Patricia (Pat) Pukkila. It’s not just graduate students and post-grad scientists that can contribute to scientific discovery, and it’s not just mice, worms, and flies that can be used as model organisms – through her work on mushroom genetics and advocacy for undergraduate research, the late University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill biologist Pat Pukkila emphasized these points. We were saddened to learn of her passing on June 20, 2019 from pancreatic cancer.
Pukkila started an Office for Undergraduate Research at UNC and continued to advocate for it throughout her career, making sure that undergraduate students were provided opportunities to conduct scientific research and the resources required to carry out the work. This included successfully applying for a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to fund the Carolina Covenant Scholars Program. This program, which she served as Director of, helps increase diversity in scientific research by providing low-income students multi-year summer research experiences.
Pukkila (with the involvement of her students of course) did significant research of her own, advancing understanding of the process of meiosis, whereby cells divide in preparation to combine through sexual recombination, recombining matching parts of their chromosomes as they do so that each daughter cell gets a full set of chromosomes but with increased genetic diversity.
To study biological processes, scientists often turn to well-characterized “model organisms” like fruit flies, mice, or worms. But she wanted to use a mushroom called Coprinopsis cinereal (C. cinereal) to study this meiosis. Multiple features of C. cinereal made it a great model in which to study the process, including easy growth and available of mutant strains that get stuck at various steps in meiosis, allowing scientists to get “snapshots” into what’s going on. But a major drawback when Pukkila started out was that unlike more “traditional” model organisms, because C. cinereal was less widely used, scientists hadn’t sequenced its genome so they couldn’t know where pieces of recombining DNA were coming from.
So she sequenced it (much harder than it sounds!). This project made it possible to map out “hot spots” where genetic recombination (swapping of parts of chromosomes) was enriched. It also led her to discover new genes that are involved in regulating DNA compaction, and she went on to study how such regulation of DNA structure impacts meiosis.
Pukkila retired from UNC Chapel Hill in 2013, but remained engaged in the community, joining the Retired Faculty Association (UNC RFA) and serving as its president from 2018 to 2019. She also served as a Delegate to the Faculty Council.