Career Interview: Beth Sullivan, PhD

Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
Duke University/Duke 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. 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.

ASHG: 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?

Dr. Sullivan: 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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