Saket Rahul Bagde selected for Porter Prize for Research Excellence (Graduate Student)

Saket Rahul Bagde, a PhD candidate in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, Cornell University, has been selected for the 2022 Porter Prize for Research Excellence for a graduate student.

Bagde will present the talk Structural basis for specific activation of the “Rab11 GTPase by the TRAPPII complex” on Tuesday, December 6, at Cell Bio 2022 in Washington, DC.

Saket Rahul Bagde

The American Society for Cell Biology awards two Porter Prizes for Research Excellence, one for a graduate student and one for a postdoctoral fellow. Winners are chosen by their individual contributions to the advancement of science and on the novelty and creativity of their findings. ASCB looks for discoveries that provide new ideas and new avenues for exploration in cell biology in the spirit of one of ASCB’s founders Keith Porter.

Research statement: I am interested in studying basic cellular processes using a multidisciplinary approach of combining structural biology, biochemistry, and cell biology. Currently, I study secretion and endocytic recycling which are essential eukaryotic processes and involve the transport of protein and membrane cargoes to the plasma membrane.

This process works like a “postal service” in the cell where cargoes are sorted and packed in membrane bound vesicles, and then transported to the plasma membrane on cytoskeletal tracks. The formation of these vesicles is regulated by activation of the Rab GTPase Rab11. Rab11 acts like a switch and when switched “on” or activated, recruits effector proteins that are required for formation of vesicles. Further, Rab11 also recruits motor proteins that transport the vesicles containing the cargoes on the cytoskeleton.

More than 60 different Rabs are present in mammals and the budding yeast model has 11 different Rabs. Specific localization of each of these Rabs to different membrane compartments is important for determining organelle identity and membrane organization of these compartments. I study how the multi-subunit TRAPPII complex specifically activates Rab11 and recruits it to the trans-Golgi network (TGN) and recycling endosome (RE) membranes.

Recently, I determined the structure of the TRAPPII complex caught in the act of performing nucleotide exchange on Rab11 using cryo-electron microscopy. I then used in vivo functional experiments to test the hypotheses we generated based on the structural data. This work shows how the TRAPPII complex, along with the membrane, forms a molecular ruler that selects against another Rab GTPase, Rab1 based on the length of its C-terminal tail, thereby dictating Rab substrate specificity. This study indicates that along with providing a surface for activation of Rabs, the membrane can also play an important role in the regulation of this activation and substrate specificity of the GEF by enforcing geometrical constraints.

Statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI):  While my passion for science largely dominates my personality, I am also proud of the multiple identities that make me the person I am. The successes and the struggles found throughout the history of my communities and the thoughts and works of the legendary Dalit social reformer Dr. B. R. Ambedkar have been an invaluable source of inspiration for me.

As a gay South Asian coming to live in the US, I am frequently asked whether my family and my community are okay with my orientation. However, a recent interaction on the same topic left me bewildered when someone asked me whether “I” was okay with being gay and if I would choose the same life if given a chance to be born again. I answered that while I am proud of my identity, it may have been easier if I were not gay.

But this opened more questions than answers. Would it also be easier if I was not born into a marginalized low-caste community in India? Next, would it be easier if I was born white? Very soon I realized that if I continued the list, I would find myself left with no identities. I would not just lose these identities; I would lose myself. Therefore, I believe we need to not only “welcome” diversity but also “celebrate” it.

Using my experiences, I aim to create a diverse environment where all community members feel welcome and embrace their identities. I am an active member of the MBG Diversity Council, and I helped create a climate survey for the department that was instrumental in bringing strong DEI initiatives. During Weill Institute Science Round-Up 2021, I served as a discussion facilitator for the working group focused on ideas for improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Weill Institute of Cell Molecular Biology at Cornell. Based on my experiences, I pushed the idea of “celebrating” diversity. I suggested posting statements/posters supporting DEI should be put on the doors of Weill Hall and lab entrances. I proposed that every time a community member opens a door, they should be reminded that this is a safe space where all their identities are welcomed and celebrated. While there are still multiple doors in buildings and mindsets that need to be opened, I was glad to see this idea come to fruition. Every time I pass by the poster stating DEI values and goals of the Weill Institute at the hall entrance, I am confident to continue striving to open more doors in the future.

In addition to directly contributing to DEI initiatives, I have participated in multiple programs promoting careers in science. While working in these programs, my focus was bringing science to people who may be members of groups historically excluded from science or just never thought a career in science was for them. During my undergraduate studies, I volunteered with “Spread the Smile”, a student-led outreach program that aims to bring interactive learning to school children in rural areas around Pune (India). I visited schools in the villages of Kurunji and Kusgoan and conducted fun science experiments and short workshops on clay modeling to stimulate active learning. I found this experience highly rewarding and continued STEM outreach during my graduate career in the US.

I have served on multiple student panels discussing life in graduate school. I enjoyed sharing my experiences so interested applicants can make an informed decision when applying to graduate school. I also served as an organizer for the BMCB recruitment events, which allowed me to welcome incoming students in the department. From my personal experience, the graduate school application process can be daunting, especially for applicants applying to non-native countries. As a step towards addressing this issue, I started volunteering as a mentor with the “Mentorship for Applications to PhDs” (MAP) program in 2021. This program aims to bring graduate school applicants from India in contact with mentors worldwide.

This past summer I volunteered with the Science and Technology Entry Program-Upward Partnership (STEP-UP) at Cornell, to host two Ithaca High School students for a 20-hour hands-on internship focused on providing exposure to STEM research. Along with my colleague Destiny Van, I designed an internship titled “Using model organisms to study biology – bacteria, yeasts, cancer cells, and mice” to convey how scientists use different organisms to study basic cell biological processes. During my graduate career, I have mentored two undergraduate students. I continue to learn new approaches to mentoring effectively based on the feedback I receive from my mentees and attending mentoring workshops offered at Cornell. This summer, I am mentoring a visiting undergraduate researcher for the MBG-REU program titled “Molecular Biology and Genetics of Cell Signaling, ” an NSF-funded, ten-week summer program with a strong focus on diversity.

About the Author:

This post was collaboratively written by several ASCB staff members.