Caught Happily Between Labs

August 30, 2019

As a late-stage Ph.D. student, I find myself in a unique position to reflect on the culture here at Duke. It’s an exciting time to be a scientist, especially as my mentors join together with other research groups to launch the Center for Advanced Genomic Technologies (CAGT). My experience provides an example of how collaboration within CAGT might benefit trainees to come.

I came to Duke in 2012 to start a master’s program. Intending to stay only for a year or two before applying to medical school, I got waylaid by my fascination with genome-engineering and ended up staying for seven. When I started, the CRISPR craze had not begun but the power of genome editing was practically self-evident even then: it allowed us to manipulate DNA in living cells. In a nod toward this, Nature methods named genome editing the 2011 Method of the Year. Absent any real knowledge about genome editing but convinced it was transformative, I pestered Charlie to let me in his lab, and thankfully, he relented.

By early 2013, I figured out the basics at the bench, and CRISPR broke out as a clear favorite genome editing tool. We all jumped on board, and since then, the Gersbach lab has successfully developed and implemented a variety of CRISPR-based technologies. I was lucky to work on a number of cutting-edge projects — some successful, others less so. While this work was important, having a technology as powerful as CRISPR begged the questions: What exactly will we do with it? What will we use it to discover?

It is with this in mind that I sought the mentorship of Tim Reddy. An expert in gene regulation and genomics, Tim specializes in the study of the glucocorticoid receptor, a major drug target whose mechanism remains obscure. Working on a completely new problem challenged me to learn the history of a new field, develop my own hypothesis, and master new skills at the bench to test them. Working on a large multi-lab grant funded by the NIH, I learned how to better manage my projects, how to work within a larger group, and how to communicate my ideas convincingly. Our weekly meetings became a forum where the motivations for my projects were refined, where technical barriers were discussed, and where I was exposed to scientific discussions of the highest quality. Needless to say, dual mentorship with Tim and Charlie has been crucial to my development as a scientist.

Though I’m graduating soon, I’m happy to be a part of CAGT during its official launch. I see CAGT as formalizing and extending a long standing culture of collaboration between neighboring laboratories, where teams work together to develop new technologies and apply them to treat human disease. CAGT will both solidify foundational relationships, such as those I experienced while cross-training with Charlie and Tim, and bring in new neighbors for the benefit of many students to come.