Graduate School / News & Events / News / Following a Unique Path Leads to a Prestigious Fellowship

Following a Unique Path Leads to a Prestigious Fellowship

02. 06. 2019

Meet Willow Coyote-Maestas


Allosteric regulation is the mechanism by which information is processed by a protein. Many diseases result from proteins no longer communicating properly by allosteric regulation being disrupted or coopted. Because many drugs function through allosteric mechanisms, improving our understanding of how proteins communicate can be built upon to better understand diseases, drug mechanisms, and, as a result, design better drugs.

Willow Coyote-Maestas is the first University of Minnesota graduate student to receive the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowship. His research in this area focuses on ion channels whose misregulation is involved in numerous neurological and cardiac diseases. Willow's findings could have great application in developing improved drugs for neurological and cardiac disorders

Growing up immersed in the natural world and forging his own educational path, Willow describes how he came to Minnesota by way of Hawaii, California, and Washington State.

What led you to the research you are pursuing?  Does it relate in any way to your background or other influences?

I took a circuitous route to get to my current research, however there is a thread I can trace. I've always been fascinated by natural systems and their connections, and I would love exploring nature and its symmetries as a child. I also loved taking things apart and (sometimes) putting them back together (mostly just taking things part), so when I discovered there were numerous scientists dedicated to studying how natural systems evolve by making evolution occur in the lab, I was hooked. 

In particular, I was excited that people were studying how proteins, the molecules that make up life, evolve by engineering them. So as I was looking to go to graduate school, I knew I wanted to study that process. I work on ion channels, which is more of a result of what my advisor worked on. However, it's been quite a blessing in disguise, as they are a class of protein whose evolution hasn't been much explored using protein engineering techniques.

My research is somewhat esoteric, and this most closely matches up with my background, if anything does. I've always been a bit of a misfit-I grew up moving between various parts of the west coast, camping, living in RVs, VW buses, at hippie festivals, and many other nontraditional homes. While I was always surrounded by 'hippie-dippy' people, I've also always been quite an analytical thinker. And if I spent time with more science-y children, I was always too 'hippie-dippy' for them. 

In addition, I am mixed race, giving rise to more of a split/mixed identity. Somewhat similarly, in the sciences, I employ a range of different techniques and have my feet in quite a few of fields that don't normally intersect, which I find quite fun. I enjoy and find it quite natural to bring new approaches and perspectives to the table. 

What do you value most about graduate education?  How did you decide to come to UMN?

I love the freedom to study whatever I want. I find it an amazing privilege to get paid to learn and be curious, and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else apart from curiosity-driven research. I came to the UMN because there are numerous exciting protein engineering and synthetic biology professors here, and the department was making numerous hires, so there was a commitment on the part of the university to continue to be a leader in protein engineering.  

Please explain a bit about your background - where you grew up, where you did your undergraduate work, what circumstances framed your project.

I'm an only child of a single parent, and I grew up moving primarily between Hawaii and California with my mother. I grew up in liberal hippie bubbles where there was plentiful nature, and I spent a lot of time exploring Hawaiian beaches, jungles, mountains, Californian hills and redwood groves, developing a fascination with the natural world. 

I did my undergraduate degree at the Evergreen State College in Washington state, which is nestled within an evergreen forest. It's a wonky liberal college where, if one is self-motivated, anything can be studied. There were no majors, grades or departments. The Evergreen education system worked wonders for me, as when I came into undergrad, I did not have a clear vision for what I wanted. By allowing me to develop my own education, as well as numerous excellent and supportive professors, I came out driven and ready to succeed in a Ph.D. program. As Evergreen doesn't have sufficient resources for top-tier research, I did my undergraduate research primarily at University of Washington-Seattle in chemical oceanography, studying how phytoplankton diversity is impacted by b-vitamins.

My current project was developed in collaboration with my advisor, Daniel Schmidt. I am one of my advisor's first graduate students, so I got to start my project from scratch when I joined the lab. My advisor had a goal in mind when I joined, which was that he wanted us to develop an approach that would allow us to engineer control into any endogenous ion channel. So with that, we started a project that has greatly expanded and moved more into studying how these ion channels evolve to respond to new stimuli by engineering control into them and observing how it occurs. My advisor has been supportive of me growing, developing, and testing my own ideas and for this I am grateful.

What do you hope to do after getting your degree?

I am pursuing a career in academia, so it will be a long and winding path. Most likely I will do a postdoc immediately after my Ph.D., and then once I have a potential research program, I will begin applying for as long as it takes to become a professor. 

I enjoy the freedom and range of academia and how, in order to succeed, one has to wear numerous hats. I also (thus far) am a boundless source of curiosity and ideas, so academia is a natural fit. 

Willow is a PhD candidate in BMBB and MS student in BCB. He is a COSP scholar and his paper "Domain insertion permissibility-guided engineering of allostery in ion channels"  was recently published in Nature Communications.