As an award-winning scientist, Markita Landry ’06 wrestles with nanosensors and DNA in her lab at the University of California Berkeley. As a teenager, she wrestled with other student athletes on a mat at Green Hope High School in Cary. The natural curiosity that leads her to make discoveries and apply them to novel uses in her career led her to join her high school wrestling team as the only girl on what in North Carolina is a co-ed sport. The track-and-field season had ended, and she wanted to stay active in the winter months, so, why not?
That “let’s see what happens if we try this” approach to life has garnered her a long list of recognitions at a young age, including receiving the National Science Foundation Career Award and the DARPA Young Faculty Award and being named a 2018 Sloan Research Fellow and one of two 2016 Beckman Young Investigators. The chair of Berkeley’s chemical and bioengineering department, where Landry is on the faculty, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see her win a Nobel Prize someday.
In her research, Landry uses nanosensors that can measure neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine to understand how brain chemistry changes during addiction, Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Her lab is working to create reversible nanosensors that could be used to make accurate, cost-effective tests to detect COVID.
Landry also develops tools to deliver DNA, RNA and protein to plants to engineer more nutritious, prolific and robust crops. Her lab uses nanoparticles small enough to pass through a cell membrane but strong enough to carry molecules with different functions to specific parts of a cell while shielding them from destruction by the immune system. With these technologies, she inserts a protein that causes a small genetic change that could have happened randomly, then disappears. The result is a plant that is more drought-resistant or boosts food production.
Landry’s path to UNC began in Canada where she was born to her French-Canadian father and Bolivian mother. (Landry speaks three languages.) Landry’s mom was an engineer in the male-dominated telecommunications field and was a role model in having a satisfying career and family life.
The family moved to Morrisville when Landry was a teenager. She had too many interests — physics, biology, medical school — to settle on a vocation early on, so she chose UNC because it offered many options to explore. As an undergraduate, she secured a research position with a professor who was just starting a research lab, and she was excited to experience building a lab from scratch.
Landry earned a doctorate in chemical physics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and thinking ahead to a day when she might run her own lab, she landed a spot on a team of business students working on a semester-long project for a corporation to acquire business management skills. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT before joining the faculty at Berkeley as an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Considering her career success, Landry has achieved a remarkable balance between her personal and professional life. She pursues a wide variety of passions and has a sense of adventure that opens up the fun of science. She loves to dance — particularly the tango — and in grad school won a “Dance Your PhD” contest in which she had to interpret her dissertation through movement. Given that her research involved DNA helixes, the dance she and her partner created involved all sorts of twists and dips and turns.
Landry is known for her dry wit and comedic timing. She doesn’t showcase her accomplishments but might casually mention to a friend asking about her day, “I testified before Congress.” A natural problem solver, she sees ways to put things together that others don’t, whether it’s finding ways to impact multiple scientific communities, or pulling together breakfast out of an almost empty fridge.
Despite the time and energy Landry devotes to her career, she always makes time for family and friends. Colleagues say Landry is a strong and compassionate mentor and friend. She embraces challenging discussions while ensuring everyone feels at ease. Then employing her expansive knowledge and crisp logic, she moves her colleagues toward the best outcome.
She possesses a poise and grace that underscores her keen intellect. A former colleague said Landry has the charm of Audrey Hepburn, the crackling wit of Emma Thompson and the intellectual impact of Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold.
No matter the venue, Landry continues the adventure, eager to see what she can make happen next.