Cleaning glassware—it is a task most chemists would file under “drudgery.” But Anna K. Mapp sees it differently. While a premed student at Bryn Mawr College, the place where Arthur C. Cope got his start as a faculty member, Mapp’s sudsy work-study job eventually spurred a change of heart. As her college years progressed, she worked her way up from glassware washing to synthetic studies of Taxol. By the end of her senior year, Mapp realized she didn’t want to go to medical school anymore. “I knew I wanted to stay in research, because that was what I loved,” she says.
Today, Mapp, 41, does what she loves at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her lab specializes in understanding the chemistry behind gene regulation.
Mapp’s route to chemical biology began at the University of California, Berkeley, where she delved into total synthesis for her doctorate with Clayton H. Heathcock. She then studied nucleic acid recognition as a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow with Peter B. Dervan. She began her independent career at Michigan in 2000. The university “has a long tradition of supporting multidisciplinary research,” Mapp says. “It seemed like a great place to be able to evolve and grow.”
In a few short years, Mapp was making the conference rounds, describing the artificial transcription factors her team could fashion from small molecules. It was at one such conference that her science captivated Jon Clardy of Harvard Medical School, an expert in the chemical biology of natural products.
“I was blown away by the clarity of her ambition, of where she wanted to go,” Clardy says. Fast-forward to today, and “she’s pretty much done it, just the way she said she would,” he adds. “Anna exemplifies the best of what chemical biology can be.”
“In my 40-year career at Berkeley, I had the good fortune to be associated with a host of excellent students,” says Heathcock, now an emeritus professor there. “The one that has given me the greatest pride is Anna Mapp.”
Mapp “has done incisive and meaningful experiments while adroitly avoiding the morass that can plague work in biological systems,” adds chemical biologist Ronald T. Raines of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “She is a star!”
Award committees agree, having presented Mapp with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists & Engineers, a Sloan Research Fellowship, and a National Science Foundation CAREER award, among other prizes.
Beyond making artificial transcription factors, Mapp’s team tries to understand both the thermodynamics and kinetics that govern gene activation. She’d like to see her work translate into more therapeutics that target transcription. Controlling transcription factors that feature small-molecule binding pockets, such as the androgen receptor, is relatively straightforward today, Mapp says. “But most transcription factors aren’t regulated by small-molecule binding,” she says. “So you’re losing out on a lot of good targets.”
When she isn’t fishing for transcriptional binding partners, Mapp likes to fish in the more traditional sense. Last summer, she taught her son to fly-fish, just as her father taught her.