Mary Gutierrez, Viterbi School of Engineering, Materials Science

2016 Recipients of the PhD Achievement Award

Mary Gutierrez, Viterbi School of Engineering, Materials Science

Faculty Advisor: Noah Malmstadt

I spent five years working in biotech before starting my PhD at USC. I entered a PhD
program because I wanted to get deeper into science and make more of a contribution;
I wanted to be able to explore the fundamental “why” questions with the freedom of
an academic environment. Three years later and now at the end of my PhD, I could not
have imagined everything that I’ve learned, how I’d develop as an independent
scientist, and how much I would have contributed to my scientific field.

During my PhD I developed a novel platform for engineering artificial cells. This
system allows us to study how changes in the lipid composition of cell plasma
membranes, which can be altered by diet and drugs, alter biomedically important
properties of cells. Using this platform I’ve incorporated G protein-coupled
receptors (GPCRs), the targets of over half of medical therapeutics on the market,
into artificial cells and discovered how changes in the lipid composition in the
plasma can alter the performance of the human serotonin receptor. I’ve shown that
changes in cholesterol levels affect the function of the receptor. Over activity of
this receptor has been implicated in diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar
disorder; suicide victims who suffer from such psychiatric diseases have been
reported to have increased membrane cholesterol levels. Thus, my research provides
fundamental evidence for the correlation between psychiatric diseases and membrane
composition. This fundamental work highlights that lipid-targeted therapies are
practical means to fight disease. I also developed a (patent pending) polymer-based
artificial cellular system with incorporated GPCRs that allows for long-term storage
stability and offers a novel and flexible platform for drug discovery efforts.