ISCRM Welcomes Thelma Escobar

Faculty headshot of Thelma Escobar, PhD
Thelma Escobar, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and ISCRM faculty member

The Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) is pleased to welcome a new faculty member, Thelma Escobar, who this month joins the Department of Biochemistry as an Assistant Professor. Escobar’s lab will combine stem cell biology, immune biology, and biochemistry to investigate how histone inheritance preserves chromatin domains, to identify mechanisms for cell fate determination, and to answer other questions central to epigenetic inheritance.

“We are so fortunate to have Thelma join us at UW Medicine,” says Hannele Ruohola-Baker, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Director of ISCRM. “Her strong background in so many areas of cellular biology and chemistry will advance the kinds of fundamental discoveries that ultimately lead to breakthroughs in medicine and her natural curiosity and collaborative spirit are perfect for our research community.”

A Scientist is Born

young child poses with her parents
Escobar and her parents in Guatemala

Escobar is the youngest of four children. When she was five, she moved with her family from Guatemala to an immigrant community south of Los Angeles. In school, she was drawn to the universal nature of science and math, an affinity that would lead her to UCLA, as a first generation college student majoring in molecular cell and developmental biology.

As an undergraduate, Escobar volunteered in a mitochondrial lab. Working alongside a graduate student, Escobar explored the mechanisms of mitochondrial fission and fusion, conducted gene knockout experiments in the nematode C-elegans, and decided, in the course of three years of research, that she had found her professional calling as a scientist.

This grounding in the inner-workings of mitochondria put Escobar squarely at the intersection of basic science and translational medicine and puts her in good company at ISCRM, which was founded in part on the importance of connecting lab research to new treatments that improve the health of patients.

Mitochondria, commonly known as the powerhouse of the cell, generates energy that allows eukaryotic cells to perform their essential functions. Simply speaking, mitochondrial fission is a driver of cell proliferation while mitochondrial fusion is a self-repair mechanism vital for cellular health. Understanding how these processes work and what goes wrong when they don’t is foundational to the study and treatment of many diseases.

While Escobar is particularly intrigued by the more fundamental mysteries of life, she has already made a career of following her innate curiosity in whatever direction it leads her. “I have very broad interests,” she says. “If I find a topic, and it’s very fundamental and interesting, then I want to study it. It’s the motivation to understand the basic function of something.”

The Mysteries of Cellular Memory

Thelma Escobar poses in front of a scientific poster
Escobar at a poster presentation during a postbac experience in the NIH lab of Ira Pastan.

After graduation, Escobar left southern California for post baccalaureate training at the National Cancer Institute. There, she joined the lab of Ira Pastan, the distinguished investigator renowned for his work on immunotoxin therapies. The experience, which immersed Escobar in the study of immunology, was a spring board to further studies as a student in the graduate partnership program between Johns Hopkins University and the NIH.

Escobar had planned to spend just a year on the east coast. Altogether, she lived in Maryland and New York City for almost fourteen years, eventually earning a PhD and further expanding her horizons as a scientist as a postdoc at NYU. While studying immune cell differentiation in her PhD research at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, she grew interested in the means by which cells preserve cell memory so that, say, an immune cell is able to recognize a viral antigen even after several years.

For answers, Escobar turned her attention to chromatin, the raw material that the body uses to build chromosomes (which carry our DNA), and to histones, the proteins that help package chromosomes into the nucleus of a cell. Through her research in the Laboratory of Danny Reinberg at NYU, Escobar has contributed to the current knowledge that histones are carriers of epigenetic memory, meaning they help cells pass along information beyond the instructions already encoded in DNA.

Joining a Collaborative Research Community

Looking ahead to her tenure at ISCRM, Escobar is eager to bring her areas of interest together to better understand exactly how cellular memory and cellular identity are preserved across cell division, how chromatin influences cellular fate transitions, and how chromatin shapes immunological memory. Assembling disparate pieces into new discoveries seems to be encoded in Escobar’s own DNA.

“Adapting to new places and new subjects is a big part of my background,” she says. “That has always been core to me. One of the things I am most excited about now is the opportunity to collaborate with other experts at ISCRM across immunology, biochemistry, and stem cell biology. It’s the perfect way to take my research in different directions, and hopefully to help my colleagues do the same.”