The IMC graduate Anna Katharina Traunbauer has been a PhD student at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) since September 2019. After completing the Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology bachelor and master programmes at IMC Krems, Anna, who is originally from Linz in Austria, decided to apply for PhD programmes at some of America’s top universities. Thanks to her impressive CV, it didn’t take long before she was invited to admissions interviews at four institutions: MIT, Harvard, University of California San Francisco and the Rockefeller University in New York. All four of these elite universities offered her a place, and Anna eventually opted for MIT.
Given such an achievement, the Austrian prize was not wholly unexpected, but the young biotechnologist was overjoyed to win the accolade: “Receiving the prize was a great honour for me, and a fantastic reward for all my hard work over the years. It makes me proud to receive such great recognition for my achievements,” commented Anna.
Anna’s master thesis: The Molecular Underpinnings of Pheomelanin Synthesis and Cysteine Storage
While completing her internship placement at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the laboratory of David Sabatini, Anna worked on melanosomes, organelles found in skin cells (melanocytes). Melanocytes produce the pigment melanin, which is synthesised and stored in melanosomes. Genetic mutations can affect the pigmentation of the skin, hair and iris, and contribute to phenotypic diversity in humans. But they can also be pathological, causing disorders such as albinism. One class of pigmentation gene is thought to encode transport proteins found in the membranes of melanosomes, although the biochemical function of these proteins remains unknown. It is likely that the presumed transporter proteins regulate the availability of metabolites required for melanin synthesis. In order to understand the effects of pigment disorders, researchers need to figure out the biochemical function of the transporters and their substrates.
Anna’s master thesis describes a technique which enables the study of the metabolome of melansomes. The procedure makes it possible to rapidly isolate intact melanosomes. It has enabled the categorisation of the metabolome of melanosomes and the identification of the possible substrate of the presumed transporter proteins.
One of the findings to have been made as a result of the new procedure has shed new light on the molecular basis of pheomelanin synthesis, knowledge that could contribute to discoveries concerning abnormal pigment dispersion, which causes skin conditions such as liver spots and vitiligo. The findings could also lead to new treatments for albinism, the lysosomal storage disease cystinosis, as well as skin cancer.
The Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy has awarded its honorary prize to the authors of the previous year’s 50 best diploma or master degree theses since 1990. The nominees are put forward by the universities or the Austrian Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. Funded by the student support scheme, the prize has been awarded since 1990.
Each year, the 50 best diploma or master theses written by students at Austrian universities and universities of applied sciences are selected (from a total of 16,000 per year), with the winners receiving EUR 3,000. The awards ceremony takes place each year in December.