Published: June 5, 2020

Otto Portrait OutsideOtto Kletzien likes to stay busy. He’s a Signaling and Cellular Regulation (SCR) fellow, one of approximately 15 in the department, an active participant and former leader of CU Boulder’s RNA Club chapter, for which he ran operations and finance, a contributor to the Synthetic Biology Journal Club, and he’s a proud dog dad. Join us to learn more about Otto’s life as a research-focused CU Biochem graduate student.

Discovery and Innovation in RNA Research

                Otto’s longstanding interest in RNA research landed him in the right place for pursuing graduate school. Colorado’s celebrated history of RNA research has roots right here at CU Boulder. Seminal discoveries include shedding light on the biocatalytic functions of RNA, characterizing enzymes for synthesizing and modifying RNA, and developing novel techniques for the identification of RNA ligands and the chemical synthesis of RNA. Otto hopes to continue this legacy of discovery and innovation through his work on RNA-protein complexes and riboswitches in the Batey lab. “Rob’s [Batey] lab was my first choice. He liked riboswitch work, studying the structure and designing and engineering RNA for specific applications.” It wasn’t just Batey’s research that caught his eye, “I also felt like I fit into the lab environment. We have a similar sense of humor and we have fun.” Batey’s lab also allows for flexibility and autonomy in a largely graduate student-driven environment, and Otto has enjoyed taking project ideas in new directions in collaboration with peers and other faculty both intra- and inter-departmentally. 

Day to day, you’ll likely find Otto working in vitro, running electrophoresis gels, or conducting an RNA assay. This means quite of bit of calculation, perfecting bioinformatic pipelines, and optimizing assay panels. His thesis focuses on identifying RNA features that drive affinity for RNA-binding proteins, in order to better understand why they are biologically relevant. “This protein domain that recognizes RNA is very abundant, but poorly understood and I want to figure out more about what sort of RNA features they recognize.” In addition to his graduate thesis, Otto enjoys having the flexibility to explore other areas by contributing to different projects in the lab. As a side project, he’s adding to work that piques his early interests in riboswitches.

Otto’s interest in RNA research has also led him to join and take on a leadership role in the CU Boulder RNA Club. The club was founded in the 1980’s and continues to bring together researchers from CU Boulder, CU Denver Anschutz, and Colorado State to discuss current RNA research by grad students, post-docs, and faculty. “It was an opportunity for me to stay on top of RNA research, meet others, and make some good friends.” Although Otto has moved on, RNA club still meets bi-monthly and is always looking for new members!

Turning the Research Corner

Otto in the LabOtto has been working on expanding his research repertoire by also learning to code. “We [Rob and I] always planned for me to do some bioinformatics training.” Taking advantage of training opportunities to build this skillset proved valuable to Otto’s professional development and opened up new avenues for his lab work. Like many biochemists, Otto didn’t take computer science courses as an undergraduate, so he took advantage of continuing education resources offered by the department. There’s a workshop every summer on next-generation sequencing run by Robin Dowell and Mary Ellen through BioFrontiers for grad students and postdocs: “The ENCODE consortium generates lots of bioinformatics data, so just learning how to use command line and figuring out the basic programs for quality control checks, gathering raw data, finding things that are conserved and filter out background.” Otto’s hands-on experience working with these systems has not only helped him take his research in new directions, but also means a stronger resume, and tools that he will undoubtedly continue to use in the future. “A lot of the labs that make this software don’t make money. They don’t get paid for the software so it’s less likely to be user friendly,” which is why opportunities to learn the fundamentals from experts with institutional knowledge within the department are so critical.

In addition to the summer training program run by Biofrontiers, CU offers myriad resources for graduate students to learn programming and data science skills including a new Compuational Biology Minor that teaches undergraduates to combine computational thinking and algorithms to study biological problems and systems.

Getting into Research

Spending time purifying proteins in a lab as an undergrad was an important skill-building period. Otto also worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a year-long enough to learn how to organize and manage data and to firm up his research interests. This period fomented an interest in higher-level research, initially in bioengineering, which has since led Otto to the groundbreaking research he’s now conducting. Otto recommends getting into a lab, conducting research, and learning how to follow through on a project. Joining a lab as an undergrad set up the skills he uses today. In the Batey lab, Otto says the undergrads he works alongside are involved in every part of the protocol including creating libraries, running activity assays, and contributing to the data pipeline. If you’re an undergraduate interested in getting into a lab of your own, reach out to CU Biochem’s undergraduate program manager. 

Batey Lab - BCHM       SCR - BCHM       Undergrad Research - BCHM       IQ Biology - Biofrontiers       RNA Club       Comp Bio Minor