Beth Sullivan, PhD
Associate Professor of of
Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
University Medical Center
ASHG: If you could go back to when you
were a trainee, what is one piece of advice you would give
yourself for your current career?
Dr. Sullivan: Broaden your experimental portfolio. I loved the topic
of my PhD thesis and my postdoc with Gary Karpen was amazing
and successful, but my training up until that point was
fairly limited to molecular cytogenetics. If I could talk to
25-26 year old me, I would tell her to think more broadly
and deeply about her science to incorporate biochemical,
molecular and cell biology studies into her research.
Looking back, I think I didn't really feel comfortable
exploring other areas of science until as a postdoc. I would
have liked to have more technical experience under my belt,
so that I really could have explored more as a trainee. This
also would have meant that my own lab would have encompassed
more areas of biology from the start rather than taking 5-8
years to acquire those areas of expertise.that my perspective at
the time was much narrower than it might have been, and also
you realize over time what a social process science is, well
beyond the interactions within any one lab.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
Dr. Sullivan: I very much enjoy serving on graduate student thesis
committees. It's an opportunity to learn about other areas
of science and to provide mentoring to students. It is
exciting to watch a student mature into an innovative
scientist and a critical thinker. Of course, this doesn't
happen all of the time, so it is disappointing to watch some
students squander opportunities to excel as scientists and
make a mark in their fields.
"Administrative work" (committees, meetings, editorial
activities), the not-directly-science part of daily
activities, is the least favorite part of my job. I really
enjoy doing experiments - yes, I still work in the lab
because it's something I am good at, figuring out how things
work and coming up with new ways to study centromeres. But
now I spend much more time writing and revising grants,
reviewing manuscripts (service to the community is
important) and less time doing fun and innovative
experiments. My lab does a lot of chromosome engineering,
but it takes a long time to do these experiments properly
(even with the fancy CRISPR technology). This is not always
appreciated by reviewers or others in the field. I worry
that the "high speed science" trend doesn't really afford
the opportunity to drill down and appropriately address the
really important questions in biology.
ASHG: What do you
think the future holds for the field of genetics?
Most human geneticists would probably pick
personalized genomics and the $1000 Genome, but I am really
excited about two areas: 1) genome editing technologies to
correct disease, and 2) new sequencing technologies that
will allow us to really complete the genome (close the
centromeric gaps), and identify disease-associated variation
in centromeres. In the past two years alone, there have been
some exciting studies published that used ZFNs, TALENs, and
CRISPR to correct genetic defects in animal models or human
iPS cells. While exciting, they, of course, also raise
ethical questions that will need to be carefully addressed.
As for point 2, although I'm probably one of 30 people in
the world who actually cares about centromere genomics, I do
believe that these loci are a source of untapped genomic
variation (perhaps biomarkers?) that is correlated to
disease and genome stability.
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