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Visitor of the Week: Sunil Kumar Kenchanmane Raju

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Meet Sunil Kumar Kenchanmane Raju of Michigan State University! A research associate in Chad Niederhuth’s lab within the Department of Plant Biology, Sunil returns to CSHL for another plant science-centric course. In 2015, Sunil trained at the annual summer course on Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Science. This year, he is back for the week-long Workshop on Cereal Genomics where he is picking up techniques he’ll use to help analyze his ATAC-seq data. Sunil has also been a CSHL course ambassador of sorts, informing his fellow workshop trainees that the course goes beyond the lecture room: Speak with everyone in the course and build your network – including the instructors and lecturers. 

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
My research focuses on how plants adapt to changing climates and how genomic interactions with the environment shape complex trait evolution. Currently, I’m working on utilizing comparative epigenomics to understand variations in low temperature tolerance in maize and its close relative, temperate-adapted Tripsacum dactyloides.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
Temperatures in my native South India typically range between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. When I first arrived to Lincoln, Nebraska for my grad school, it was a cold December night. I was immediately cold stressed and that frigid experience became the motivation behind my want to study cold stress. <Fun emoji> Jokes aside, the changing climate is threatening our ability to produce enough food for the growing population. Food security depends on the ability of plant scientists to develop climate-resilient crops that withstand the challenges of the changing climates. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel: some crop-wild relatives are naturally adept to stressful environments. My motivation is to understand stress adaptation of crop-wild relatives at the genomic and epigenomic levels, and translate stress-resilience into major crops.

How did your scientific journey begin?
When I was a kid, my pediatrician used to tell my parents that I will grow up to be a politician or a scientist (I used to ask her a lot of questions!). Those careers have always been in the back of my mind and I chose the scientist path. I guess, in addition to the amazing scientific mentors I have had throughout my career, my father was my biggest inspiration. Even though he didn’t specifically want me to become a scientist, he always instilled in me the philosophy that ‘education/learning never ends, new knowledge always creates a way for more learning.’ That has been my life’s philosophy and what better profession to practice it than as a scientist exploring new – to create newer – things.

Was there something specific about the Workshop on Cereal Genomics that drew you to apply?
As I am switching my model system from soybean to maize, now is an ideal time for me to attend this workshop as it’ll allow me to more fully capitalize on its contents to help address the questions remaining in my research program. My research focuses on an emerging area of plant biology, and so I will benefit greatly from interacting with scientists from various backgrounds working on advanced techniques in cereals and comparative genomics.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
It’s been just a few days into the course and already I feel like we (students) are speaking the cereal community’s lingo! The lectures and hands-on exercises on high-throughput transcriptomics and phenomics data analysis were very informative and will be something I will apply in my research. Also, the informal discussions with instructors and fellow coursemates have been invaluable. Learning from people with diverse research interests has been the biggest highlight.

What is your key takeaway from the Course?
First, I want to thank the instructors for putting together such an amazing list of speakers for the course. Also kudos to them for selecting such a diverse group of students; not just in gender balance but also geographic representation and, most importantly, diversity in research interests. An important take away from this course is that meaningful progress happens through great collaboration within the community, and the cereal genomics community is one of the best examples with everyone being supportive of each other’s work. 

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I highly recommend this and any other course at CSHL. There’s something special about the atmosphere at these courses that is very conducive for participants at all levels to take in and bring home a lot. I would recommend the CSHL Cereal Genomics Workshop to early career plant scientists who are or wish to work on cereals. It isn’t just about knowing the latest science but also getting to know the scientists at the forefront of cereal genomics.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The environment here is so serene and inspiring. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did when I arrived at CSHL was take a walk along the beach! If I were to work here, I would always start my day with a walk along the beach, maybe read a couple of research papers there, get inspired, come up with ideas and run to the lab and turn ideas into reality!

Sunil received a travel award from The Michigan State University Plant Resilience Institute (PRI). On behalf of Sunil, thank you to PRI for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Sunil for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Maira Almeida

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Meet Maira Almeida of Iowa State University. A PhD candidate co-mentored in the labs of Dr. Maura McGrail and Dr. Jeffrey Essner, Maira just finished participating in Genome Engineering: Frontiers of CRISPR/Cas. The Brazilian national’s first meeting at CSHL included a poster presentation on “Short homology based CRISPR/Cas9 targeted integration for Cre/lox conditional gene inactivation tools in zebrafish”. The opportunity to explain her research to her peers and receive their feedback “went really well.” And those who approached her poster were “really surprised with the method…recently developed in [their] lab called GeneWeld. This method allows efficient CRISPR/Cas9-mediated integration directed by short homology.”

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am particularly interested in developing and applying genome engineering methods to understanding the molecular mechanisms behind developmental processes and diseases. I investigate how chromatin regulators control stemness and neural gene networks during neural development, and how their misregulation can lead to cell transformation and brain tumorigenesis.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your work?
Since high school, I knew I wanted to work with genetics focused on the cancer field. During my undergraduate studies and Masters, I worked on animal genetics and human genetics centered on numerical cognition, respectively. When I started my PhD, I finally got to work on what I’ve always been interested in: developmental genetics applied to the understanding of tumorigenesis. In the past 4 years I was introduced to the genome editing field, specifically CRISPR technology, and I quickly fell in love with it. Now, I have the opportunity to join both of these areas that I am passionate about, which makes me really excited about my research projects.

How did your scientific journey begin?
I have been interested in science since I was a child. In my first year of high school, I had a wonderful biology teacher, Prof. Paulo Flávio (better known by his nickname Paulinho), who introduced me to genetics and it was love at first sight. I remember my teacher talking about gene function and drawing pedigrees for genetic disorders and schemes depicting the different cell division steps. I was fascinated about everything. At that point, I already knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to understand the molecular mechanisms involved in genetic disorders. My goal has always been to use my work to help others. Someday in the future, I hope to be able to apply all this genetics knowledge  I am acquiring to develop efficient therapies for patients in need.

Was there something specific about the Genome Engineering: Frontiers of CRISPR/Cas Meeting that drew you to attend?
The opportunity to learn about the latest in genome engineering and to share how I’ve applied CRISPR/Cas to create tools for recombinase genetics in zebrafish. Moreover, to meet leaders in the field including Dr. Fyodor Urnov, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, and Dr. Jonathan Weissman and learn about their exciting advances in CRISPR research.

What is your key takeaway from the meeting?
My key takeaway from this meeting is that the genome engineering field is rapidly evolving and its potential to revolutionize the medical field in the next few years is enormous. Currently, there are so many CRISPR systems already available or being described, and they represent a breakthrough in the understanding of molecular mechanisms behind genetic disorders and in the development of efficient therapies for diseases such as cancer.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the meeting to your work?
On the second day of the meeting, Dr. David Liu gave an incredible talk where he described a technique called Prime Editing for introducing precise genome modifications. I was astonished by his results and I really would like to try this new technique in our model system, the zebrafish.

If someone curious in attending this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would greatly recommend this meeting to anyone interested in genome engineering. The Genome Engineering: Frontiers of CRISPR/Cas meeting is a wonderful opportunity, especially for young scientists like me, to learn from the leaders in the field and establish connections with other researchers that are developing similar work.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I really enjoyed walking around the campus and the friends that I made. I met wonderful people from many different countries.

Thank you to Maira for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Nabil Karnib

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Meet Nabil Karnib of Bowling Green State University. The Lebanese national is a PhD student in Robert Huber’s Lab and is presently taking part in the 2019 meeting of Neurobiology of Drosophila. Nabil “heard a lot of positive reviews [about the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting] from colleagues and though he “underestimated the engaging aspect of it,” it was up to his expectations. Our biennial fly meeting is his first meeting at CSHL and his inaugural experience included a poster presentation. This wasn’t his first time presenting a poster, but it was the first time he presented his work to such a targeted audience. The result? “Everyone was engaged and enthusiastic about [his] work [so] the feedback [he received] was highly constructive and gave [him] a lot of ideas to incorporate in [his] project trajectory.”

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am interested in substance abuse, in particular what makes an individual more prone to get addicted to a certain compound. I use the Drosophila to understand the underlying mechanisms for this susceptibility.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
The ability to answer complex behaviors in a relatively simple model that could be translated clinically.

How did your scientific journey begin?
I was always intrigued by behavioral neuroscience: the fact that any normal or maladaptive behavior can be tracked and studied with the appropriate tools. Particularly, tracing the resilient/susceptible phenotype to depression to underlying epigenetic and genetic mechanisms and studying behavioral abnormalities following hypoxic seizures marked the beginning of my career in science.

Was there something specific about the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting that drew you to attend?
My main reasons for attending the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting were to know the state of the art in this field and establish collaborations. CSHL and the organizers provided the best platform for this. I identified and approached laboratories doing similar and complementary work to ours, laying foundations for future collaborations. 

What is your key takeaway from the meeting?
Collaboration makes science happen.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the meeting to your work?
I was introduced to several techniques during the talks and the poster sessions that would be a great asset for my project. Also, it was insightful to see how different groups tackle the same questions using different approaches.

If someone curious in attending this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would definitely encourage them to attend. It’s a congenial environment to give and receive feedback on science. I return to the lab with a new understanding of novel techniques and approaches to expand my repertoire. The topics covered a vast range, from basic scientific questions to disease modeling and technological innovations done at the highest levels. The heterogeneity of the topics along with the fast pace of the sessions made the meeting highly engaging.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The picturesque backdrop of Long Island, the chance to see the Big Apple and the new friendships I made.

Thank you to Nabil for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Kirsten Tracy

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Meet Kirsten Tracy of the University of Vermont. As part of her first CSHL meeting participation, the postdoctoral fellow in The Stein/Lian Laboratory presented a poster entitled “Mitotically associated long non-coding RNA MANCR supports the metastatic breast cancer phenotype,” and her poster presentation went well. She received “a fair amount of interest…and fantastic feedback and new ideas for avenues to follow-up on.”

Furthermore, her overall meeting experience at the Biology of Cancer: Microenvironment & Metastasis Meeting is proving to be as productive as her poster presentation:

From friends and colleagues that have attended other CSHL meetings, I had heard that the atmosphere is scientifically intense yet still relaxed. I have found this to be absolutely true. There has been a lot of science to take in and ideas to discuss, but there has also been plenty of time to actually get to know the people you are having those discussions with.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
My research is focused on identifying and characterizing long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) involved in the pathogenesis of breast cancer. I am particularly interested in lncRNAs that are specifically expressed in the triple negative breast cancer subtype.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
Towards the end of my graduate work studying autophagy, it was clear that I wanted to move away from metabolism and had gotten interested in epigenetic regulation of cell fate. I had previously studied the functional effects of signaling transduction pathways in cancer metastasis, and really enjoyed the challenge of trying to learn how and why metastases form. Combining my interests, I decided to interrogate the epigenetic mechanisms that contribute to cancer progression and metastasis.

How did your scientific journey begin?
I was one of those kids that wanted to be some kind of -ologist - always trying to classify rocks I found, digging for dinosaur bones, or studying little critters in the yard. However, it wasn’t until I took a cancer biology course taught by Dr. Ruibao Ren at Brandeis University that I found my passion for cancer. The course inspired me to work as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Ren’s lab, and I’ve been at the bench ever since.

Was there something specific about the Biology of Cancer: Microenvironment & Metastasis Meeting that drew you to attend?
The broad range of topics related to cancer microenvironment and metastasis to be covered as well as the fantastic speakers list drew me to attend this meeting.

What is your key takeaway from the Meeting?
This meeting has really enforced how complex cancer is as a disease. So often, for ease, we perform our experiments on cell lines grown on a petri dish, then are surprised or disappointed when the cells behave differently if put into a more physiological context. There have been many fantastic presentations on the role that the tumor microenvironment plays in supporting tumor growth and progression. So the key takeaway for me has been the importance of studying tumor cells within the context of their environment (or as close as we can replicate).

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the meeting to your work?
At our poster session, I noticed that my neighbor had already done a newer technique that I have been getting ready to perform. She was able to provide some hints and modifications to the protocol to make it successful.

If someone curious in attending this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would definitely encourage them to attend this meeting especially if they want to get up to date on topics related to cancer biology or want feedback on their work from leaders in the field.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I have really enjoyed taking in the sites around campus and learning some of the history of CSHL.

Thank you to Kirsten for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Ahlam Alamri

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Meet Ahlam Alamri of the University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom). The PhD student is a member of J. Martin Collinson’s lab who is presently at this week’s meeting on Stem Cell Biology. This is her first meeting at CSHL “and it is not going to be the last one.” Her maiden experience included a poster presentation on “Pax6-mutant mice do have active Limbal epithelial stem cells ....but do not respond to corneal injury” which also happens to also be Ahlam’s very first poster presentation. Her colleauges “came and asked questions starting informal chats,” making her experience an incredible one.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am working with limbal epithelial stem cells and how they play a role in the maintenance of the cornea.  

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?  
I became interested in stem cells after my master’s degree which was in hematology. As I was deciding what to do for my PhD, I was thinking about something that can be new and found that stem cells is the window of the future and stem cells can be studies in medical genetics, hematology, immunology...etc. So, many studies are going in labs to understand the significant role stem cells play in the maintenance of the eye. Prof. J. Martin Collinson is my inspiration and I am doing my PhD under his supervision. I can remember the first interview with him and the way he talked about his work. Working with limbal epithelial stem cells in mutant mice in vivo and in vitro has given me more experience and expanded my knowledge to figure out how ocular surface is maintained in health and disease.  

Was there something specific about the Stem Cell Biology Meeting that drew you to attend?
The number of stem cell topics to be covered in the meeting drew me to attend and it has been excellent.

What is your key takeaway from the Meeting?
Stem cells are an extremely valuable key to understanding the causes of many diseases.

If someone curious in attending this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
It is the one of the best meetings on stem cell and is one he/she should not miss it. It exceeded my expectations.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The campus is incredible. The harbor is amazing and is a great area to walk around.  Also, the participants of the meeting come from many different countries but we share similar interests. I met new colleagues and have enjoyed their company and conversations.

Thank you to Ahlam for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.