I study DNA, one of the basic building blocks that direct development from embryogenesis into adulthood. Nearly all the cells in our body use the same DNA building blocks throughout development, but have very different functions: a heart cell has very different functions then a brain cell, for example. My research focuses on the mechanisms by which the same DNA can be used to make all of the different cell types required for life.
Less than 20 years ago, many prominent scientists believed the only important DNA is that which makes protein. When the human genome was sequenced in 2001, it became clear that only 2% of DNA actually makes protein, leaving 98% that does not. It turns out that a lot of that 98% of DNA, which was previously thought to be unimportant (it was literally called “junk DNA” in textbooks) contains a code that regulates the protein making DNA. Breaking this code is the most interesting part of my research and will not only tell us more about development, but can also be used to understand situations when development goes awry and diseases develop.
I’m most excited about two aspects of my career: First, I love doing research and understanding how development happens at a cellular level. Conducting primary research is why I came to graduate school and I still get excited about it every day I’m in lab. Second, and I did not realize this until I started graduate school, is mentoring students. I really enjoy watching my students learn the basics of molecular and developmental biology (many things we actually learn together), and then seeing them professionally succeed in whatever career path they choose is extra special.
The University of Michigan is such a large and collaborative environment that there is always an expert in the field here and that expert nearly always is willing to answer questions and help with your project. CDB, in particular, is one of the most collaborative, friendly and trustworthy departments in the medical school, in my opinion. We almost all know each other and have many departmental events that foster a positive work environment that facilitates top notch science.