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An entrance to The Jackson Laboratory at night.

Dawn to dusk at The Jackson Laboratory

by Joyce Peterson, Barry Teater, Tom Walsh and Mark Wanner / Photography by Françoise Gervais, Rogier Van Bakel and Tom Walsh

Almost every visitor to The Jackson Laboratory's Bar Harbor, Maine, campus has a similar response: "I didn't know the Laboratory is such a big place, and I had no idea how many things are going on here."

The Laboratory is indeed big and very busy with 1,200 employees. But what makes the campus so energetic and vibrant are the people and the mission: "We discover the genetic basis for preventing, treating and curing human disease, and we enable research and education for the global biomedical community."

Everyone here knows that his or her work contributes to a larger goal that benefits humankind. The Search invites you to meet some of these people on a busy summer day.

Dawn

Danny Mitchell's workday at The Jackson Laboratory begins long before the day itself. Up before the sun, he's into the shower, out of the house and behind the wheel of a 28-seat, propane-powered commuter bus by 5:15 a.m. Heading east toward the seaside Washington County community of Milbridge, he peers into the glare of the sunrise, keeping watch for moose lumbering across busy U.S. Route 1.

For more than six years, Mitchell has been piloting the commuter route that takes Jackson Laboratory workers to and from their remote hometowns. Including stops for subscribers in Milbridge, Gouldsboro, Sullivan and Franklin, the 55-mile trip takes more than an hour, depositing those onboard in Bar Harbor just before 7 a.m. After parking his bus, Mitchell heads to The Jackson Laboratory's Information Technology department, where he staffs the "Help Desk" to troubleshoot computer hardware and software issues as they arise.

By 3:40 p.m., he'll be back in the bus, waiting on the last of his passengers to climb aboard for the long return trip. By the time he arrives home, it will have been at least a 12-hour workday.

"It does make for a long day, but it helps a lot of people out and saves us all a lot of gas money," Mitchell says.

Early morning

Leonor Robidoux's trek to work each day begins at 6:00 a.m. in Sullivan, a seaside community some 40 miles from her job as an animal care trainee at The Jackson Laboratory.

After an hour-long commuter bus ride, she suits up in a mask, coveralls and goggles to begin her shift. Robidoux works in the RAF (Research Animal Facility) with mice that are not distributed to outside laboratories but instead contribute to research within The Jackson Laboratory. Her work area is a barrier room, inside a building within a building. The scientists work in one section and the mice are housed in another. Each section has completely separate climate control and ventilation, so that the mice are close at hand for the researchers but cut off from all pathogens.

Until she catches the bus at 3:30 p.m. for the long ride home, Robidoux is hard at work, meeting the needs of the mouse colony maintained by Leah Rae Donahue, Ph.D., a senior research scientist and the director of Genetic Resource Science. Robidoux's efforts support research into skeletal and craniofacial development.

"I stay busy and I work hard," Robidoux says of her job. "But what I do is important to the research being done in our lab."

Morning

Like a concert pianist performing on a rare, handmade instrument, Mark Lessard leans forward intently over the keyboard. But instead of reading sheet music, Lessard is scrutinizing a computer screen, a ghostly ring-shaped image casting a red glow on his face. Lessard is an Imaging Sciences research assistant, and the instrument is the 4Pi confocal laser microscope (and it is indeed rare—the only one of its kind in the Western hemisphere). Jim Denegre, Ph.D., senior manager of Imaging Sciences, stops by to have a look.

"This sample in this image is from [Assistant Professor] Lindsay Shopland's lab," Denegre explains. "Lindsay is exploring whether chromosomes are just stuffed inside the cell nucleus like so much spaghetti, or whether their location is specific, and if it's specific, then is it specific with respect to active regions of chromosomes?"

Lessard notes that Shopland had already reviewed similar samples from a standard confocal microscope, and had requested the 4Pi review. "What the 4Pi gives her is not just a higher-resolution image, which it does," he says. "The 4Pi processes the images into actual measurements, so she can analyze the data and determine whether something she sees is statistically relevant or not.

"Microscropy used to be qualitative—you see it or you don't. Now it's quantitative, and that's what is driving the development of super-resolution instruments like the 4Pi."

Late morning

It's a quiet morning on the phones.

The relative calm means Karen Fancher, Ph.D., supervisor of the Technical Information Services (TIS) group, has time to further refine a new program of webinars that is off to a successful start. TIS fields calls and provides expert problem solving and advice to members of the biomedical research community working with the Laboratory's resources—namely mice in most cases. But under Fancher's leadership, the group has greatly expanded its educational outreach programs.

"Some of my job is putting out fires and problem-solving on the fly," says Fancher. "But most of the time is spent connecting with researchers and providing the information they need to do better research."

Fancher worked for five years at the Laboratory as a research assistant before entering the joint University of Maine/Jackson Laboratory functional genomics Ph.D. program. But by the time she earned her degree in 2008, her interest in education and desire to help people had her question staying on the bench.

The feedback from the webinars has been amazing, very positive. Several hundred people attend every one—some international scientists even get up in the middle of the night to attend.

Directly helping people won out. In addition to the webinars, TIS has now greatly expanded on-site presentations, with a goal of visiting 65 different companies and institutions within the coming year. But the webinars remain a focus.

"The feedback from the webinars has been amazing, very positive. Several hundred people attend every one—some international scientists even get up in the middle of the night to attend. Preparing them was time-consuming and tiring, but the results are well worth it."

Noon hour

Development Officer Erin Fogg is tired but content. Today, she has brought the worlds of research and medical care together at the Blue Hill Women's Health Luncheon. The endless details involved with setting up the event have been addressed by Fogg and a team of dedicated volunteers, and a full house awaits a program about improving cardiovascular health.

After the meal, Jackson Laboratory Research Scientist Ron Korstanje, Ph.D., talks about studying genes involved with the cholesterol transport pathway. The hospital's Zoe Tenney, F.N.P., follows, discussing her work with women to prevent, diagnose and treat cardiovascular disease.

"We're looking to communicate the importance of the Laboratory's work to current and future supporters through a bench-to-bedside message," says Fogg, "and what better way to do that than to work with a local hospital?"

The Laboratory began as a radical idea and as a philanthropic cause. The radical idea was that cancer is genetic. The cause was to find better ways to treat it, and to ultimately find a cure. Fogg is a modern-day messenger for that cause, now broadened to include other intractable genetic diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and muscular dystrophy.

"The Development Office works to provide meaningful ways for people to learn about and interact with the Laboratory," says Fogg. "The women here are learning about the research and about how it contributes to medicine directly from a scientist, and that's a terrific introduction to why our work is so necessary.

Early afternoon

Leah Rae Donahue, Ph.D., is intently reviewing an article that's about to be published in the Laboratory's JAX® Notes newsletter, read by thousands of researchers in the global biomedical community. It's the story of a comeback, and it gives her immense satisfaction.

A panel of recombinant inbred mice at the University of Colorado at Boulder had been infected by a virus and were in peril, jeopardizing important genetic research into food restriction and its effect on aging and life span. The Colorado researchers turned to The Jackson Laboratory for help.

With its Importation and Cryopreservation services, the Genetic Resource Science (GRS) group imported the sick mice, "re-derived" them to rid them of the virus, cryopreserved their embryos in liquid nitrogen freezers, and recently began distributing 63 strains to researchers around the world. The two-year project was funded by the Ellison Medical Foundation, the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health, and the University of Colorado."

"Because of the unique capabilities resident here at JAX, we were able to step in and save a valuable resource," says Donahue, a senior research scientist who directs GRS and also serves on the Laboratory's Senior Management Team. "People look to JAX for tools and resources to do science. In this instance, we had exactly what was needed to save this valuable recombinant inbred set and to make the mice available to scientists everywhere. It really was an all-around win-win."

Afternoon

Abigail "Abby" Rainsley is dressed in blue jeans and steel-toed boots as she escorts a group of Laboratory employees to a parking lot during emergency evacuation training. Professional attire is relative for a safety specialist; practical wins the day.

Rainsley joined the Laboratory as an animal care technician in 2008 after graduating from the University of Maine with a bachelor's degree in Environmental Science. The job not only allowed her to stay in the area, but offered her opportunities for career advancement. In her current position in Environmental Health & Safety Services, she performs safety audits, keeps safety records, conducts emergency evacuation training, files reports with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and does whatever else is required to keep 1,200 employees safe on the Bar Harbor campus.

New-hire orientation is one of her favorite tasks because it allows her to promote all aspects of safety at the Laboratory, from production to research. "I love the variety of the job," she says. "I get to work with every group on campus."

I love the variety of the job. I get to work with every group on campus.

An avid baker, Rainsley often brings in confections to introduce herself to new groups. "I'm known for dealing in cookies," she says. "They establish the idea that I'm non-threatening and am there to help with whatever issues need to be resolved."

Dinner time

Standing at the front of a conference room in Highseas, her home for the summer, India Stewart is explaining her research project to a roomful of her colleagues.

"The objectives of my project are finding human genes and mouse genes associated with multiple sclerosis," she says, and describes the characteristics of the disease. She taps a remote control and a new slide comes up, displaying a long list of human candidate genes and their corresponding mouse genes.

Though several members of The Jackson Laboratory's research faculty are in the room, most—including Stewart—are talented high school and college students participating in the Laboratory's Summer Student Program. After Stewart's last slide, she takes questions from the audience members, who also fill out index cards with comments and suggestions for improving the talk.

As the final round of applause fades, someone says "dinner," and no one has to hear it twice. Stewart, her fellow students and their guests load up their plates and head out to Highseas' back porch and its lovely view of Frenchman Bay to eat. The day's hard work is done, and soon the air is filled with animated chatter. As the shadows lengthen, science talk gives way to other topics as the students look forward to an evening soccer game, a birthday celebration and other forms of summer fun.

A birthday celebration rounds out the dinner for the summer students and their guests.

Evening

The sun sets early at the Laboratory, disappearing behind Dorr Mountain to the west.

Darkness falls quickly, even during summer. Nonetheless, Postdoctoral Associate Peter Vedell, Ph.D., relishes the quiet evening hours. Working with Professor Gary Churchill, Ph.D., Vedell is focused on bioinformatics, where math, statistics, computer science and genetics come together to analyze and manage the huge amounts of biological data being produced.

Vedell is wrapping up a project that looked at how gene expression varies. Genes being expressed are inferred to be producing their end products, proteins. He found that gene expression varies a lot from tissue to tissue, between individual animals (including when they're genetically identical) and even between samples from the same tissue.

"When doing an experiment, you have to know what the baseline variation is," says Vedell. "Only then can you correctly interpret changes in gene expression when you introduce the experimental variables."

The work can have direct clinical applications as well. He's also collaborating with fellow postdoc Cheryl Ackert-Bicknell, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Matt Hibbs, Ph.D., on a project that, in part, has the potential to show how the controversial diabetes drug Avandia® affects gene expression in different tissues and within different genetic backgrounds.

Vedell's curiosity drives him onward, often late into the evening.

"We work well as a group during the day," says Vedell, "but I think clearly in the evening. Plus I want to find the next step in my analysis. I want to see results."