Why did you choose SKI for your postdoctoral work?
I did my PhD at Michigan State University, where I studied how immune cells rapidly respond to microbial challenges, particularly the role of master transcription factors, which are DNA-binding proteins with diverse functions. Toward the end of my PhD program, I realized that cancer cells utilize and exploit a lot of the fundamental biological processes I was studying, and I was interested in exploring them in a cancer context.
I heard Dr. Richard White — a physician-scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering — give a talk online about his work and the very interesting approaches his laboratory was using to understand the role of extracellular signals from the microenvironment in cancer development. When I interviewed with Dr. White for a postdoctoral position, it became very clear to me that his lab would provide a conducive environment to pursue my research interests. Moreover, Dr. White is an excellent mentor and has supported several young women scientists to pursue successful careers both in and out of academia. His mentorship has and will continue to play a very significant role in my development as a scientist.
And of course, some of the best minds doing cancer research are at SKI. Every week there’s so much inspiring science happening and so many great talks taking place all around the institute. There is a lot to learn by just being here.
What project are you currently working on?
I’m really interested in the question of cell-cell communication. How do cancer cells talk to the cells in their immediate environment? In our lab, we study melanoma, a type of skin cancer, which arises in pigment producing cells called melanocytes.
In healthy individuals, melanocytes export their pigment to an adjacent cell type called a keratinocyte. This transfer is mediated through specialized vesicles, which are basically tiny bags filled with molecular information. During melanoma development, those vesicles become filled with information from the tumor cells before being transferred to the keratinocytes. But does this transfer have any functional significance? More importantly, can this physiological process be targeted for cancer therapy?
When I joined the lab, Dr. White and I discussed that this was a very interesting question that we wanted to explore, both to understand melanoma development and to address a very basic biology question: How do cells communicate with each other? I spent some time developing good in vivo tools and genetic reporters to track individual cells, which was very critical to answer these questions. The only reason we could achieve this is because the zebrafish — the animal model used in Dr. White’s lab— is an amazing in vivo model to study melanoma. In this model, we can literally see single cells like melanocytes and keratinocytes interacting with each other in a live animal. This helps us gain a whole new level of understanding of this process, but more importantly, it helps us to perform large-scale drug screens in an animal model in a short period of time with very limited resources.
Are you looking forward to the symposium?
Yes, absolutely! Even though it’s virtual, I think it will be a great experience to be able to present my work and interact with my fellow awardees. The invited speakers for this symposium are women scientists I deeply respect and admire, and I am really looking forward to hearing about both their science and life journeys.
What is it like being a woman in science at MSK?
I can say that as a postdoc, I have felt very supported throughout my tenure at MSK. We have an excellent postdoc association led by a fantastic group of women at MSK. We are provided with so many resources for building essential skills as well as for taking care of our physical and mental well-being, which I deeply appreciate.
I look forward to interacting with my peers who are also supported by the Kravis WiSE fellowship. Whichever career stage we are in, we all need good mentors, and this fellowship gives us an opportunity to build our networks and support each other. This support system is highly critical for our success as well as empowering the next generation of scientists.
What’s the one thing that you try to make time for when you’re not in the lab?
I do spend a lot of time in the lab, but with the COVID-19 lab shutdowns, I’ve finally found time to catch up on some of my hobbies. I enjoy reading a lot, especially books about the history of science. It’s fascinating to learn the thought process of scientists over the years and how our understanding of biology has evolved over time. I recently read a book called The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist by Ben Barres, which I found very inspiring. It is a beautiful account of the scientific and life journey of a scientist I’ve long admired.