Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day

Today we welcome guest blogger Cristina Aguirre-Chen, Ph.D., a postdoc in Assistant Professor Chris Hammell’s lab. Cristina recently participated in the American Association for Cancer Research’s Rally for Medical Research, asking Congress to increase funding for biomedical research.

September 18th, 2014 marked the second annual Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day, in which over 300 members of the medical research community met with House and Senate Congressional staff in Washington D.C. to urge increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Scientists, clinicians, science policymakers and patients participated in the day-long event.

The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research worldwide, currently supporting more than 325,000 U.S. scientists at over 3,000 universities and research institutes.  Not only has NIH-funded research led to crucial scientific breakthroughs that have improved the health of millions of Americans, but funding from the NIH also fuels our economy.  Every $1 in NIH funding produces approximately $2.21 in local economic growth. This means that the Institutes’ budget each year spurs about $60 billion in new economic activity nationwide.

Increased advocacy for NIH-supported research comes at a critical time.  Between 2003-2013, appropriations remained stagnant at just under $30 billion annually, and, importantly, did not keep pace with biomedical inflation.  As a consequence, the NIH has lost 20% in purchasing power over the last decade.  More recently, across-the-board spending cuts for federal agencies under Congressional “sequestration” has reduced the NIH budget for fiscal year [FY] 2013 by $1.6 billion, further limiting its ability to fuel the biomedical science enterprise.  Although funding for the NIH was increased by $1 billion in FY 2014, the total remains below pre-sequestration levels.

CSHL Postdoc Cristina Aguirre-Chen at the AACR's Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day

I had the privilege of representing CSHL postdoctoral fellows at this year’s Hill Day rally in Washington.  My participation was sponsored by the Postdoc Liaison Committee here at CSHL.  For many postdocs, cuts to medical research funding forces many to pursue careers outside of research.  This trend is particularly unsettling.  It has the potential to discourage the next generation of promising young scientists from committing to life-saving medical research.  This point was one that I hoped to convey during my Hill Day meetings.

While in Washington, I met with staffers in the offices of New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives Carolyn McCarthy and Steve Israel.  All of the offices were very welcoming to members of the medical research advocacy community and expressed their support for biomedical research and increased funding for the NIH.  They suggested that we continue to speak to people back in our home districts, where medical research may not be at the forefront of the agenda.  They encourage all interested parties, whether local or not, to contact their senators and representatives about the need for greater investment in the NIH.  In order to effect change, there must be a grassroots effort!

Posted in Autism, Cancer, Disease research, Research Funding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to the Watson School

It’s back-to-school time across the country, and CSHL is no exception. Today we welcome a guest blogger from the Watson School of Biological Sciences.

Everyone knows CSHL. Not as many people know the Watson School. You may have heard about the research Watson School students are doing. You may have read some Watson School students’ contributions to this blog. You may have seen them leading tours around the CSHL campus. Or you may have listened to them teach you about DNA at CSHL’s Dolan DNA Learning Center. But the Watson School?

The Watson School is the graduate school at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It was established in 1998 – a short existence compared to similar Ph.D. programs, like those at Harvard, Stanford or MIT. But in the Watson School’s 15-year history, our students have accomplished a lot. About 140 students have entered the program. Almost 80 have graduated and gone on to pursue careers in science. A quarter of graduates already lead their own labs at prestigious universities around the world. That high percentage reflects the excellent students the Watson School attracts as well as the great training the CSHL faculty provides to those students. In addition to preparing students for research, the Watson School curriculum trains students to think broadly about science and how it affects society. It’s no surprise that several graduates have become successful in non-academic scientific careers, like publishing, biotechnology, non-profit organizations, and consulting.

What makes the Watson School special? Well, maybe most noticeably, the name. The Watson School’s namesake is CSHL Chancellor emeritus and Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who inspired CSHL’s effort to establish a Ph.D. program. Dr. Watson was concerned that graduate education in the United States takes too long. So the founding goals of the Watson School were to train students how to think critically, as good scientists must; give them enough background to enable them to identify interesting and important problems to work on; and encourage them to finish their degree quickly so they could become independent. Watson School students have done exactly this.

The other thing that makes the Watson School unique is the same thing that makes CSHL unique – a collegial feeling among peers rather than a structured hierarchy. Dr. Watson was a Ph.D. student at Indiana University, where he most appreciated being treated as an equal by professors. This attitude prevails at the School and at CSHL, and creates a great atmosphere for science. Everyone knows one another and you can always find someone – student, research associate, postdoctoral fellow, professor – to help you with an experiment…or anything else.

Watson School students make friendships that continue well beyond their time at CSHL. In a way, it’s unavoidable. Each year, there are only about 10 students who start their Ph.D. studies at the School, and they all take the same classes, go to the same lectures, and study together for exams. In the first year, they even live together – in two renovated old houses along the harbor. Later in their careers, they often remain professional colleagues. Some graduates now have labs at the same university and collaborate on research projects. Most return to CSHL for scientific meetings.

We’ve just welcomed the Watson School’s Entering Class of 2014. They’ve moved in. They’ve started classes. They – like the rest of the Watson School students – are now part of the CSHL community. These new students are interested in a range of problems in biology (see what they’re doing in the Watson School News) and will contribute to science in ways we can’t yet predict.

So there’s the Watson School. Stay tuned.

Posted in Education programs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“When I grow up…”

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to work in science. Maybe I’d synthesize a new biodegradable plastic. Or maybe I’d unlock the secrets behind Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe I’d teach science at a university or write about amazing discoveries. Kids often dream of pursuing unlikely professions, like acting in Hollywood or playing major league baseball. For me, working in science was just as unrealistic: I had never met a scientist, never set foot in a lab. I had no idea what research was.

Today, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory are working with the community to make sure that kids are exposed to research at a young age. Through numerous outreach programs, our researchers are helping to educate young children about basic science. Students have the opportunity to meet scientists, visit labs, and learn that these are real people and with real careers.

Over the last few months, there have been some great examples of science outreach. Early in March, Associate Professor Zach Lippman and Assistant Professor Mike Schatz hosted seven students from PS/IS 499 in Flushing, Queens. The day was sponsored through generous funding from the National Science Foundation and aimed to teach kids about how scientists study plants and work to improve our crops. The group of 3rd and 4th graders was able to do hands-on experiments in the lab, visit CSHL’s world-class sequencing facility, and learn about how scientists read the letters of a genome.

“Our goal was to get kids thinking about plant science, get them excited,” says Lippman. “This type of science, using genetics and genomics, can be intimidating, but the tailored activities gave students the opportunity to understand on a small scale what we are doing to optimize plant yields. These experiences have tremendous value – there is no substitute for being in a lab and doing science.” You can check out some of the highlights from the day in the short video below.

CSHL neuroscientists are also reaching out to students in the community. This year, Assistant Professor Anne Churchland organized a trip to the local West Side Elementary School to celebrate Brain Awareness Week. Joined by Professor Tony Zador and a group of graduate students and postdocs, Churchland had the opportunity to teach 7-10 year olds about the kinds of cells and structures that make up the brain. “It was a unique opportunity to have a bunch of scientists in front of 150 students. We used some pretty amusing materials, like brain hats [see below],” says Churchland. “It kept the students engaged while teaching them how scientists study the brain.”

With firsthand experience, becoming a scientist one day won’t be such a far-fetched dream for these kids.

Posted in Education programs, Neuroscience, Plant Biology, science outreach | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Data meets DNA

Today, we welcome guest blogger Michael Hübner, a postdoctoral researcher in Professor David Spector’s lab. Dr. Hübner co-founded the Bioscience Enterprise Club, a resource for students and postdocs to explore science careers outside of academia.

300,000,000 sequence fragments. 20,000 megabytes of data. That is the amount of data that a CSHL researcher generates when reading the 3 billion letters in the human genome. Such experiments will reveal which of our more than 20,000 genes are turned on or off in a particular cell type, and in diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or autism. This information will allow us to better understand the causes for these diseases, and ultimately, help us design therapies for them. Multiply this amount of data by the number of experiments run labwide at CSHL each day, and you have Big Data.

Sequencing the human genome or the active genes in a particular cell type used to be a major effort until a few years ago. Today, it has almost become a routine experiment that a single scientist, together with the state-of-the art sequencing facility at CSHL, can accomplish in 2 weeks. Generating data is not the problem anymore – it is how to store, manage and analyze the massive amounts of data. This is not a task that any home computer or office software can handle. Biologists now realize they must meet the challenge of learning the computer and programming skills needed to analyze their data on the CSHL supercomputer framework.

Together with other members of the Bioscience Enterprise Club (BEC), I wanted to help scientists learn these critical skills and provide basic bioinformatics training for the scientific community at CSHL. So BEC joined with the iPlant initiative and Software Carpentry, to organize a 2-day computational workshop. The course was fully booked with 40 scientists not only from CSHL, but also from The New York Genome Center, Stony Brook University, City University of New York, and the New York Botanical Garden (which sequences plants). The feedback we received after the course told us that many scientists want to continue learning these skills, and we started a Bioinformatics Working Group to provide regular workshops and training. With genome-wide sequencing projects becoming more and more feasible – and affordable – biomedical research and computational data analysis will continue to merge.

If you are interested in Big Data at CSHL, and how it affects many areas of our life, you are invited to a public lecture by CSHL Assistant Professor Mike Schatz on Wednesday evening, June 18th, at 7pm at Grace Auditorium.  Mike’s talk is titled: “Big Data: How biological data science can improve our health, foods and energy.”  We hope to see you there!

Posted in Bioinformatics, Disease research, Education programs, Genomics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

High school students learn the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks

This week we welcome CSHL Director of Research, Professor David Spector. Here, he describes his recent visit to the Horace Mann School where he discussed the story of Henrietta Lacks.

A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Book Day program at Horace Mann School. The day was centered on Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tells the story of a cancer patient and the impressive gift she unknowingly left to science. I was encouraged and impressed to see that the Horace Mann students were totally immersed in the scientific, ethical, legal, and family issues surrounding the story of Ms. Lacks and HeLa cells.

The story begins in the early 1950s. Scientists and doctors alike wanted to understand how and why voracious cancers developed, but they were struggling. Within the body, tumor cells multiplied at an alarming rate, spreading like wild fire through vital organs and tissues. But doctors were unable to grow cancer cells in the laboratory.

All that changed in 1951, when Ms. Lacks arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore with a terminal form of ovarian cancer. During her treatment, doctors removed some of the cancerous tissue. Without consent, which was the standard at the time, they tried to grow these cells in a petri dish. These aggressive cancer cells provided the breakthrough doctors needed. For the first time, HeLa cells, as they are now called, grew in the lab.  “HeLa” was a reference, of course, to the woman who unwittingly changed science yet soon succumbed to her illness.  Over the last sixty years there have been numerous medical discoveries based on these cells, from tests for the polio vaccine to major new insights into cancer development. Still, the Lacks family remained completely unaware that Ms. Lacks’ cells lived on in laboratories across the world.

The story of Ms. Lacks raises many moral, legal, and scientific questions. At Horance Mann, students and educators approached these issues in a most innovative way, with intense workshops and discussions, fabulous questions, and even song, dance, and art. This program was comprehensive and broad-reaching, educating 9-12th graders with diverse interests.

Professor David Spector with David Lacks, Jr. and Jeri Lacks Whye

We were extremely fortunate to have members of the Lacks family participate in the discussion at Horace Mann School.  They graciously shared some of their personal experiences with us.

The day closed with a conversation between Marc Siegel, Medical correspondent for Fox News, and myself. We put the whole HeLa story into context, then and now, and discussed cancer, current treatments, where things are going, and the impact of genome sequencing.

This fantastic program was an excellent example of the forward thinking education that makes science accessible for students. The faculty and students did an amazing job! (Read what students and faculty thought about the day here and here.)

Want to hear more about from Dr. Spector about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells? Watch a recently taped version of the lecture here.

 

Posted in Cancer, Disease research, Education programs, History, science outreach | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A bad neighborhood for cancer

In honor of National Cancer Research Month, we welcome guest blogger Miriam Fein, a Stony Brook University graduate student who is working in Assistant Professor Mikala Egeblad’s Lab here at CSHL.

When you are looking for a place to live, the neighborhood matters a lot. Good schools, affordable housing, low crime rate, and of course, great neighbors. Neighbors provide support – a cup of sugar when you are low, a helping hand to feed the cat when you are away – that makes life easier.

The same principle applies in the body. Cells within a ‘neighborhood’ support one another. Immune cells protect their neighbors from infection and blood vessels deliver nutrients and oxygen to the region. A matrix made of fibers and proteins provides structure and support to the surrounding cells.

And yet, these same “friendly neighbors” can be a significant problem when it comes to cancer: healthy cells in a tumor’s neighborhood can actually promote cancer growth.

For scientists, a tumor’s neighborhood is known as its “microenvironment.” Over the last few decades, research has shown that the tumor microenvironment supports cancer growth and metastasis.

Anatomy of a tumor

I’m a member of Dr. Mikala Egeblad’s lab here at Cold SpringHarbor Laboratory.  We are working to identify new drugs that target the tumor microenvironment. Our hope is that these new treatments can be used in concert with standard chemotherapies – and the combination will be more effective than targeting tumor cells alone.

Dr. Egeblad recently sat down with editors of the scientific journal Cancer Discovery to discuss her research on the tumor microenvironment.  As she explained in that interview, the cells surrounding a tumor have the capacity to slow down tumor growth. But what has been most surprising is that the tumor sends out signals that push these healthy neighbors to promote cancer growth instead of attacking the tumor. Even worse, the healthy neighbors surrounding a tumor can send signals back to the cancer that enable tumor cells to become resistant to therapy.

When tumors are treated with certain chemotherapy drugs (which target fast-growing tumor cells), immune cells in the neighborhood respond by sending out survival signals or signals that encourage new blood vessels to form. Both enable the tumor to grow faster and promote metastasis.

There are so many unanswered questions facing cancer researchers now. For example, why is metastatic breast cancer so hard to treat? Is it because of new mutations in the metastasized tumor or is the microenvironment playing an even bigger role? Can we reverse the signals provided by cells in the neighborhood after chemotherapeutic treatments?

Cancer researchers are now employing several approaches to target the microenvironment. We are trying to prevent certain types of immune cells from entering the tumor in the first place. We are also targeting the signals that healthy neighbor cells release to promote tumor growth. Current early-stage clinical trials look promising. Scientists are also having a great deal of success using immunotherapy – treatments that use the body’s own immune system to target cancer.

Much of this research is possible because of a cutting-edge new imaging technique, known as intravital imaging.  It’s a way of imaging of living mice at a microscopic level. The method, which was highlighted this month in a story in Nature that also discusses Dr. Egeblad’s work, allows us to understand how cancer cells behave. We can see how tumor cells invade blood vessels, and where and when various signals are turned on and off. We are able to watch the interaction between tumor cells and their healthy neighbors. These powerful tools may be the key to understanding how the microenvironment supports- and find novel ways to prevent- cancer growth.

For more on Dr. Egeblad’s work, see her recent public lecture, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Posted in Cancer, Disease research | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding the genes that underlie autism

As autism awareness month comes to a close, we welcome guest blogger Research Assistant Professor Mike Ronemus. Mike recently filmed a public service announcement with Cablevision highlighting the importance of basic research to understand the genetics of autism. Watch it today.

We know that autism is common, and perhaps increasingly so, as diagnostic tools improve and are applied more consistently. For many of the diagnosed cases, there’s no hint of autism in parents—it is found spontaneously in children. This has led to a lot of speculation over possible environmental factors that might cause autism. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable guess. But in digging deeper, no real evidence has emerged to support the idea that things in the environment cause autism.

So where do we look? Based on older research that looked at autism in identical twins—the ‘gold standard’ to identify genetic disorders or traits—we know that autism has significant genetic component, much higher than in other neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. This might seem paradoxical for a disorder that seems “spontaneous” in kids—a large genetic contribution combined with a lack of family history? But when we apply some of what we’ve learned in the genomics era, important clues arise in the form of new, or “de novo,” mutations.

De novo mutations are ones that are present in autistic children, but not either parent. This means that the changes in the affected gene or genes were only produced during the process of making eggs or sperm. One of the truly surprising outcomes of genome sequencing is how common these events are. There are various types, involving changes both large and small to the genome.  Some “new” mutations involve a change in a single DNA “letter,” or nucleotide.  Others involve enormous duplications or deletions of entire chromosomal regions that can encompass many thousands of nucleotides. The bottom line is that the onset of “spontaneous” disease could be the result, at least in part, of having one of these mutations, small or large, in genes that cause autism.

We have spent the last 7 years examining thousands of autistic families for these types of mutations, using a very simple approach: we look for changes that are present in an affected child, but not in either parent and (very importantly) not in the unaffected siblings of an autistic child. We are fortunate to have access to a very good collection of autistic families for genetic analysis, the Simons Simplex Collection, which was assembled with these specific characteristics in mind.

From the work done so far by our lab at CSHL and others, we can clearly say that we’ve identified mutations that underlie somewhere in the neighborhood of 16% of autism cases. 1 in 6 may not sound like a lot, but it’s a lot more than we knew in 2007. And part of the point here is to find the ‘low-hanging’ fruit—the really obvious events—so we actually know where to look for the less obvious ones, which are very likely to be more subtle alterations in the functions of the same set of genes.

Earlier this year, we published an opinion piece in Nature Reviews Genetics that attempts to reconcile what we’ve found with what is known about the total incidence of autism from the perspective of doctors in the clinic. We are far from having found everything; the trick is to guess how much genetic variation is still out there and how to find it. Given the technical limitations of the work that has been done, we think we’ve only found (for example) about two-thirds of the small mutations that might cause autism. We’re essentially missing an entire class of medium-sized duplications and deletion events that are hard to detect with currently available sequencing technology.

Beyond searching for individual genes, we’re trying to answer other major questions about autism. One is that we still don’t know why so many more males have autism than females. (It’s not because there are more de novo mutations in males.) The observed 4:1 male-to-female gender bias predicts that some females are protected against autism when they have deleterious mutations. In effect, these women are carriers of mutations that are only revealed when they pass them along to an autistic son.

Still, we’ve started to find the same genes mutated more than once. This allows us to do several things: we can create a mathematical model to estimate the total number of genes that can cause autism when disrupted—our current guess is about 400.  These genes become our group of likely candidates, and we can focus our scrutiny on this much narrower set of places within the total set of over 20,000 human genes.

Even though we are starting to figure out where to look, we still have another challenge ahead of us. The genome is massive – it is made up of more than 3 billion nucleotides that vary to some extent from person to person. In the average person, there is about 1 nucleotide change in every 1000 – it’s what makes each of us unique. The challenge for our team is to distinguish between these normal variations, which don’t cause illness, and the changes that specifically cause autism. When we’re talking about looking for a single mutation, that’s not even like a needle in a haystack. It’s more like trying to identify a single blade of grass in an 18-hole golf course!

Posted in Autism, Disease research, Genomics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An interview with cancer’s ‘biographer’

This week we welcome guest writer Robert Aboukhalil, graduate student in the Watson School of Biological Sciences.

There aren’t very many scientists whose claim to fame includes writing a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning and Oprah-endorsed book. A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to sit down with one such scientist, Siddartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

Siddartha is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia and a physician at Columbia University Medical Center, where his work is focused on leukemia. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation; the full transcript will be published in the Winter 2015 issue of CSHL Current Exchange.

When was cancer first described?

Interestingly, the earliest descriptions of cancer go back to the very first medical documents we have. For example, we have documents from ancient Egypt that describe cases consistent with contemporary descriptions of breast cancer.

These records are incredible because they read like contemporary medical documents. The physiology may have been wrong and the therapeutics misguided, but the organization of disease into mechanism and the treatment being driven by mechanism is an ancient idea.

Do these documents describe any treatments?

For breast cancer, the original recommendation was to do nothing because there was no treatment. Slowly, that evolved into surgery. We know there were attempts at breast surgery for cancer very early on. For example, there’s a description by Herodotus [Greek historian, 5th century B.C.] of a queen having what seems to be a breast cancer removed.

In 1971, the National Cancer Act was signed and the “War on Cancer” began. How did it start and how have we fared so far?

It started as a massive campaign organized by very prominent scientists and philanthropists. There was a feeling that tackling cancer would work like the moon landing or the Manhattan project did—that if you poured resources into a problem and made it a consolidated effort, there would be a common cause and ultimately, a common cure.

Looking back, was it too naïve/ambitious?

It was naïve in some ways, ambitious in others, but it also had many collateral advantages. The biggest advantage was that it created a landmark, which was useful for measuring our progress. On the flip side, the War on Cancer created a series of unnatural expectations around what was achievable and what wasn’t. When it was not achieved, it created a cycle of disappointment.

It was a mixed blessing, but I do think we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the War on Cancer. On the other hand, I feel as though we would be in a different place in terms of public trust if the War on Cancer had not been executed the way it had.

What prompted you to write your book?

At the time, I was a fellow in oncology and became progressively convinced that we had no roadmap for cancer. Ultimately, I was asked by a patient to explain the current state of cancer research and where we were going next. Looking at volumes of books, I couldn’t find very many that offered a bird’s eye view of cancer research; those that did were written by authors pushing for a particular direction in cancer research. They were written as polemics, whereas I wanted to write a biography of cancer.

 

Posted in Cancer, History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Brain Awareness Week with DNALC’s 3D Brain – revolutionizing education in the classroom and the doctor’s office

This week we again welcome guest blogger Amy Nisselle, Ph.D. – Multimedia & Evaluation Manager for the DNA Learning Center.

Today marks the end of Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to increase awareness about the benefits of brain research. The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives has collaborated with the Society for Neuroscience to host events around the world, letting us all catch a glimpse of the amazing power of our minds.

World-class brain research happens right here on the CSHL campus. Scientists have made tremendous advances in understanding the genetics of autism and other neurological disorders. Other research teams are working to understand memory and cognition, exploring how our brain processes sensory information. Still other scientists are working to map all of the neuronal connections with in the brain.

CSHL’s DNA Learning Center works to translate the science behind these amazing discoveries for the benefit of the broader public. In 2009 we produced the Genes to Cognition Online website in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust and funded by the Dana Foundation. One of our most successful tools was originally produced for G2C Online: the 3D Brain app is an interactive, three-dimensional model of the human brain. With more than 2.5 million downloads, it was created to allow students to explore 29 individual structures in the brain. Each structure also includes supporting educational materials: information on disorders, case studies, and even links to current research.

Sound like a great tool for students and educators? That’s exactly what we had in mind, and indeed, it is how the 3D Brain is most often used. But there’s another active group of users that we didn’t anticipate: medical professionals and patients.

Doctor-patient communication has historically faced significant challenges. Just think of the last time you visited a doctor. When chatting about your condition and possible treatments, it’s likely your doctor explained everything verbally. But, research suggests most people promptly forget up to 80 percent of the information they are given in such exchanges. Sometimes doctors use a model like this one to show patients some part of their anatomy. It may be helpful in the moment, but once a patient leaves the office, they must rely on memory.

No wonder, then, that the 3D Brain has taken off in medical communities, and was even featured in a recent article about how doctors can use apps to make patient education more effective. By enabling patients to visualize where different structures are in the brain the app gives patients a sense of “ownership” – a spatial awareness of where certain structures are inside their own head. This and other mobile apps present an opportunity for doctors to connect with patients both during and after consultations. Because the app was initially designed with students in mind, it is written at a level that isn’t highly technical.

The 3D Brain is available on Apple, Android, and Windows platforms, and has been downloaded by medical professionals, patients, educators, and students. Reviews on app stores even indicate that parents of children with neurological conditions have used the app to explain to a new caregiver what’s going on with their child’s brain. The need for education extends beyond the classroom, and the 3D Brain and similar apps are proving to be an asset wherever there’s a need for educational resources.

Download your very own 3D Brain right here:

Apple Istore
Posted in Education programs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What makes a great scientist tick?

Professor David Spector, a cancer biologist, is Director of Research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He and his lab team are explorers of the nucleus, the compartment in every cell that holds DNA, the genetic material. Dr. Spector has discovered new structures inside the nucleus, demonstrating that it is in fact home to much more than DNA. Recently, he published work that demonstrates unexpected flexibility and variability in how genes are activated in cells. On April 4, Spector will be at SUNY Purchase discussing the bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Decades ago, Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient, unknowingly donated some of her tumor cells to science. They would become one of the basic tools of modern biomedical research. Dr. Spector will discuss the impact of her story on research, ethics, and informed consent. Below, a talented local high school student, Skyler Palatnick, profiles Dr. Spector and his work.

What makes a great scientist tick?

CSHL Professor David Spector

Bright lights. Tall buildings. Busy New York streets. This is where it all started for one of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s (CSHL) most valuable players: Dr. David L. Spector, cancer researcher, head of the Laboratory’s microscopy resource and the institution’s Director of Research. 

I’m Sklyer, a sophomore at Cold Spring Harbor High School and I had a chance to interview Dr. Spector and find out some things that I don’t believe most people ever get to learn about scientists like him. Most people are interested in the great accomplishments of scientists, but I wanted to know more about where Dr. Spector came from, how he got to where he is, and what he enjoys outside of science. Here’s what I found out. 

I got an in-depth look at Dr. Spector’s early years, dating all the way back to when he was a little city kid who loved to play stickball with his friends. They would play in the alleyway next to his apartment house, and Dr. Spector says he has “many good memories” of these days. Softball was another popular sport among his friends. When not playing sports, you might have found him walking around downtown Manhattan, especially around Rockefeller Center. He always loved to shop back then, and nowadays too. He even called himself “the ultimate shopper.”

Even as a child, he was always interested in the sciences; especially biology. Dr. Spector’s “breakthrough moment” that really kicked off his pursuit of the sciences was a science fair in elementary school!  Looking back, he said:  “The prize I won for coming in first was all of ten dollars, but in that science fair I won so much more than that: the keys to a successful life and career.” Since that science fair victory, Dr. Spector has pursued research. In his senior year of college, it was one of his professors who really kick-started his interest in microscopy.

Dr. Spector gathered experience at three colleges: City College of New York, Lehman College, and Rutgers University. He says that City College and Rutgers were the places where he gained the most valuable assets for what he does now. City College was where he earned his bachelor’s degree and major experience with microscopy. Microscopy plays a huge role in his own research. He earned his Ph.D. at Rutgers, and that required a broad knowledge of chromatin and chromosome structure. This knowledge has been key to his past and current research.

Highly motivated. Passionate. Very organized. Dr. Spector said these are the aspects of being a researcher that have contributed to his overall success. He stressed that these are the qualities researchers and scientists just starting off need to have in order to achieve great things. He also stressed one other quality as possibly even more important. “Always come back fighting whenever a setback or problem occurs,” said Dr. Spector. “When a research grant that you apply for doesn’t get funded you might feel upset, angry, or frustrated, but you just have to keep working hard and don’t let it get to you.”

1985. This is the year that Dr. Spector came to CSHL. Little did he know back then that he would become not only a Professor but also the Director of Research for the entire institution. His own research evolved, too. Before starting at CSHL, he had studied tiny organisms known as dinoflagellates. Some of these are known more simply as plankton, and others are part of coral reefs. They are known to cause paralytic shellfish poisoning and red tides. Dr. Spector worked on trying to understand their chromosomes and genetic makeup. Next, he moved to mammalian cells and began to study messenger RNAs (RNA that carries messages from genes that contain information about making proteins). At CSHL he added research on chromatin (a combination of DNA and proteins that is found in the nucleus of a cell) to his repertoire. For a while he worked with the small RNAs in the nucleus that are involved in processing messenger RNAs, and eventually that evolved into working with long non-coding RNAs.

Much time has passed since Dr. Spector first joined CSHL but his mindset remains the same. His motivation to accomplish big things has carried through all the way from the time he was a student trying to win the science fair competition. “The reason that you keep interested in science is that you just never know what to expect,” he explained. In the future, he sees himself and his team of researchers working to stop a certain type of breast cancer. They are making great progress toward this goal. The professor explained to me that each one of the eleven team members in his lab has his or her own small project that’s related to one big goal. “With each person working on a piece of the pie,” he says, “we can make big strides toward beating breast cancer.”

When he’s not fighting cancer with research, Dr. Spector can still be found walking around Manhattan with his wife and best friend Mona and enjoying all that the big city has to offer. He’s also interested in exploring the world and recently visited Hamilton Island in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef. He believes that there should be a balance between work time, family and fun time. I learned a bit about what makes this man tick — you can take the professor out of the city, but you can’t take the city boy out of this professor.

If you can’t attend Dr. Spector’s lecture at SUNY Purchase, you might want to watch a similar lecture at CSHL here.  A recent profile of Dr. Spector appearing in the Harbor Transcript can be read here.

 

 

Posted in Cancer, Faculty & Friends | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment