Catie Rawlins

Chemistry, College of Science

“I am using mass spectrometry imaging to analyze cultural heritage samples from museums and archeological sites to discover their origin and aid in their restoration.”

A love of art, a passion for chemistry and boundless curiosity have come together for Catie Rawlins; leading her first from Wisconsin to Northeastern, and now to Bordeaux, France, where she studies great works of art in order to better preserve them for future generations.

While she began her undergraduate education planning on a degree in graphic design, Rawlins was attracted to a newly created Applied Sciences program at her undergraduate school, University of Wisconsin-Stout. She decided to change her major, ultimately graduating with a BS in Applied Science and minors in Plant Science, Chemistry and Art.

At Northeastern, Rawlins first research project focused on developing microalgae-based biofuel. “This is what led to my interest in being more of an analytical chemist,” says Catie, “I started working with mass spectrometry, and as I added that to my curricula, my focus began to shift into a different realm.”

For the remainder of her PhD, Rawlins switched labs to focus on studying neurodegenerative diseases, where she used mass spectrometry to image the brains and spinal cords of mice bred to have ALS. By tracking diseased proteins and lipids in the mice, they were able to study the progression of the disease. “When I completed my PhD,” she recalls, “I had all of this analytical experience, as well as a lot of experience with proteomics. This turned out to be pretty marketable; a lot of people wanted to hire me for my experience specifically in ‘top-down proteomics’.”

Proteomics, the study of identifiable sets of proteins produced in an organism or biological system, led Rawlins to her post-doctoral research position at Université de Bordeaux, in the Aquitaine region of France. Here she lends her expertise to the field of Cultural Heritage Analysis. “Museums send us extremely small samples from cultural heritage pieces, and we analyze them in order to advise how best to preserve those items based on the proteins present,” she explains.

Her post-doc work has led to collaborations with heritage scientists in museums around the world, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Rawlins isn’t stopping there; she is also involved with a project using mass spectrometry imaging in archaeology. Here she intends to image the proteins preserved in ancient bone fragments in order to learn more about the diets of people in that region and time period. “I like working in a facility where we have multiple different projects going on,” she says with a laugh, “By now I’ve learned that I enjoy being challenged with a diverse array of projects on my plate.”

“The value I see in heritage science is that these are not just something pretty for people to stare at in museums; when we preserve these pieces, we are preserving our history.”