search button
newscenter logo
Thursday, December 13, 2018

Follow SDSU  Follow SDSU on Twitter Follow SDSU on Facebook Follow SDSU on Google+ SDSU RSS Feed

Chemistry professor Christal Sohl studies how changes to enzymes can lead to cancer. Chemistry professor Christal Sohl studies how changes to enzymes can lead to cancer.

Cutting Edge of Discovery

New hire Christal Sohl is bringing world-class research—and student research opportunities—to SDSU.
By Michael Price

Christal Sohl was driven to study chemistry by the excitement of the unknown and the chance to make discoveries no one else had made.

“In high school chemistry, I’d ask questions and the response I’d get was, ‘We don’t know that yet,’” recalled Sohl, an assistant professor of chemistry at San Diego State University. “That was thrilling to me.”

When she went to college at the University of Oklahoma, she immediately sought out research experience in a chemistry lab. Unfortunately, most faculty researchers only wanted to take on third-year students who had been through the chemistry major prerequisites.

“I was told, ‘Great! Come back in two years,’” she said.

But finally she found a professor willing to give her a chance and who gave this advice: “Lack of experience has no bearing on future success.”

That advice proved to be true, and Sohl found once again the thrill of discovery. She dived into chemistry with more passion than knowledge, but managed to stumble through her first attempt at synthesizing a compound—a porphyrin model with a nitric oxide group.

“When I’d finished, my professor told me, ‘You are holding the world’s only supply of that compound.’ That was a great feeling.”

Sohl went on to earn her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, where she began studying a branch of chemistry called pre-steady-state kinetics, which looks at what happens on a molecular level during the brief, frenzied milliseconds after an enzyme mixes with a chemical substrate. Following graduate school, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University and continued making a name for herself in the world of pre-steady-state kinetics.

At Yale, she was awarded one of the National Institutes of Health’s prestigious K99 awards, which recognize especially promising young researchers and put them on a fast-track to winning independent funded research and building a lab.

By all measures, Sohl has been and continues to be quite successful in her field, but she has at times dealt with so-called “impostor syndrome,” feeling as if others credit her with more talent than she actually possesses.

“It’s a problem that’s rampant in academia,” she said. “It’s something we need to acknowledge.”

Before she accepted a position at SDSU last year, Sohl gave a questionnaire to the graduate students in her lab at Yale, asking them about what they needed from a principal investigator and mentor.

“I realized it was the last time that grad students were going to be totally honest with me,” she said.

Now that she’s here, she is putting all of these lessons—the thrill of discovery, taking a chance on someone without formal experience, feeling like an academic impostor and the honest needs of graduate students—into practice. That means giving graduate students the freedom to explore their own ideas and notions and encouraging them not to fear failure. And Sohl has already accepted a young student into her lab who hadn’t taken a biochemistry course but who was bright and deeply interested into research experience.

“I want students to leave being able to think critically, to challenge conclusions and to design elegant experiments,” she said. “At the end of the day, critical thinking is what I want my students to achieve.”

On the research side, Sohl is exploring the enzymatic mechanisms of cancer, trying to understand how changes to enzymes can cause cell division to go haywire. Her approach is to use pre-steady-state kinetics to break down extremely complicated and fussy physiological systems into their basic molecular parts.

“In any complicated system, it’s tough to separate out the noise from what’s actually causing the breakdown,” she said. “We’re simplifying the system so that we’re focusing on just the enzymes related to cancer. Yes, it’s a simple system, but it’s something we can understand.”

By narrowing in on this simple system, Sohl hopes to uncover new techniques that might fight cancer and other diseases in the enormously complex system that is the human body.