You may not know them. They are young and intrepid. They forge new paths and develop novel technologies as they tackle some of the most intractable maladies of our time. They are the postdoctoral researchers of Whitehead Institute. You may not know them. But you should.
As a young, eager high school student in Cleveland, Ohio, Batula Zaidi was afforded the opportunity to work in a biomedical research laboratory and conduct a semester-long research project at nearby John Carroll University. She’s been hooked on biology since. Batula completed her bachelor’s degree in biology at Case Western University and then immediately enrolled in the Cleveland Clinic’s molecular medicine doctoral program, which integrates medical school training and the study of molecular biology, training scientists like Batula for “medically relevant,” or translational, research. At Whitehead, Batula’s work is undeniably medically relevant: working with brand new disease-modeling technologies developed by Whitehead Member Rudolf Jaenisch, Batula is studying the non-genetic drivers of neurological diseases like autism.
Lars Anders was an undergraduate studying biochemistry in quiet Halle, Germany when he became fascinated by the work of cancer-drug developer Axel Ullrich. Interested in pursuing similar research, Lars wrote Axel a persuasive email. A few months later, Lars found himself studying cancer cell signaling alongside the prominent cancer biologist, who then supervised his doctorate in biochemistry at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. Lars joined Whitehead Institute in 2012, teaming up with Whitehead Member Richard Young to develop a brand new technology that allows scientists to determine precisely where cancer drugs interact with the human genome. This novel technology is now fully operational, enabling Lars and his colleagues to define the action of such drugs in unprecedented detail and gather critical insights into cancer drug specificity and resistance.
A scientist and boundless explorer of South America (she has driven the length of the continent, in fact), Lucila Scimone is like a modern-day Alberto Granado. Endlessly fascinated by biology, this native of Argentina studied at the University of Buenos Aires before moving to the United States to obtain her doctorate in Immunology and study cellular differentiation at Harvard University. After defending her thesis, Whitehead Institute Member Peter Reddien recruited Lucila to join his laboratory, where they would advance the study of stem cell biology by investigating mechanisms of regeneration in the planarian flatworm. Lucila and Peter are now studying the genes in planarian stem cells that enable this fascinating organism to regenerate virtually any part of its body after injury.
Marc Mendillo’s first job out of school was as a lab assistant at a small Boston-based biotechnology company. He knew he wanted to conduct biomedical research, but the New York native wasn’t satisfied being an assistant, running experiments designed by other scientists. So after two short years, Marc left his job and moved across the country to get a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego. Now a postdoctoral researcher in Susan Lindquist’s lab at Whitehead Institute, Marc is running his own experiments, and they’re nothing short of groundbreaking. Marc and his lab members have identified a protein that is co-opted by tumor cells to promote their own survival. Their findings have most recently shown that inhibiting this protein—an evolutionarily conserved transcription factor that helps normal cells respond to various cellular stresses—can prevent tumorigenesis and cancer progression.
Belinda Pinto grew up on the Arabian Peninsula in Qatar, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Mumbai, India, and then moved more than 8,000 miles across the globe to Iowa City, where she obtained her doctorate in molecular and cell biology at the University of Iowa. Fortunately for Belinda, her next move—to Whitehead Institute—would be simpler. Belinda joined the lab of Whitehead Member Terry Orr-Weaver to study how genetic material is transferred to daughter cells when a cell divides (“Cell division is a beautiful thing,” says Belinda). But this vital cellular function can often go awry, and Belinda’s research is revealing how errors in chromosome segregation can lead to devastating developmental disorders and infertility.
Ever since Sherry Lee was young, she had two dreams: to be a scientist, and to see the world. She checked both items off her list by completing her undergraduate studies at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan and moving to Boston to enroll in Boston University’s master’s program in medical sciences. She conducted her thesis research at Harvard Medical School before traveling to the University of Wisconsin Madison for a PhD in biomolecular chemistry. It was there that Sherry fell in love with blood, or at least the cells that comprise it. She found red blood cells’ biconcave shape “beautiful,” and developed a niche studying the genetic regulation of red blood cell development. It wasn’t long before Sherry found the work of Whitehead Institute Member Harvey Lodish. In the Lodish lab, Sherry has expanded her horizons to translational research, developing diagnostic and therapeutic tools. “I want to help people,” she says. She recently developed an in vitro culture system that may be used in the future to produce human red blood cells for transfusions.
Renaud Desgraz is a bridge-builder, metaphorically speaking. When Renaud was young, he wanted to be a veterinarian. Then he saw his first computer and dreamed of becoming an engineer. Then he thought: Why not build a bridge between them? Turns out the field of molecular biology provided all the raw materials to do so. Born, raised, and educated in Geneva, Switzerland, Renaud came to Whitehead Institute to build his most complex bridge yet—between developmental biology and germ cell biology. In Whitehead Director David Page’s lab, Renaud studies the genetic mechanisms that drive the development and differentiation of germ cells in mammals and how this complex process differs between males and females.
Jasmine might have become a veterinarian had she not learned that they work with sick puppies. Eventually finding her calling in the life sciences, she studied biology at Oberlin College and then molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. While at Berkeley, Jasmine studied muscle development in zebrafish, a tropical freshwater fish and popular model organism in scientific research. In Hazel Sive’s lab at Whitehead Institute, she uses this same organism as a basis for the study of autism. Though zebrafish don’t exhibit autistic symptoms, they provide an excellent system in which to examine how genes interact to cause brain disorders. Jasmine is focused on approximately 25 genes known to be deleted or duplicated in an estimated 1% of people on the autism spectrum. In collaboration with Alicia Blaker-Lee, another postdoc in the Sive lab, Jasmine studies how suppressing different combinations of genes can result in abnormal brain development. “Right now we’re fixed on a small region of genes, but there are more than 800 genes potentially involved in autism.” If Jasmine and the Sive lab can identify more genes linked with autism, they may be able to identify novel targets to treatments.