A close observer can find signs of Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy’s “former” life as a researcher in her corner office on the top floor of Hovey Hall. On a bookshelf, sit the dozen theses she proudly chaired for graduate students at Rutgers University. On the wall, on the opposite side of the room, hangs a sculpture of fungi (frequent subjects of her studies) from University Galleries’ Permanent Collection. And spitting out of her printer one day last fall were her two most recently published research papers.

A short description of Kinzy’s scientific discipline or a simple summation of her research is not easy, due to her multidisciplinary approach during her long research career and the complexity of the topics. 

“I call myself a biochemist, molecular biologist, molecular geneticist,” she said.

Her official title is much shorter these days: president. And her evolution from teacher/researcher to full-time administrator is complete. “I will not physically be doing any research here. This job requires all of my attention,” Kinzy said. “My job is to make everyone’s research and creative scholarship here flourish, and so I’ll be looking for opportunities to help with that.”

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Kinzy is an internationally renowned scholar. She built her reputation as a leading expert on how proteins are produced in organisms such as fungi and mammals. Over the years, Kinzy’s research has been applied to anti-fungal drug discovery and the examination of how bacterial toxins affect cells. 

Kinzy has published more than 70 articles in top science journals and garnered more than $9 million in federal and international funding from grant-awarding organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She’s even met with the latter agency’s most well-known scientist, Dr. Anthony Fauci (“He is as smart as he seems.”), through her deep involvement with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 

Kinzy began her career in the 1980s as a chemist for Standard Oil, where she researched biofuel development and bioremediation of copper mine waste. She then completed a doctorate in biochemistry at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University and was a postdoctoral fellow in molecular genetics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. 

Kinzy spent 23 years at Rutgers University in New Jersey, rising the professorial and administrative ranks until she eventually was a leader for research administration at an institution whose federal grant expenditures place it among the top 20 universities in the country. She arrived at Illinois State last July, fresh off three and a half years leading research at Western Michigan University, where she also served as a professor in biological sciences. 

Kinzy was chosen in 2017 as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in 2019 for Crain’s Detroit Business’ Notable Women in STEM. The awards, however, she most prizes are those that recognized her mentorship of colleagues and students, like the the R. Walter Schlesinger Basic Science Mentoring Award. 

“The important thing about that award is you could only be nominated by assistant professors,” Kinzy said. “To be nominated by people that you mentored means the world. I’m a big fan of mentoring. I’ve benefited from it and I try to give back with it.”

The following interview took place last September. Kinzy talked about her research background and research-related topics at Illinois State.

What drew you back to academia following your time in the private sector?

While I was at Standard Oil, which became BP America, I came to realize that I didn’t have enough knowledge to get to where I wanted to get, and they actually sent me to a graduate school part time. 

Then I took a leave of absence, which they supported, to get my Ph.D. I realized I wanted to go through the postdoctoral fellowship process and then decide what I wanted to do for my career.

When did you have your first research lab, and what was that like?

I started my own lab when I joined (Rutgers’) Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. It was a very small, very old lab, but I got whatever was left in it to start my lab, which was great. One of the best things that happened was an undergraduate, who worked in the same lab that I worked in at Carnegie Mellon, wanted to move to New Jersey. So I got to hire someone to help start my lab. Together we set up the lab. It was really amazing: I wasn’t alone, and we were starting my independent genetics research. 

Were you researching mostly with graduate students to begin with, or was there a mix with undergraduates?

I had more than 50 undergraduates go through my lab when I was at Rutgers, one of whom transferred to Rutgers from community college. She ended up publishing as first author a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s huge. 

So I know what undergrads are capable of and I know how having them as part of a research program or creative scholarship program brings that energy, that enthusiasm. Nothing helps you learn something more than having to explain it to someone else. So I’m a big proponent of hands-on experiences. 

What research questions have interested you over the years?

How things work has always fascinated me, and maybe it’s why I’m in this job and why people notice that I pay attention to details. I like to dissect data because I want to understand how things work. What happens when you move them, you change them, and how does it affect the system? 

I actually think a university works like a large organism. And you can think of all the different parts as different proteins each doing their part, and they impact each other, and sometimes it’s positively and sometimes they’re competing. But that whole idea of how things work together is really fascinating to me.

Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy with Anthony Esposito, Ph.D.

Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy with Anthony Esposito, Ph.D., during his graduate work at Rutgers. Dr. Esposito is now an assistant professor at New Jersey City University. (Photo courtesy of Steve Hockstein and Rutgers University)

Have you mostly been working in basic science during your academic career?

Basic science is fundamentally critical for applied science. So while I may have worked with a colleague to discover the structure of a protein, which is very basic science, the structure of that protein allows us to then look for drugs to target. You can’t have one without the other. I’d say our work was basic science but looking at how it could be applied to important questions.

Why did your research involve the fungus yeast?

A part of it really was by chance. I wanted to work for (biologist) John Woolford at Carnegie Mellon University for my postdoctoral fellowship, and yeast happened to be the system he was in. He was interested in the fact that I was a biochemist, and I was interested in the fact that I hadn’t really learned genetics because all my training had been very much in test tubes. And so yeast was a great system. You can genetically modify the yeast to do the work you want to do, but you can also grow it up, make the proteins, and analyze them in the test tube. I saw that as a way to bring together two disciplines, which is pretty much what I did for the rest of my career.

Why are proteins so important to your research? They’re a big aspect of the mRNA vaccines created to fight COVID-19.

The thing about the messenger RNA is it tells the cell what protein to make. The protein is the final product. It’s what’s doing the actions in the cell. Your body is predominantly made up of protein. Proteins have to be made at the right time, so whether it’s as an organism develops, or they need to be made in response to things. Proteins are just doing the things that make every living thing function. 

So the spike protein from the COVID-19 virus, it’s part of what makes the virus work. It’s also what makes your body make proteins in response to shut it down. The antibodies that your body makes are proteins, and they’re stopping the viral proteins from doing their job. So it’s a fascinating set of interactions that happen.

We studied how the messenger RNA makes protein. My colleagues in the field, all of us, have been understanding how mRNAs get translated into proteins. Thousands of basic scientists gave all that fundamental information that allowed people to adapt that process for the COVID vaccines.

What have been your favorite discoveries as a researcher?

It’s like asking who’s your favorite child. I think what is the highest impact and most rewarding work is the work that’s done collaboratively. And so myself and three colleagues had a grant from the Human Frontier Science Program. It was an international grant to bring together a (40-plus member) team specifically to look at big problems in an interdisciplinary way. Between that grant and some other work I did with one of those groups—two of them are in Denmark—we solved the structures of the proteins that are involved in how proteins are made. 

And why I’m most proud of that is I know it’s impacted so many other people’s work. When you see what your protein looks like, it’s sort of like you’re having a baby, but until it’s born, you don’t know exactly what it looks like. You’re studying these proteins in a test tube, but to actually to be able to see the structure—and we did it for multiple structures—it’s pretty amazing. Between some NIH funding and that (Human Frontier Science) funding, it probably went on for almost 10 years, but at the end, you had this whole picture, which I think was really a major contribution.

How has that work influenced other scientists?

Anyone interested in the process can go to the protein database at Rutgers University. They can pull up the structure, and they can do their work on it, and they can say, ‘I’m actually interested in this protein in this one particular amino acid.’ They can see it, and they can move it around. 

And all of our work was in the bread yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. But if you worked in a human system, you could say, ‘Oh, I can align these proteins. I can figure out in humans that would be this amino acid, and then maybe it’ll help me think about that, even though I don’t study yeast.’ That is because the proteins are so highly conserved from yeast to mammals. With yeast you can do it a lot faster, and it’s a lot cheaper. You can do a lot more genetics. Things that you can’t do in a human.

Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy with her Rutgers’ mentor, Dr. Stuart Peltz, and Dr. Paul Copeland.

Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy with her Rutgers’ mentor, Dr. Stuart Peltz, now CEO at PTC Therapeutics, and Dr. Paul Copeland, who is now a professor at Rutgers and who had nominated her for her mentoring award. (Photo courtesy of Steve Hockstein and Rutgers University)

Moving beyond your own research, what do you think are some areas of strength in terms of research at Illinois State?

I’m intrigued by what we can do in the area of agriculture. I was talking to the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and he knew about our agriculture programs. Now here’s the man who is over this organization of many national leaders, and he recognized that strength here. Obviously, our proud history as a normal college is also a strength in programs in our College of Education. The applied work that they’re doing is really important. So I think those are two really good examples.

What do you think about the new Office of Student Research, and do see any other opportunities where we could do further research among our undergraduate population?

I think having that office is terrific. The hardest part about undergraduate research and creative scholarship is getting the match to the right faculty mentor. And that’s true everywhere. I hope that we seriously consider people outside of the University as well, because we have about 18,000 undergraduates. We don’t have 18,000 faculty. So if you do the math, we need other people to help us. So I want us to think about both on campus and off campus experiences because I think it’s great for our students and it’s great for our community. All of those hands-on experiences are really important. 

Based on what you’ve seen from your travels and work at other universities around the country, is there any project or program you would like to bring here?

For us the major thought moving forward is once we get approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education for the College of Engineering, how does that come in and facilitate what new directions we want to go? And so for that, we’ll be looking at other universities that have recently created colleges of engineering. We’ll be looking at some of the historically strong programs, like the University of Illinois. So that’s where we can learn from other universities. I also look forward to bringing some of my past experience in developing corporate engagement portals to ISU; we are always happy to find new partners.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, you cannot separate research from graduate students. They are important to our research mission. And I also hope that as we focus on external funding that a lot of that funding will go to our graduate students. It’s a really important thing for people to know that one of my personal goals is as we bring in those research dollars we make sure that we’re including graduate students as a part of it.