RNA Faculty Spotlight – Sara Aton, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology


Sara Aton, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
College of LSA

Lab Website
Google Scholar profile
ResearchGate profile

Research interests

The functions of sleep are a major unsolved mystery in modern biology. Increasing evidence suggests that sleep is by and for the brain, and our lab is focused on understanding what sleep does for fundamental brain functions such as storage of newly-learned information.

  • What is the role of RNA in your research?
    While some of our lab’s work is focused on electrophysiological aspects of sleep and their role in optimizing brain function, more recently we have focused on biochemical changes associated with both learning and subsequent sleep. One important issue is that rates of protein synthesis appear to differ between wake and sleep. Moreover, sleep-dependent protein synthesis appears to be critical for the process of memory consolidation. However, it is unclear which transcripts are translated during sleep, what cell types this synthesis occurs in, the functional consequences of these events, and what aspects of sleep drive them. We have recently begun to address this by profiling ribosome-associated transcripts in a cell type and cell compartment-specific manner, across learning and sleep. We have also found that lncRNAs and microRNAs are affected by brain state, suggesting additional levels of transcript regulation during sleep.
  • Who/what brought you to science?
    I wanted a career that would have a lasting impact for mankind. Contributing to the body of human knowledge was for me a clear way to do that. I found that I was really interested in the brain, how it generates our experiences and shapes our perceptions. I have been very pleased with the job security associated with studying both the brain and sleep – it is early days, and we have so much left to learn about both.
  • What brought you to the University of Michigan?
    I was at Michigan as an undergraduate, and knew that the research community and resources here were first rate. Coming back to start my own lab made perfect sense. The thing I love most about UM is the fact that there are stellar researchers working in every field you can imagine, and there are almost no barriers for collaboration. First-rate interdisciplinary research can be done in such an environment, and I love learning new things from my colleagues.
  • What advice would you give to students who’d like to get more involved in research?
    It seems trite, but follow your bliss. A research career requires hard work, no doubt, but if you are doing what you love, you will have success, happiness, and a real sense of fulfillment.
  • Are there any opportunities for students to engage in your projects, currently or in the future?
    • What skills would they need?
      Due to the nature of our work, the ability to work with animals is a must. We can teach the rest.
    • What could they expect to learn?
      Our work is fairly interdisciplinary, so openness to learning new things (from cell biology to systems and computational neuroscience) is an asset.
  • What profession other than your own would you enjoy, or what is your favorite hobby?
    When I started in college I was a fine art major. I still love to paint, but if I had to find a new career today I would love to be a paleontologist. Every time I fly out west I daydream about going into the desert and digging for fossils.

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