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University of Colorado Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics

Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics

Lab Personnel

David Costantino, M.S., Lab Manager

”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, Postdoctoral Fellow

“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...).​

Erich Chapman, PhD., Postdoctoral Fellow

Currently funded by an F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship From the NIH

“Dengue, West Nile and Yellow Fever are all caused by viruses from the Flavivirus family. It’s recently been discovered that a relatively short, subgenomic RNA plays an important role in the lifecycle of these viruses. This ¬short flaviviral RNA (sfRNA) is produced by limited degradation of the viral genome by the host-cell exonuclease Xrn1. Xrn1 is a conserved, highly processive 5’à3’ exonuclease and is a critical component of RNA metabolism in eukaryotic cells. This exonuclease proceeds through over 10kb of flaviviral RNA before becoming stalled at one of several conserved secondary structures present in the 3’ untranslated region of each flaviviral genome. My mission is to dissect the biophysical properties that confer Xrn1-resistance to these RNAs and to ultimately leverage this understanding into a treatment for disease.”


Erich is on the job market.


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, Graduate Student (Structural Biology and Biochemistry)

“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 mereley superficial.

Zane Jaafar, Graduate Student (Microbiology)


“My interests in the Kieft lab are in understanding the interplay between Hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA biology and cellular stress responses. Specifically, I aim to study the manner in which the HCV internal ribosome entry site (IRES) is able to maintain its capacity for translation during infection-induced cellular stress-response programs. I intend to add to a growing body of research that is bridging the gap between RNA structural biology and RNA virology.” 

Zane is much smarter than this picture might suggest. Then again, he does skydive a lot, which could bring his smarts into question. Zane finds humor in odd things, which we find funny, which he thinks is amusing.

Hannah Laurence, HHMI Medical Fellow (Veterinary Student)

“I am like a like a unicorn in the field of veterinary medicine, having taken the less beaten path to pursue a career as a veterinary physician scientist. While her classmates are busy performing their first surgeries, I chose to complete a year of research to gain further laboratory experience and grow as a scientist.”

Hannah loves animals, craft beer, running, and pondering which pathogen will cause the next pandemic.

Andrea MacFadden, Professional Research Associate

"My research builds off of Erich Chapman's, in that 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)


"I am the newest graduate student in the lab and I’m excited to join ongoing projects looking at the structured elements in the 3’UTRs of various flaviviruses. I’ve just gained the appropriate clearances to work with Dengue and West Nile Viruses in a Biosafety Level 3 lab here on campus. I hope to combine viral infection models with structural studies to understand various mechanisms of flavivirus 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.

Anna-Lena Steckelberg, PhD, EMBO Postdoctoral Fellow

Pictures and description coming soon!

Brian Wimberly, PhD., Research Specialist

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.

Karen Vockrodt, Finance Accounting Senior Professional

Reimbursements, travel, scheduling… you name it! Karen keeps everything straight because goodness knows we can’t count on Jeff for that