Corie Ralston

June 22, 2023

Corie is the biological nanostructures facility director at the Lab's Molecular Foundry. She is a scientist by day, and a science fiction writer by morning. And evening. Corie, who has been at the Lab for 20 years, has published several short stories in science fiction magazines, bringing them together in a collection, "Physics and the Human Heart." Her writing journey started with an essay in the anthology "She's Such a Geek." Corie shares her home in El Cerrito with her spouse Cynthia, who enjoys science fiction almost as much as Corie does.

What keeps you interested in research at the Lab?

I worked as a beamline scientist in protein crystallography for many years at the Advanced Light Source, and very much enjoyed that position. More recently, I moved to the Molecular Foundry, where I am currently leading the NanoBio facility. Throughout, I've been working on developing a structural biology method called X-ray footprinting. I encourage you to learn more at our website

What discovery are you excited to make?

I was working with my collaborators Antoine Snijders and Jamie Inman on low-dose radiation effects on proteins, and they introduced me to a phenomenon called the "FLASH effect." The term refers to the phenomenon that when you use ultra-high dose rate irradiation for cancer treatment. It spares the healthy tissue around a tumor a lot more than conventional radiation therapy, which uses low dose rates, but still kills tumors to the same degree. It's a counter-intuitive effect, but it has been shown to work in several animal models. It has generated huge interest in the radiation oncology field recently, and human trials are just starting. Even so, no one really understands why or how it works. I'm trying to characterize the exact damage to proteins under these different dose rate regimes in order to gain an understanding of what happens at the molecular level to cause this effect. I love this research because it is like trying to put together a really interesting and complex puzzle. 

As a woman who has been in science for over 20 years, what was your career path, and what have been your biggest challenges?

I completed my bachelor's degree in physics at UC Berkeley and my doctorate in biophysics at UC Davis. I did some time in New York, where I worked for a few years after college, and then again as a postdoc at Einstein College.  One challenge I faced was that as the only female in a class or lab, I felt I represented all females. In other words, any mistake I made would be interpreted as "see, women can't do science," rather than "Corie messed up today." It was sometimes hard to just concentrate on my work and forget about what other people might be thinking about me. Today I feel a lot more comfortable since there are so many more women in my field of science now. 

Corie, right, with her spouse Cynthia hiking at the Dee Wright Observatory located in an old lava field in Oregon.