Our 2020-2021 Distinguished Thesis Award winner was Courtney Broshar Irelan.  Courtney earned her MS in Biology in 2020.

Courtney’s advisor Dr. Eric (VJ) Rubenstein said “It was my joy to nominate Courtney Broshar Irelan for the Distinguished Thesis Award. Courtney’s thesis research and finished product are easily among the best I have observed in my nine years at Ball State. Courtney investigated how cells respond to a form of stress found in multiple diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Her outstanding work has the strong potential to inform our understanding and treatment of these ailments.

Courtney’s intelligence and outstanding work ethic enabled her success on this project. One experiment involved an entire summer of troubleshooting. Courtney was patient and systematic, undeterred by setbacks. Where others had given up, Courtney persisted. Her determination paid off, and her experiments clearly demonstrated that two closely related forms of stress have dramatically different impacts on cell physiology. This result was surprising, since published work from other groups had suggested the two forms of stress had similar outcomes! Courtney’s experiments were carefully and rigorously performed and her data were of the highest quality.

Courtney Irlen

Courtney’s thesis research has resulted in three peer-reviewed publications (so far)! I included Courtney’s data in a presentation at a premiere conference in our field. I received the most positive feedback I have ever received from a professional presentation – attendees expressed astonishment that students at an institution like Ball State (i.e. a non-R1 institution) produced work of this caliber!

Courtney was a leader in my research lab. Others looked to her for experimental guidance and encouragement. She exemplified kindness. I look forward to following Courtney’s career. She will make important scientific contributions to any lab she joins, and the organizational culture will be enhanced by her participation.”

Here is a Q & A with Courtney.

What made you select your research topic?

When I was considering the work I would have the opportunity to do for my thesis research, I wanted to keep my focus on research that would benefit or help others. My goal was to find research that was centered on contributing to the medical and scientific community. My thesis research aligned well with this concept and was a continuation of work that was previously done in the Rubenstein lab. The work I was doing in understanding how cells respond to ER stress may inform the treatment of diseases associated with stress.

Please tell us about your research?

Many human diseases, including certain cancers, neurodegeneration, and heart disease, are associated with elevated levels of stress in a cellular compartment known as the Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER). This condition, in which proteins misfold and accumulate, is known as ER stress. When proteins misfold, they cannot perform their essential functions. The causes and consequences of ER stress in human disease are not well understood. Proteins pass through channels called translocons to enter the ER. If proteins clog these channels, cells have mechanisms to remove the clogging proteins. It was previously shown that during ER stress, the unclogging mechanisms are impaired. In my thesis research, I made several discoveries about the relationship between ER stress and translocon unclogging. First, I wanted to know if other forms of stress impaired these mechanisms similarly to ER stress. Surprisingly, I discovered that several other different forms of stress did not disable these mechanisms. This suggests that impairment is a specific consequence of ER stress. I speculate that the impairment is protective to cells experiencing ER stress, preventing the movement of additional proteins into an already stressed ER. Next, I investigated how cells impair translocon unclogging mechanisms during ER stress. Cells can respond to ER stress by activating several different signaling pathways. I thought one of these pathways could be responsible for impairment during ER stress. Surprisingly, I found that none of these pathways impaired mechanisms during ER stress, suggesting the existence of a novel ER stress signaling pathway, which is an area for future research. My findings have yielded new insights about cellular physiology relevant to several diseases and could lead to the development of improved treatments for these conditions.

What brought you to Ball State University?

When I was looking for graduate schools, I wanted to remain local if possible, and Ball State University seemed like a great option. After seeing my application, Dr. VJ Rubenstein reached out to me about attending Ball State and completing my thesis research in his lab. We talked a lot about my research interests and past experience as well as the research going on in his lab, and they seemed to align really well. I could tell the research was centered on contributing to the medical and scientific community and followed my goal to benefit or help others. I was able to visit the university and the Rubenstein lab and the rest was history.

What are your future goals/career goals?

I am currently working as a senior scientist at Eli Lilly and Company in the Investigative BioTDR ADME group and I hope to have a long successful career in research.

Anything else you would like us to know?

I am very thankful for the amount of support I had during my time at Ball State University. In particular, I owe a large amount of thanks to Dr. VJ Rubenstein and all members and alum of the Rubenstein Lab. I am also very grateful for the wonderful professors I had and those who nominated me for this award. Lastly, I am of course thankful for the support from my family and friends. Without those mentioned, my achievements would not have been possible. Receiving this award is a great honor.