When AAAS Member Gabriela Schlau-Cohen received a phone call telling her she had won $55,000 in prize money from the AAAS Marion Milligan Mason Fund, she already knew what she wanted to use it for.
"I run a lab, which is a team of 20 people, who each costs around $150,000 a year and so maintaining them is a multi-million-dollar operation," she says. "But one thing that is nice about this kind of award money is that it is flexible so it allows you to explore new ideas, the things that might be high risk and high reward."
Her lab, the Schlau-Cohen lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) combines tools from chemistry, optics, biology, and microscopy to study dynamics in light-harvesting systems, helping to advance research on solar energy and food production, for example.
Specifically, Schlau-Cohen’s research looks at processes where the dissipation of light as heat can limit biomass of plants. Schlau-Cohen likens the process to people smearing sunscreen on their skin as an example of how plants growing with excessive light can make sure their growth isn’t stunted by sunburn, but then can’t use that light.
“One of the things that my lab is interested in is understanding how that ‘sunscreen’ works because that limits how much crops get produced,” she says.
Experiments to understand light absorption and dissipation have been made possible by innovative approaches in ultrafast absorption spectroscopy, which uses a time scale measured in a billionth of a second to capture plant processes.
"We take this laser pulse that is very, very short in time (a millionth of a billionth of a second) and use it to interrogate the dynamics (energy transport)," Cohen says. "Our work is to take tools like lasers and microscopes and zoom in on individual proteins to understand their energetic and structural dynamics, including how the proteins move to implement different biological processes like converting absorbed energy to heat."
Some of the discoveries from her lab were recently the subject of the paper, Identification of distinct pH-and Zeaxanthin-dependent quenching in LHCSR3 from Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii, which established the mechanistic underpinnings of dissipation that had long puzzled other researchers.
These findings she writes in the paper, "could pave the way for optimizing dissipation, which could increase yields of green algae by up to 30%. This could lead to green algae becoming a viable alternative for food, biofuels, and feedstock."
While Schlau-Cohen is optimistic that research coming from her lab will help in the fight against climate change, she also says this multi-scaled problem will have to be addressed in different ways, ways she is also passionate about searching for solutions for. Besides looking at how to increase biomass, her lab is also involved in renewable energy.
“There are solar cell technologies that are on the market now and there is engineering that needs to be done to improve existing solar cells,” she says. “The space that I am in is building fundamental understanding to think about ways in which biomass production could be more efficient and also in understanding how photosynthesis captures and uses light.”
Schlau-Cohen traces her curiosity in this kind of work to her high school teacher in 10th grade who supported her growing interest in molecular behavior. Later on, her undergraduate research was about using lasers to learn about molecules. Her interest for the subject never abated, and while in graduate school, Schlau-Cohen learned about a lab that was using similar techniques to understand photosynthesis. “I started doing that work and the more I worked on biological systems the more interested I became," she says.
Over the years, Schlau-Cohen has watched as real threats to her work, and that of her colleagues, materialize. She is quick to call out barriers to the collaborative process.
"Science is fundamentally an international endeavor, I have people from around the world in my lab, putting up these barriers to having people travel and work together is a real challenge," she says. "I have a graduate student who is stuck in China right now and can't get here to push our work forward."
In a nod to the synergetic nature of science, Schlau-Cohen recently took the time to recognize her peers with whom she won the Marion Mason Award:
"I am honored to receive this award from AAAS along with the talented Julia Kalow, Lauren Zarzar, Marissa Tremblay," she wrote in a celebratory tweet in December 2020. "We are all standing on each other's shoulders more than this all-time picture of having an isolated genius in a room," she says. "It is not one person with their transformative moments or insights but it's rather a collaborative process where we are all contributing to our understanding."