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Sara Zaccara

Cornell University

The race to develop and deploy vaccines against Covid-19 was revolutionized by messenger RNA. And Sara Zaccara, who recently left a postdoctoral role at Weill Cornell Medicine for a new position as an assistant professor at Columbia University, is leading the push to understand how our bodies regulate the small snippets of genetic code — and how that process goes haywire in certain diseases.

She has broken new ground in scientists’ understanding of a chemical change known as m6A, which makes messenger RNA less stable and reduces protein production. It’s found in about a third of mRNA molecules to differing degrees. Those levels matter — cancer cells in patients with acute myeloid leukemia have high levels of m6A mRNA, which keeps the cells in an immature state that may contribute to their unchecked growth.

Zaccara’s research has helped scientists decipher the proteins that recognize m6A modifications, knowledge that could be useful for future treatments that dial down or crank up the chemical change.

“It’s the idea of creating new understanding and really challenging things that were considered as ground truth” that have fueled her career, Zaccara said. In a way, her path has also challenged closely held beliefs in her hometown of Lauria, a small and ancient community tucked away in the hills of southern Italy, where she said women are expected to prioritize domestic duties over their own careers. Her life and work, however, are building evidence for an alternative model.

— Jonathan Wosen