Discover CALS

See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Biology Section
  • Biology
  • Plants
  • Crops
Laura Gunn, assistant professor, Plant Biology Section in the School of Integrative Plant Science

Academic focus: Synthetic biology, structural biology and biochemistry

Research summary: I study nature’s vital, but notoriously inefficient, carbon fixing enzyme called Rubisco. The aim is to target Rubisco function to enhance the efficiency of carbon fixation in crop species. I do this by designing and utilizing synthetic biology systems to understand and modify Rubisco assembly, catalysis and expression.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I enjoy cross-country and downhill skiing, reading, and listening to many different music genres. I also like working with ceramics – I am not very good at it, but there is something very satisfying about making things with your hands.

What are your current inclusion, outreach and/or extension projects?

I was involved in equal opportunities work in my previous position in Sweden, where my goal was to make small changes at the departmental level to reduce structural barriers to participation and success in science. I am very excited to get involved in outreach opportunities at Cornell. I especially want to host summer project work for students from historically excluded groups in STEM and, through mentoring and other inclusion projects, help all students realize that academia is a place that they are welcome and belong.

What are three adjectives people might use to describe you?

My postdoctoral supervisor described me as a “force of nature.”

What (specifically) brought you to Cornell CALS?

I applied for a position at Cornell because SIPS has such a great reputation for producing excellent science and there are excellent facilities to make the science happen. Ithaca even has its own synchrotron within walking distance to my lab! However, the reason I accepted the job offer was because of the people: Every single person I met was so engaged in their research or research support – and so interested in mine! I found such diversity of people and personalities and approaches all within one cohesive department, and I felt at home.

What do you think is important for people to understand about your fields?

My work spans several fields, including carbon fixation, synthetic biology and structural biology: For carbon fixation researchers are taking very different approaches, and a lot of these strategies will be able to be combined to achieve even greater improvements to carbon fixation efficiency. Synthetic biology is the construction of new, or the redesign of existing, biological systems. It is a broad field that uses a lot of techniques and approaches from different disciplines. Recently there have been major breakthroughs in structural biology, including atomic resolution cryoelectron microscopy and in structure prediction algorithms. These techniques are great tools to complement other structural biology applications, including X-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance and small-angle X-ray scattering. There is no one perfect tool, but a lot of different complementary tools that are better suited for slightly different jobs.

Why did you feel inspired to pursue a career in this field?

I grew up on a kiwifruit orchard in New Zealand. I was always really interested in everything – science, books, maths, everything – but did not show any special affinity for, or interest in, plants or indeed kiwifruit. A crucial turning point for me was when I took a plant biochemistry course and was deeply inspired by the passion the lecturer had for the subject. I fell in love with plants on a molecular level, and there was no cure for that.

What’s the most surprising/interesting thing you’ve discovered about Cornell and/or Ithaca so far?

How much support I get. It was tricky moving to Ithaca from Sweden during a pandemic, but everyone at Cornell was so flexible and supportive. I am still constantly overwhelmed by the support staff who are all so capable and so truly willing to help me with anything!

If you had unlimited grant funding, what major problem in your field would you want to solve?

I want to be able to design a more efficient Rubisco using computational approaches. With unlimited funding, I would produce every known Rubisco sequence found in nature (there are a lot), measure their kinetics and solve their structure. The same characterization would be performed on proteins that interact with Rubisco to help it fold/assemble/function. These data would be used for machine learning – using AI to design a better Rubisco system.

Learn more about Laura on her faculty profile page.

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