A Unique Partnership


This post was written by Skyler Palatnick, a junior at Cold Spring Harbor High School with a penchant for writing about scientists. His first contribution to LabDish was about CSHL Director of Research David L. Spector. In this post, he introduces us to someone closer to home.

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Girls Who Code (at Cold Spring Harbor)

In this installment of the Lab dish blog we welcome Sabrina Bergsten, a junior at Cold Spring Harbor High School. She’s a member of Girls Who Code at CSHL, a club organized and taught by Watson School of Biological Sciences student Maria Nattestad. Maria and her students in the Girls Who Code club, including Sabrina, organized the Hour of Code event at CSHL to bring more women into careers in science and technology.

In the US, there are 1.7 million people employed in computing-related occupations. Men hold nearly 75% of those jobs. Girls Who Code (GWC) is a non-profit organization determined to fix this imbalance. Now, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has joined with GWC in their mission to empower girls with the tools they need to pursue a future in technology.

Each year GWC hosts summer immersion programs across the country in offices of some of the top tech companies in the US, including ebay, AT&T, and IAC. With groups in 15 cities across the country, thousands of high school girls will spend their summers learning not only how to code, but also crucial business-world skills.

As a GWC alumnae myself, I can sincerely say that this is a life-changing program. What makes it so great is that it doesn’t just stop at computer science. GWC teaches girls how to be confident in the workplace and how to stand up for themselves. Girls get experience with public speaking, thinking on their toes, and making important business decisions. By the end of the program, I was pitching an app to the co-head of technology at Goldman Sachs.

GWC is a powerful movement, making sure that more women find careers in technology. This past fall, CSHL’s DNA Learning Center began hosting a GWC after-school club. Girls interested in technology from schools all over Long Island meet once a week, work on computer science projects, and learn about what a future in technology might entail.

The club not only benefits the girls but also uses technology to give back to the community. On December 13th, our Girls Who Code club hosted an “Hour of Code” event at CSHL. We brought together different members of the community, from ages 4 to 104, for just an hour to learn how to code. Members of the GWC club went around the room as teaching assistants to help out all 90 people who spent the hour learning computer science. With events like this, the girls in GWC – with the help of CSHL – are well on their way to inspiring women of all ages, especially young women, helping the community by closing the gender gap in technology.

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Fighting pediatric cancer

Today we welcome guest blogger Phil Renna, Director of Operations for CSHL Public Affairs. Phil is also the Director of the Christina Renna Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness and finding a cure for pediatric cancers. This weekend CRF hosted its annual Angel’s Wish gala to support their ongoing efforts.

I’ve worked at Cold Spring Harbor Lab for 33 years – never as a scientist, but over the years I’ve learned the value of basic research. I’ve seen researchers make Nobel Prize-winning discoveries and develop new drugs for devastating diseases. But I never could have imagined that the research done here would become so personally important to me.

Eight years ago, I lost my daughter Christina at the age of 16 to a very rare cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma. Christina understood the challenges that she faced and fought with a courage that was truly amazing, but she longed for the normality of life that she lost during her treatment.

So along with members of my family, we started The Christina Renna Foundation (CRF). “A Prayer, A Wish and a Dream of a cancer free world” has been our mission ever since we lost Christina. Our foundation is dedicated to bringing pediatric cancer into the public eye, helping children and families through their difficult times, and finding cures for these terrible diseases.

How do we do this? To start, we donated $20,000 to MSKCC to start a pilot iPad program in the pediatric cancer area. Few people appreciate how isolating cancer is. These iPads will allow children to connect with their families and friends. But MSKCC has gone beyond just that and is using this technology to show children what its like to be in an MRI, to show them what procedure they will experience, and why it’s needed. The iPads are a connection to the outside world, a distraction, and an educational tool.

But we don’t just want to make cancer better for these kids – we want to cure it. Rare diseases fail to attract the research dollars of big pharmaceutical companies: the fact is that there is no real money to be made on developing a drug to help so few. So CRF has teamed up with the Michelle Paternoster Memorial Foundation, The Friends of TJ Foundation, and The Clark Gillies Foundation to fund basic research into rhabdomyosarcoma here at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as part of the Sarcoma Research Project. CSHL Assistant Professor Chris Vakoc is spearheading the efforts in collaboration with Oregon Health & Science University Professor Charles Keller, a renowned specialist in rhabdomyosarcoma research. This project is a directed effort to understand how sarcomas arise and to identify new therapeutic strategies.

I’ve seen the power of basic research firsthand here at the Lab, so I am eager to see where this work goes. I know that, for rare diseases like rhabdomyosarcoma, private philanthropy is needed to do what others can’t. So I am honored to be able to provide support through CRF. With the help of all those around us, I look forward to one day finding our dream of a cancer-free world.

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New Investigators Join CSHL

This fall, the Lab welcomes six new faculty members. They’re a diverse group – a mix of junior and senior investigators, with research spanning across Biology. Want to know a little more? We’ve featured brief profiles all week. So look back for more!

Research Assistant Professor Scott Lyons, Cancer

CSHL Research Assistant Professor Scott Lyons

Where are you from?

Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute and The University of Cambridge

What do you study?

I develop new ways to model and non-invasively image cancer in preclinical models.  The cliché states that “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but this combination of technologies really is a powerful way to look at factors that cause cancer to develop, as well as to assess how new experimental therapies work before being tested in the clinic.

What motivates you?

Both directly and indirectly, cancer affects the lives of so many people across the globe.  We need better treatments.

What most excites you about CSHL?

I think there is great synergistic potential to make new discoveries by combining the science and molecular biology that CSHL is world-renowned for, with non-invasive imaging technologies (optical, ultrasound, PET, CT and MRI based) that we plan to bring to the laboratory.  Very exciting!

If you aren’t in the Lab, where can you be found?

If I’m not spending time with my wife and daughter, you’ll probably find me in the kitchen. And being a Brit, I love BBC Radio 6 and Match of the Day!

CSHL Fellow Lingbo Zhang, Cancer

CSHL Fellow Lingbo Zhang

Where are you from?

Most recently, I’m from MIT, but I grew up in southwest China

What do you study?

Stem cells – they have the ability to self-renew, which means that just one early stem cell can produce thousands of mature cells. I’m looking to harness this power to treat diseases such as anemia and leukemia.

What motivates you?

From a very young age, I’ve always been interested in science, life.

What most excites you about CSHL?

It is an amazing, unique place for biology.

If you aren’t in the Lab, where can you be found?

Watching soccer or enjoying walks along the beach here on campus.

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New Junior Faculty Join CSHL

This fall, the Lab welcomes six new faculty members. They’re a diverse group – a mix of junior and senior investigators, with research spanning across Biology. Want to know a little more? We are featuring brief profiles all week. So check back for more!

Assistant Professor Jessica Tolkuhn, Neuroscience

CSHL Assistant Professor Jessica Tollkuhn is exploring how male and female hormones affect the brain and behavior.

Where are you from?

Entirely from California! I was most recently at UC San Francisco, but I grew up in Santa Cruz and did both my undergraduate and graduate work in California.

What do you study?

I am interested in how transient events during development program neurons to take on a specific identity and function. More specifically, I am studying how estrogen and testosterone generate sex differences in the brain and behavior.

What motivates you?

I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else. Talking about new data with interesting colleagues over a good drink is the best way to spend an evening.

What most excites you about CSHL?

Being immersed in this spectacular community. Everything seems to be designed to facilitate innovative science. The beauty of the campus and the sense of history really get into one’s brain as well.

If you aren’t in the Lab, where can you be found?

I am a bit of a music nerd. I don’t make it out to many shows these days, but my prize possession is my 1958 all-tube Zenith Hi-Fi. I can both connect it to Wi-Fi and play records, including 78s!

Assistant Professor Je Lee, Genomics

New Assistant Professor Jay Lee is developing technology to understand where and when genes are active in the cell. Here Lee (in green) stands with colleagues from his postdoctoral lab at Harvard Medical School.

Where are you from?

George Church’s Lab at Harvard Medical School, but I grew up in Alaska.

What do you study?

How cells sense and remember timing, location and history, and how their surroundings influence their signals with other cells. I also develop various imaging and molecular sequencing methods for tracking genes, molecules and cells to understand how cancer cells arise and evolve.

What motivates you?

I love working with imaginative colleagues, posing important questions, and challenging consensus views.

What most excites you about CSHL?

A great collaborative environment where I can think quietly and deliberately, while engaging with the world’s best scientists through CSH meetings throughout the year.

If you aren’t in the Lab, where can you be found?

I like to spend time thinking and reading about the principles that govern complex behaviors in biology and society. That is, until my kids burst into my room, pulling me away to beaches, parks, and playgrounds.


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New Senior Faculty Join CSHL

This fall, the Lab welcomes six new faculty members. They’re a diverse group – a mix of junior and senior investigators, with research spanning across Biology. Want to know a little more? We’ll be featuring brief profiles all week. So check back for more!

Professor Adam Siepel, Chair of the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology

Adam Siepel recently joined CSHL as Professor and Chair of the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology. Here he is at the Kunming Institute of Zoology in Yunnan Province, China where he taught a workshop a few years ago.

Where are you from?

Cornell University in Ithaca, NY

What do you study?

Human population genomics. This means asking, for example, how long ago different populations diverged or looking for evolutionary signatures across populations. My lab is also interested in understanding what regulates transcription, or how genes are activated.

What motivates you?

Solving puzzles and capturing the fundamental essence of nature in math.

What most excites you about CSHL?

The culture of excellence and focus on biology. There are great people here, doing great work.

If you aren’t in the Lab, where can you be found?

With my wife and two kids – but if not there then on my bicycle.

Professor Douglas Fearon, Cancer

New CSHL Professor Doug Fearon is looking to harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer.

Where are you from?

The University of Cambridge, England

What do you study?

The interaction between the immune system and tumors. My goal is to develop an immunotherapy to treat cancer.

What motivates you?

I started out as a medical doctor, but I became disappointed. I realized that doctors rarely have the power to cure disease – they can only modify it in some way. My goal is to find cures.

What most excites you about CSHL?

The rigorous scientific environment and the commitment to originality.

If you aren’t in the Lab, where can you be found?

On the golf course.

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Election Day: making medical research a priority

If you’re reading this blog, we wager that biomedical research is important to you. Maybe you’re a scientist here at CSHL or somewhere else around the world. Or maybe you’re a patient looking for the latest developments on a disease. Perhaps you are a science enthusiast looking to keep up with what’s new in the fascinating world of Biology.

Whatever the reason, you are not alone. More than two-thirds of Americans consider medical research a high priority. Yet government funding that supports the majority of this research is on the decline. Total federal support for basic research has steadily decreased in proportional terms over the last decade, from 1.11% of the federal budget in 2005 to just 0.82% in 2014.

So what can we do about it? In this election year, CSHL has partnered with Research!America and other organizations across the country to find out where candidates stand on research funding. The campaign, called “Ask Your Candidates!” (AYC), is a bipartisan effort to engage our elected officials on the importance of research. The goal is to empower voters to make an informed decision on Election Day.

The election is only five days away so now is the time to start a dialogue – tell candidates why research for medical progress is important to you, and ask them where they stand. You can find all the resources you need on the AYC website – instructions for sending an email to your local candidates or sending them a category-specific tweet (hashtag #AYCresearch). On Election Day, vote for the candidate who best reflects your priorities. If we don’t speak up about the importance of medical progress, our nation could pay a heavy price.

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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!

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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.

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“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.

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