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Behind the Research: Sara Cloutier

About the feature

 Many people are involved in the remarkable range of programs, services and facilities that undergird research in the College of Agriculture. Collectively they’re integral to the college fulfilling its research mission. “Behind the Research” explores their individual roles. Each academic year, we profile six people whose work supports the College of Agriculture’s global reputation for developing innovative, multidisciplinary solutions to challenges and then putting those solutions into action.

Sara Cloutier, Research Assistant, Department of Biochemistry

  • Responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the Tran biochemistry laboratory while conducting her own independent research.
  • Highlighted author on the first paper from the lab in 2012, which the Journal of Biological Chemistry named RNA Paper of the Year.
  • Received the biochemistry department’s Carlson Award for Outstanding Research, 2014.

Sara Cloutier contributes to research and graduate education in the College of Agriculture in two significant ways. She produces data that helps to bring in grants, and she mentors graduate students in her lab and others.

Cloutier came to Purdue for undergraduate study initially interested in forensics. The University was a natural choice for the native of Richmond, Indiana, whose fellow Boilermakers include her mother, aunt, uncle and brother. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2001 and master’s degree in 2009, both in biology. In between degrees and during her graduate program, Cloutier worked as a lab technician.

She discovered early on that she preferred research over forensics, and worked with bacteria during her MS program. “I wanted to work with eucharyotes, so I was checking Purdue’s job listings,” she recalls. “I found one from a new professor opening a new lab that would be working with yeast.

“So I applied for that job, and I’m still here.”

The new professor was Elizabeth Tran, associate professor of biochemistry, whose lab applies a multidisciplinary approach to RNA biology that encompasses biochemistry, molecular biology and bioinformatics. The lab didn’t have a graduate student in its first year, so Cloutier and Tran worked closely to get it off the ground before two grad students joined the team after year two.

Ten years later, Cloutier says she has learned new laboratory techniques and gained responsibility. “I’ve advanced from being a tech to having my own projects and publishing papers,” she says.

Her research has been published in Genetics, Journal of Molecular Biology and Journal of Biological Chemistry, among others. Two papers — one written in 2013 for PLOS Biology and another in 2016 for Molecular Cell — were highlighted by Nature and Science Signaling, respectively, as significant additions to the field of RNA biology.

Cloutier’s current work with yeast is generating new data that confirms more indirect data from past experiments. “That’s really satisfying,” she says.

She balances her research with providing technical and practical advice to graduate students. She also manages purchasing, supervises undergraduate workers and orients new staff to the lab. “I’ve been at Purdue a long time, so I basically know where everything is and how everything is done,” she says.

“Sara can train graduate students new to the lab, and when they graduate, she provides continuity so there’s no intellectual loss during the transition,” Tran adds.

Cloutier is currently developing new protocols for the lab. “People probably don’t realize how many different techniques we use,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities here if you’re interested in bioinformatics, genetics or protein biochemistry.”

“She’s really good at developing new techniques,” Tran says. “If you have an idea, you can give it to Sara.”

Cloutier says she’s also become more active in the biochemistry department, having served on committees related to managing equipment as well as the department’s diversity committee.

“Biochemistry is small and friendly, and everybody’s very collegial,” she says. “I can ask other labs for help and resources. Different labs have different specialties, and there’s lots of collaboration across labs in this department.”

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