The opportunity brought a number of new projects and collaborations to my lab. I am tremendously grateful for the nomination and to the Corporation for bringing valuable new perspectives and voices to my science. This small act of advocacy was game-changing for me.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Spend time with all in my lovely family, walk, garden, cook and adore my cat.

January 20, 2021 All News