Seeing DNA differently

Dr Donna Whelan is building modular microscopes to understand DNA damage and repair

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Dr Donna Whelan is our Bruce Stone Fellow in Chemical Biology. She is an expert in biophysics, building modular microscopes to further understand DNA damage and repair.

I asked Dr Whelan about her work.

Her research Damage to DNA occurs as a result of metabolic events or external factors such as radiation. Cells are responsible for identifying and repairing this damage, and when this process fails, it can lead to range of diseases including cancer. I am researching the DNA damage response to uncover what causes the body’s repair mechanisms to malfunction. I am particularly interested in understanding what happens when both strands of DNA break. In some cases, the body manages to repair them, but sometimes the genetic code has been altered and mutations may have occurred. I’m mapping the repair process to understand the interplay at a single molecule scale and identify how misrepair can lead to disease.

Her microscopes A large part of my research involves building modular microscopes. I don’t assemble them from scratch, nor do I buy a super resolution microscope, plug it in, and simply work within its capability. Instead, I buy state-of-the-art cameras, state-of-the-art lasers, optics, lenses, and a microscope frame, and build a piece of equipment that has different capabilities to a commercial microscope. It allows me to custom design experiments, and the technical setup itself, to suit each new research question. It’s very interdisciplinary. Part of my research is chemistry and biochemistry, and the technical elements venture into optics and physics. I also work closely with computational scientists and bioinformatics experts to make sense of the data. And I love pulling together ideas from a range of different disciplines to create different ways of understanding DNA.

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