By Ann Weber
For Erin E. Carlson, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, chemistry is a family affair. Her father, an organic chemist who owns a small biotech company, introduced her to the wonders of science at a young age. “I recall many Saturdays spent sitting on a stool at the bench, swirling beakers full of colored solutions and carefully examining the yield of my prized crystal growing kits,” she says. “It was largely as a result of witnessing his passion and excitement for his work that I too decided to pursue a career as a chemist.”
While traveling with her family to the jungles of Peru as a high school student, Erin first became aware of the global threat posed by antibacterial-resistant organisms. “In the midst of poverty and disease, it became apparent to me that bacterial infections were both ubiquitous and devastating,” she explains. “As such, I have long been passionate about the development of antimicrobial agents.”
Following completion of her B.A. degree at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, Erin’s passion for antibiotic discovery led her to pursue a graduate degree in chemical biology under the direction of Professor Laura Kiessling at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she developed chemical probes to study carbohydrate function. She then moved to The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA to pursue postdoctoral studies in the group of Professor Benjamin Cravatt, who is renowned for his work in the development of small molecule tools to map the activity state of proteins.
Mentoring, another passion of Erin’s, prompted her to choose an academic career over one in industry. In 2008, Professor Carlson started her independent career at Indiana University, and after she received tenure in 2014, she moved her group to Minnesota. Using a combination of skills she obtained in the Kiessling and Cravatt labs coupled with her own passion for natural products, Erin’s research team unites tools from chemistry and biology to study the master regulators of bacterial growth and communication. In contrast to more traditional antimicrobial discovery efforts that depend upon the identification of compounds that simply kill bacteria, Erin’s research focuses on the identification of proteins and small molecules that are required for microbial “conversations.” This approach may ultimately result in antibiotics which are less prone to resistance.
In addition to chemistry, Erin has a life-long interest in photography. She was inspired by Ansel Adams who said, “To photograph truthfully and effectively is to see beneath the surfaces.” Erin brings this same philosophy to her science, leading her to ask a simple question: “What lies beneath the surface, outside the rules and across the boundaries?” Answering this question while following her passions has led her down a path of success.