Tina Henkin has been hooked on biology since her first course. Her curiosity and incredible focus have led her on a highly successful path that includes more than two decades as a member of Ohio State’s faculty and a “lucky” discovery that launched a new research field.
“We were studying something else and cloned a gene we didn’t intend to clone, then decided to investigate it,” she said, calling the experience a “lucky accident.”
This work uncovered a novel set of genetic regulatory elements called riboswitches, which are RNAs that can recognize certain signals and shift their structure in a way that turns specific genes on and off. The project, begun as a hobby, eventually took over the lab and opened the door to a new area that now engages dozens of labs around the world.
“A huge advantage Ohio State offers is the diversity of expertise that’s here,” Henkin said. “You can find expertise in any technique, any research area you might be interested in. We have a terrific RNA center built from a grassroots club of faculty with related interests. It’s grown and grown and grown.”
In fact, Ohio State’s Center for RNA Biology is the single largest group of RNA experts in the country with more than 200 faculty, staff, students and postdocs. The interdisciplinary endeavor spans biology, medicine, agriculture, mathematics, physics and chemistry.
“What makes Tina Henkin’s success in research even more remarkable is that it has been achieved in parallel with teaching accomplishments that transcend the classroom accomplishments of most faculty members,” said Michael Ibba, professor and chair, Department of Microbiology. “She is a great scientist and a wonderful mentor, and she has proven herself time and again as a leader and a role model for success.”
Henkin joined Ohio State's faculty in 1995 and has received extensive honors and recognition nationally and internationally for her studies of RNA. Among these, she was chosen an Ohio State Distinguished Scholar in 2004 and earned the National Academies of Science Pfizer Prize in Molecular Biology in 2006. She also serves as the Robert W. and Estelle S. Bingham Professor of Biological Sciences and has recently taken on the administrative role as associate dean for faculty affairs, a new post that gives her the opportunity to share her experiences.
“My goal is to make Ohio State a better place for faculty to develop their own careers,” she said.
Henkin learned of the 2016 Distinguished University Professor award while sitting in a faculty staff meeting. She was speechless and pleased that President Michael V. Drake spoke first and allowed her to collect her thoughts.
“It was a great moment and especially meaningful to be recognized in the presence of all my faculty colleagues,” she said, noting the award money will be used to buy new equipment for the lab. “We’re a really tight department and the culture is one in which anyone’s success is everyone’s success.”
When asked in what ways being a Buckeye has made the difference in her career, Henkin smiled. “Ohio State is a place that has a huge diversity of research expertise — and the resources are the people,” she said. “As our work has moved from area to area in terms of what research technologies we need, it’s wonderful to have people across campus we can use as resources.”