Featured Article December 16, 2020

Combining a love of science with a passion for impact

JAX postdoctoral researchers utilize The Jackson Laboratory’s unique research environment to pursue their dreams.

Ruby Boateng, Ph.D., can remember the first time she held a tube of DNA in a scientific laboratory. “It was quite exciting!” she says, remembering her experience as a member of the SUNY Upstate Bridges to the Baccaulaureate Program. The program, directed by Binghamton University and funded by the NIH, was established to increase the number of underrepresented scholars pursuing and earning baccalaureate degrees in the biomedical sciences.

“The lab I joined allowed me to observe what it means to be a scientist and what a scientist looks like,” she said. “Most importantly, most of the people in that lab looked like me, and from that moment, I knew that I was going to stay in the science field.”

Having completed her Ph.D. at Howard University, Boateng is now a postdoctoral researcher in the  The Bolcun-Filas LabResearching meiosis, the mechanisms of DNA damage detection and repair during normal development of gametes, and implications for fertility of cancer patients after radiation and chemotherapy.Bolcun-Filas lab at JAX, where she studies how genetic factors in females regulate their egg endowment and reproductive lifespan.

“I chose to be in the reproductive biology/genetic field because I grew up in a society where women experiencing infertility or individuals with genetic diseases were outcasts. By combining my love of science and my passion, I hope to help such individuals or at least help people in my society understand and accept them.”

Postdocs: the drivers of research

JAX research professors like Bolcun-Filas  Who does what in a lab: scientist job titles explainedEver wonder who does what in a research lab? We joined the Bolcun-Filas group for a day to learn about the scientists who work together on female fertility. direct independent labs made up of  students, postdocs, research assistants, and staff scientists, and Ph.D. students and postdoctoral associates like Boateng work in one of these basic research labs performing independent, hypothesis-driven research.

A postdoctoral associate (postdoc) is a trainee position for Ph.D. scientists; a postdoc's primary aim is to gain mentored research and professional experience before moving into an independent position. As they complete training on the path to launching their careers, postdocs often manage their own projects in the lab, gain teaching experience, and write both grant applications and publication manuscripts.

“JAX is approaching disease research in innovative ways, and quite often postdocs are the drivers of that research,” says Amy Dunn, Ph.D.Gene-environment interactions in aging, Alzheimer's disease, and related disordersAmy Dunn, Ph.D ., who studies how environmental risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease affects individuals differently. “The postdoc community is also inspiring in itself - my fellow postdocs are incredibly bright, creative, community-minded, and tackling really interesting and impactful research projects.”

Being a postdoc at JAX also has advantages for those who are thinking of moving into industry or biotechnology field: postdocs have opportunities to learn how   JAX® Mice & ServicesJAX® Mice are the most published and well characterized mouse models in the world, and include the only fully sequenced strain, C57BL/6J. Take advantage of the convenience of having your husbandry, sourcing, and efficacy evaluation needs met by JAX.JAX Mice, Clinical and Research Services (JMCRS)  works and about the diverse types of career paths for Ph.D.s in a customer-oriented research environment.

“My future aspiration is to become an expert in the reproductive biology/genetic field. As of now, I am still deciding between academia or industry, but no matter which route I decide, I would still stay in this field,” says Boateng.

A unique research environment

“I would absolutely not be able to do my particular research project anywhere else,” says Dunn. “Resource-wise, we have unparalleled animal resources, animal care staff, genetics experts, computational biology experts, and other scientific services that I depend on every day.” Dunn says that the Laboratory’s Center for Biometric Analysis has allowed her team to complete studies that would be impossible elsewhere, while scientific services like microscopy, sequencing, genetic engineering technologies and more have allowed her to undertake experiments and new techniques that would be logistically very challenging in any other lab at any other institution.

Opportunities for JAX postdocs are available in diverse areas including aging, bioinformatics, cancer, computational biology, development, epigenetics, metabolism, immunology, infectious diseases, neurobiology, reproduction and systems genetics.

“JAX provides postdocs with a unique research environment - with access to unparalleled mammalian genetics and human genomics resources, scientific services and professional development programs – as well as dedicated faculty mentors with a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and research interests,” says JAX president and CEO  Edison Liu, M.D.Conducts research focused on the functional genomics of breast cancer through an exploration of the entire genomic space.Edison Liu, M.D. “Using these resources, postdocs add immeasurable value to our JAX family as they continue their training and research. We are proud to support these exceptional early-career scientists as they take the next step in their scientific careers.”

Raman Akinyanju Lawal, Ph.D.Unraveling the evolutionary forces that give rise to the observed genetic diversity in the house mouseRaman Akinyanju Lawal, Ph.D. , joined JAX’s The Dumont LabResearching the mechanisms that generate genetic diversity through the lens of evolutionDumont lab after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham in the UK. At JAX, he investigates the patterns of evolutionary forces that give rise to the observed genetic diversity that we find in the mouse model.

“Genetic diversity is critically important for our survival, especially as our environment continues to change,” says Lawal. “By understanding the mechanisms that give rise to the observed pattern of genetic diversity, we may be able to develop therapies to combat deadly diseases.”

Lawal, who was born in Nigeria, plans to eventually return to Africa to lead research efforts on genetic diversity. “To understand human genetic problems, we must go back to our roots, which is in Africa. The level of genetic diversity that we find in Africa today, our ability to adapt and survive diverse environmental conditions, is unmatched. That’s why Africa remains the future, and I see it as the gateway to finding the precise solution to our common genetic problem.”

A collaborative community

“The JAX community is diverse and inclusive, where people from all over the world can work together in a friendly environment,” says Haoxi Chai, Ph.D.Developing 3D genome mapping technologies.Haoxi Chai, Ph.D. Chai grew up in a family of biology majors, and recalls visiting the lab of his mother, a high school biology teacher, as a young child. Today, Chai studies the human genome structure in 3D Genomics LabElucidating the structures and dynamics of complex genomes.the Ruan lab , with the hope of linking genome structure and gene function in order to impact human disease.

Ali Foroughi Pour, Ph.D.Applications of mathematical modeling, statistical models, and machine learning to develop predictive models for integrative data analysis.Ali Foroughi pour, Ph.D. , who develops mathematical and artificial intelligence models for cancer research in the  The Chuang LabAnalyzing sequence and assay data to better understand genome function.Chuang lab , echoes this sentiment. “JAX is a fantastic place for interdisciplinary cancer research,” he says. Foroughi pour describes the JAX community as “kind, helpful and supportive” as he works toward his long-term plan of developing models that help design and fine-tune treatment plans for each individual cancer patient in clinical practice.

Dunn says that JAX is the most collaborative place where she has done research, allowing her to broaden her research perspective and diversify the repertoire of topics and techniques she can incorporate into her own research. “Because it is a relatively small community, and because there is such a wide variety of research done here, we can make really interesting and creative collaborations with other researchers that are totally outside of our research ‘niche,’” she explains.

Investing in humanity

Boateng says the support of donors allows postdoc to expand their research and incorporate more career training options into their programs. “Supporting the postdoc community here at JAX is a great way to pave the way for future scientists like myself,” she says. “This support helps postdocs land their dream jobs in a competitive science world.”

“When I think about The Jackson Laboratory and I think about the innovation of the lab, so much of that innovation comes from postdocs. It is the postdocs which have the creativity, they have the openness, they have the yearning to do something special. They have the freedom to think outside of the box,” says Lou D’Ambrosio, an emeritus member of the Laboratory’s Board of Trustees whose philanthropic support for JAX includes a fund for postdoc recruitment and training. “I was honored to have an opportunity to invest in the postdoc program, because they represent the future. They represent the future of healthcare, they represent how diseases will be viewed in the future and how therapies will be developed in the future to change the very course of illnesses as we know them today.”

“Some of my postdoc colleagues are working on Alzheimer's, cancer, aging diseases, and several others,” says Lawal. “But none of these efforts could have been possible without the support of our donors.”

D’Ambrosio encourages others to think about investing in the postdoc program: “You're investing in not only the future of the Jackson Laboratory, but you're investing in the future of society, you're investing in changing the way we think about diseases, you're investing in people who are changing the very world in which we live,” he says. “Investing in postdocs, investing in their thoughtfulness, their ingenuity, their creativity, their energy is investing in humanity. And I would argue that's a good thing to invest in. And there's no better place to invest than in The Jackson Laboratory.”