Meet Kevin Van Bortle, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology

The School of Molecular & Cellular Biology and Department of Cell & Developmental Biology are thrilled to welcome new faculty member Kevin Van Bortle! He joins us from the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he conducted his postdoctoral research. We recently spoke with him about his research and teaching interests, what drew him to the University of Illinois, and how he spends his free time.

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

My lab investigates RNA polymerase III (Pol III) transcription and the mechanisms that contribute to Pol III dysregulation in cancer. Pol III plays a central role in supporting protein accumulation and growth by transcribing genes encoding tRNA and 5S ribosomal RNA, in addition to many other important small RNA species. Our current research focuses on the role of Pol III subunit composition as a modulatory mechanism that facilitates expanded Pol III activity in proliferating cells and cancer contexts. We are also interested in better understanding the full extent of Pol III transcription and the nature and function of specific small RNA species generated by Pol III that remain poorly understood today. These directions stem from previous work exploring the 3D genome organization of Pol III-transcribed genes and a growing appreciation for how much we have yet to learn about Pol III.

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

My group takes advantage of recently developed genomic and functional genomic approaches to generate improved, comprehensive maps of Pol III activity in human cells while deconstructing the role of specific factors in Pol III transcription. Using this approach, we are beginning to better understand mechanisms of gene regulation that contribute to proliferation and growth and aim to exploit these findings as potential cancer drug targets.

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

Pol III transcription sits at the intersection of many fields, from gene regulation and noncoding RNA biology, to signal transduction, cell growth, and metabolism, to developmental and cancer biology. UIUC’s School of Molecular and Cellular Biology is home to many leading research programs in these fields, as well as a top-rated graduate program with exceptional students. I am excited about the collaborative environment in MCB as well as the growing basic science focus of the Cancer Center at Illinois.

What are your teaching interests?

I believe that introducing undergraduate and graduate students to programming and bioinformatics at an early stage is more important than ever. Molecular genomic approaches and large sequencing datasets are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and these skills improve science accessibility, transcend individual subfields, and are ultimately transferrable to many diverse career pathways.

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?

I encourage any graduate or undergraduate students interested in joining our group to e-mail me with a brief description of their research interests (

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.

I credit my undergraduate molecular biology professor, Cheeptip Benyajati, for sparking my interest in gene regulation and an appreciation of the experimental methods used to advance the field. I’ve been supported and encouraged by incredible undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc mentors (Jeffrey Hayes, Victor Corces, Mike Snyder) who have given me significant freedom to pursue novel directions that have led to my interest in studying Pol III transcription.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I enjoy staying active in my free time, including running, biking, or hiking with my dog, Scully. I'm also looking forward to dusting off my saxophone in Champaign Urbana.

October 11, 2021 All News