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The Ever-Evolving Life of Laurie Parker

A high school ballerina took a job as a dishwasher in a University lab. What happened next? She fell in love with science, and is leading a lab for cancer treatment research.

Photo of Laurie Parker

Many scientists found their life’s passion at a young age, and often confess they couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything but scientific research. But Assistant Professor Laurie Parker spent much of her youth in activities that were not even remotely scientific. “I was a ballet dancer, and I performed in musicals at Roseville High School and area community theater,” she says.

Fate intervened in an unlikely way, in the form of a job offer. “The father of my sister’s best friend was John Baker, who worked in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate at the University,” she says. “He knew they were looking for a high school student to work as a dishwasher in Bill Koskinen’s lab, so he recommended me.” Once she had proven herself by “not breaking too many things,” she says, Koskinen allowed her to do soil analyses and operate a robot for supercritical fluid extraction. “I developed a science fair project from the work I was doing with the robot, and I took it all the way to the national competition of the International Science and Engineering Fair,” Parker says.

A new life path had suddenly appeared before her, and she said farewell to the stage and hello to the lab. “I loved asking questions and getting to operate a bunch of cool machines to get the answers,” she says. “Bill was so empowering to me, and I probably wouldn’t have become a scientist without his encouragement.”

After majoring in chemistry at the University of St. Thomas, Parker completed graduate work at the University of Glasgow, eventually landing a tenure-track faculty position at Purdue University. There, she set up her own lab and began work on assay development for post-translational modifications PTMs. “We are working on tests to determine if cancer drugs are working or not,” she says. “Right now, tests aren’t taken until the three-month mark of treatment. If we can develop a viable test for measuring kinease activity, it could be administered within the first month of treatment. That could save money and time, while improving outcomes for patients.”

“I want to do the kinds of things that people did for me, and create a lab where students get a chance to find out they love science, just the way I did.”

When a position in the Functional Proteomics cluster became available, Parker welcomed a chance to move back home. Working at the University is now a family affair: her husband, Tom Hutton, works at the office of Technology Commercialization. “We met when we were both in graduate school in Scotland, studying synthetic chemistry,” she says. “I’m from Roseville, Minn., and he’s from Scotland, so we decided to run away and get married on neutral territory in Las Vegas.” They have one daughter, Aline, who will soon be five years old. “Tom misses Scotland, but he loves snow, so that’s a good compensation,” Parker says.

Right now, the test she developed is being used for leukemia and other blood-borne cancers, but she hopes to expand its use to solid tumors, too. “My uncle and grandfather both died of leukemia, and losing them was a strong factor in helping me shape the kind of research I want to do,” Parker says. While the next stage of her research is “testing the test,” she hopes to enter clinical trials in the next few years. “Leukemia is rare, so it will take us quite a while to get enough patients for a trial.”

Parker shares that, in addition to reaching the clinical trial stage, another long-term goal is to “pay it forward” for the mentoring she received as a young woman. “I want to do the kinds of things that people did for me, and create a lab where students get a chance to find out they love science, just the way I did.”

– Julie Kendrick


November, 2014