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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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!

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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.

 

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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.

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