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Lab Personnel

David Costantino, M.S., Lab Manager and Senior Professional Research Assistant

”In my role as lab manager I am responsible for much of the day to day operation, but I also get to do research, which is the main reason I am so excited ​to be part of this g​roup. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I can save the crickets, and that is always a great way to introduce what we study in our lab.”

David likes donuts…with sprinkles. He also plays tennis, eats BBQ and Italian food, loves baseball, plays poker, goes to lots of hockey games, and teaches chess to school kids and adults. Scouting reports describe him as a fantasy sport force to be reckoned with whenever he steps on the field.


Ben Akiyama, PhD., Postdoctoral Fellow (Twitter: @BenAkiyama)

“I am currently studying how the dynamics of structured viral RNA elements impact their function. This includes investigating how the folding and unfolding pathways of viral RNAs affect their unique properties and studying the motions of various RNA domains as they interact with cellular machinery. By breaking down these processes, I hope to be able to create a ‘movie’ of these important molecules in action.”

Ben comes with a background in single-molecule fluorescence of RNA-protein complexes. He grew up in San Francisco, which makes him a 49ers and Giants (the baseball kind) fan. We like him anyway (at least every other year...).​


Daniel Eiler, PhD., Postdoctoral Fellow

”My interests are to use biochemical and crystallographic approaches to characterize the interactions between a viral RNA and its cellular protein target, and to understand how this interaction manipulates the protein’s function. Specifically, I want to find out how the RNA element recognizes its target, elucidate the important interactions between the two molecules, and understand how this induces a certain viral outcome.”


Daniel brings a wealth of structural knowledge and experience. He likes running, lifting, football, baseball, board games, camping, swing dancing, and traveling. His favorite TV shows are The Big Bang Theory and Elementary.

Erik Hartwick, Postdoctoral Fellow (recently defended and heading out soon!)

“Some viral and cellular RNAs do not use the canonical poly(A) tail and instead use a structured 3’UTR to increase message stability and/ or provide translational enhancement. Using the Turnip Yellow Mosaic virus (TYMV) as a model system I plan to investigate the mystery of how this can occur. The TYMV TLS 3’UTR has two domains: a tRNA like structured (TLS) and an upstream pseudoknot domain (UPD). The TLS functions as a tRNA mimic driving aminoaclyation of the 3’ end of the RNA, an essential function for translational manipulation and viral fitness, and the UPD functions to stabilize the fold of the TLS. Using biochemical, biophysical (smFRET), and structural approaches (crystallography and two-dimensional chemical probing) I want to investigate how  the TLS provides translational manipulation, how the UPD may function to act a molecular sensor regulating translational manipulation, and how the thermodynamics of the UPD (folded/unfolded) affects the conformational dynamics of the TLS domain.”

Erik is an official “tough mudder,” rock climber, beer drinker, and lover of all things outdoors. He wants to crystallize big stuff. Any visual similiarity to “groundskeeper Willie” is purely coincidental.

Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones, Graduate Student (Molecular Biology)

Rachel Jones

“I am excited to continue learning about RNA and RNA-related disease in the Kieft Lab. My current scientific interests lie in functionally and structurally characterizing a distinct set of non-coding RNA molecules belonging to flaviviruses. The objective of my project is to determine the structure of these RNA molecules in distantly related viruses and eventually understand the evolution of these RNA structures. As my studies progress, I plan to study other RNA molecules that play roles in high-mortality diseases.”

Like any other young person, my hobbies include bird watching, arts and crafts, and caring for my cats and plants. Although my dream job was to be a zoo vet, I’m pretty happy with the route my career has taken. My not-so-guilty pleasure is Cookies n’ Cream ice cream and I consider it part of a healthy, balanced diet.


Andrea MacFadden, Professional Research Assistant

"I am studying the effects of how the xrRNAs within the 3' UTRs of flaviviruses affect degradation by a variety of ribonucleases. I am hoping this will allow us to crystallize these diverse xrRNAs to discover their structures, 'cause that's what we do in the Kieft lab."
Andrea joined the lab with lots of experience expressing and purifying proteins. We have converted her to the RNA world...although she is still a Redwings fan...we have to work on that.

Zoe O'Donoghue, Graduate Student (Microbiology), currently an RNA BioScience Initiative Scholar

 "I am now the most senior graduate student in the lab and I’m still excited to be exploring the RNA structure/function relationship of flaviviral 3'UTRs. While I like all the flaviviruses equally, I have chosen the path of being the only person on campus to work with Dengue virus, which has led to a pretty steep learning curve but I think some pretty cool discoveries as well. I am combining viral infection models with structural studies to understand various mechanisms of Dengue pathogenicity and infection dynamics. Basically, I plan to save the world."​
Zoe fits every Colorado stereotype - she has a dog, drives a Subaru, has a profound appreciation for microbrews, is a devout Broncos fan, and loves to ski/snowboard. Her other hobbies include but are not limited to: daydreaming, scuba diving, binge reading/watching/eating, and any kind of exercise to balance out the binges.

Maddie Sherlock, Postdoctoral Fellow (Twitter: @madisherlikin!)

"My current research is exploring the structural diversity within a class (type III) of IRES RNAs. While IRES RNAs can generally be categorized by which initiation factors they require for translation to occur, type III IRES RNA representatives from different viruses display variable translation efficiencies depending on the cell type or stress conditions. I am further investigating these observations by identifying and structurally characterizing additional IRES RNA-protein interactions."
I'm an RNA enthusiast making the switch from studying bacterial ncRNAs to viral ncRNAs. I have two cats and I plan to get a dog soon that I can bring along on my many brewery visits and hiking trips. Then my assimilation into Colorado culture will be complete! I love traveling, cooking, playing softball, and spinning classes. Follow me on twitter: @madisherlikin!

Anna-Lena Steckelberg, PhD., Postdoctoral Fellow, currently funded by a Deutsche Forshungsgemeinschaft (DFG) Fellowship (Twitter: @LenaSteckelberg)

"I study a viral RNA element that inhibits cellular exoribonucleases. Using a combination of biochemical assays, x-ray crystallography and single molecule FRET, I aim to elucidate how the dynamic folding of this RNA structure impedes protein function in a process that leads to the generation of viral long non-coding RNAs."
Lena moved from the University of Cologne to Denver to broaden her RNA world and is fully Coloradoan. She likes to hike, climb, camp, and ski, and she is pleasantly surprised by the large selection of beer in Colorado's pubs. But....she still does not understand American sports (especially baseball). Lena, it is easy: you catch the ball, you throw the ball, you hit the ball....and don't lollygag.

Matthew Szucs, Graduate Student (Microbiology)

"I am excited to join the Kieft lab as a microbiology graduate student. My current interests involve searching for and identifying homologs of viral xrRNA, or other interesting structural motifs in other microscopic life. I plan on combining computational methods as well as biochemical and molecular techniques address this this question. I am also incredibly eager to dive into the wonderful world of RNA structure and function."

As a former east coast resident, I am excited to continue my scientific career in Colorado. My interests outside of lab include copious amounts of crafting, cooking elaborate meals, birds, coffee, and music. My ideal evening: A long walk on the beach with my cat Junipur.


Quentin Vicens, PhD., Research Assistant Professor (Twitter: @qvicens)

"RNA never stops amazing us with intricate folds that subtly support regulatory functions. Viral RNA structures represent a fantastic opportunity to continue capturing glimpses of how RNA operates, with relevance to biomedicine."

Quentin is a seasoned bushwhacker of the RNA jungle, having resorted to various structural and molecular biology techniques for challenging anything ribo (ribozyme, riboswitch, ribosome, ...). He is passionate about the educational process, likes to read and watch movies, cook and eat great food, talk for hours as if on his favorite French TV book show, and spend time with his family, especially outdoors.​


Elizabeth Wethington, MA, PA


Elizabeth is the Lead Program Administrator in the Graduate School for the Structural Biology and Computational Bioscience Ph.D. programs.  She also moonlights as the personal assistant for Dr. Kieft.  She particularly enjoys cooking for the lab as part of her other duties as assigned.




Brian Wimberly, PhD., Research Assistant Professor

Brian wants to push the frontiers of structural biology. Beyond that, you aren’t getting any more information out of him, so don’t even try.