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Environmental Factor, November 2015

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Lab retreat links NIEHS researchers, alumni, and collaborators

By Geoffrey Feld

Headshot of Bill Copeland

In addition to his work as head of the lab, Copeland leads the Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Peter McKinnon

Invited speaker Peter McKinnon, Ph.D., from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, discussed how mutations and deletions of DNA repair enzymes result in tumors and cancer in mice. He further reflected on the connection of his research with pediatric clinical data collected at St. Jude. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Genome Integrity and Structural Biology Laboratory (GISBL) celebrated its inaugural retreat Oct. 6-7 at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. The event brought together NIEHS scientists past and present, as well as external collaborators and mentors, to share research and experiences.

“This is the first retreat of the combined program, merging the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics and most of the Laboratory of Structural Biology,” said laboratory head William Copeland, Ph.D., as he convened the meeting. “What we envisioned was a synergistic interaction between these two laboratories, and I think that’s what we’re having, ” he added.

The retreat featured lectures from invited professors, as well as shorter talks and posters by trainees and staff. In a tradition dating to the 2012 retreat of the Laboratory of Structural Biology, poster presenters participated in Poster Flash, a series of two-minute introductions delivered to the group. The format inspired innovation, as biologist Scott Gabel, of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Group, summarized his data on the DNA repair protein XRCC1 in campaign promise fashion, to rousing applause.

Staying connected

Highlighting personal connections among researchers provided one of the retreat’s themes. Postbaccalaureate fellow Chris Crowl, from the Environmental Genomics Group, introduced the first invited speaker — his undergraduate mentor,Terry Furey, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Furey reported on an ongoing NIEHS-funded collaborative project that studies the effects of exposure to 1,3-butadiene, a plastic processing byproduct, in mice.

Current trainees attended a special session with trainee alumni of GISBL and its predecessors. The alumni had diverse scientific careers in academics, program management, project management, and medical writing. After describing their duties and the skills necessary to obtain and excel at their jobs, the alumni joined in a panel discussion to answer questions from the lab’s current trainees.

Repairing and organizing DNA

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry (see related story ), announced on the second day of the retreat, was awarded for contributions to a topic at the center of the lab’s research, DNA repair. 

In his lecture on the DNA repair protein TREX1, Fred Perrino, Ph.D., of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, told of a competition that turned into  a collaboration with new Nobel Laureate Tomas Lindahl, Ph.D. “There couldn’t be a better person to win the Nobel Prize,” Perrino said.

Although many of the talks on genome integrity focused on mutations of single or a few DNA base pairs, guest speaker Kerry Bloom, Ph.D., of UNC, presented what he called the 10,000-foot view of chromosomes, which are the complex organizational units of DNA. Using computational methods based solely on thermodynamic principles, combined with fluorescent imaging of live yeast cells, Bloom’s lab developed a testable model of a chromosome that may explain why its structure is largely retained from yeast to humans.

The responsibility of planning, coordinating, and executing the retreat was carried out by GISBL Trainee Action Committee (TAC) volunteers. For their hard work, committee advisor and senior scientist Michael Resnick, Ph.D., honored the retreat planning committee with the Noble Effort Prize, a nod to the Nobel Prize announcement. “I feel very fortunate to be able to work with that group,” he said.

(Geoffrey Feld, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Genome Stability Structural Biology Group.)

  • Perrino talking

    Perrino’s talk, “The TREX1 Pathway in Autoimmune Disease,” featured studies of the TREX1 enzyme by retreat chair Clinton Orebaugh, Ph.D., who completed his graduate work in Perrino’s lab and introduced the speaker. Building on Orebaugh’s results, recent research in Perrino’s lab further explains how mutations in TREX1 contribute to the human autoimmune diseases lupus and Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Orebaugh)

  • Crowl and St Charles

    While a student at UNC, Crowl, right, had Furey as a professor and interned in Bloom’s lab. St Charles, left, applies her skills in organization and communication to ensure productivity of clinical labs as a LabCorp project manager. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Yuan lin

    Liu says the driving force to pursue an academic career was her passion for researching across a lifetime. Her lab at Florida International University studies base excision repair, which is the major pathway cells use to combat oxidative DNA damage. Lindahl shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for pioneering the discovery of this pathway. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Heacock Talking

    While wrapping up her postdoc at NIEHS, Heacock took what she called a leap of faith, accepting an assignment to the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training to gain science administration experience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Jeff Stumpf

    As a medical writer at MedThink Communications, Stumpf coordinates with medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies to tell the scientific story of a new drug or therapeutic process. He said he enjoys tackling a diverse set of problems for clients while working as a member of a team. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • The GISBL retreat committee and TAC

    The GISBL retreat committee and TAC members played a pivotal role in the success of the event. From top left, Mark Itsko, Ph.D.; Orebaugh; Resnick; Karen Debalsi, Ph.D.; Melike Caglayan, Ph.D.; Crowl; Peter Thompson, Ph.D.; Molly Cook; Sara Andres, Ph.D.; Natalie Saini, Ph.D.; and Thuy-Ai Nguyen, Ph.D. Not pictured: Kelly Daughtry, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • The North Carolina Museum of Art

    The North Carolina Museum of Art offered attendees a scenic backdrop, complete with exhibits and walking trails to explore between sessions. “[It’s] the best place I’ve ever been for a retreat,” said Resnick. (Photo courtesy of Ssteve McCaw)

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