Imposter in the ivory tower

I shouldn’t be here. Any moment now security will show up at my office door and hurriedly usher me out of the building. Clearly someone made a mistake, missed a phone call, filed a piece of paper in the wrong folder, and I slipped through the cracks. This makes no sense. Children raised in poverty by a single mother in a small Midwest farm town [Beaverton, Michigan; pop. 1,071] do not go on to start their own research lab at a world-class genetics institute in the idyllic setting of coastal Maine. These positions are reserved for the private-school kids from wealthy families who grew up with their own tutors and excelled in lacrosse and polo. I should still be stocking shelves at my local grocery store. Maybe if I keep a low profile, no one will notice and I can delay my inevitable firing - and the adjective-laden exposé in the local newspaper that will most assuredly accompany it. No doubt the headline has already been written. But until that day, let’s agree to keep this little secret between us.

View from Steve Munger's office at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine

"I am enjoying the view (while it lasts)."

Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many regular blog entries (see disclaimer above). My name is Steve Munger, and I’m a newly minted assistant professor at The Jackson Laboratory (JAX). In my previous lives, I was a post-doctoral fellow in Gary Churchill’s group at JAX, a struggling graduate student in Dr. Blanche Capel’s lab at Duke University, a lost undergraduate student at The University of Michigan, and a small town boy with a big mouth and bigger dreams.

Interspersed between, I stocked shelves and cashiered at the local grocery store; mowed elderly ladies’ lawns with my high school biology teacher; operated the “Demon Drop” ride at my favorite amusement park, Cedar Point; suffered as a substitute science teacher at a high school outside of Detroit; washed dishes and cooked with long sticks at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant; moonlighted as a counter attendant at a bowling alley (52 lanes!); and worked as a quality control and research technologist on a new flat-panel display technology at Dow Chemical – where I met my wife and caught the research bug. Just as there are “many routes to the same summit,” my path to science and genetics research has been a meandering but incredibly rewarding journey.

Today, I would call myself a geneticist, with a dash of statistics and programming and a passion for “big data.” My research is focused at the interface of complex trait genetics and functional genomics. I aim to understand how subtle errors (mutations) in many genes combine and interact to influence development, and cause disorder and disease – the genetic equivalent of “death by a thousand cuts." I tell my mother that I am trying to solve a multi-dimensional Sudoku puzzle that changes over time.

Complex genetic puzzle of life

We now have the ability to characterize an individual’s genome (DNA), transcriptome (RNA), proteome (proteins), and many other “-omes” – in many cell types, at different stages from early development to the end of life. Using the mouse as my model system, I examine the abundant natural genetic variation segregating in populations, and characterize their proximal effects on the cell and downstream effects on disease susceptibility. Essentially, I am trying to do my small part to fill in the giant Sudoku puzzle linking genetics to disease. 

So what should readers expect from my “blog within a blog?" I’m not exactly sure, but I hope to discuss recent research that I find interesting, methods for communicating that research to scientific and lay audiences, emerging trends and controversies, my experience trying to build an independent research program, and my obsession with kitchen gadgets and international food. My goal is to tell the stories of cutting edge research – and the scientists performing it – in a way that is engaging, accessible, and maybe even a little humorous.

Steven Munger is a former post-doctoral fellow and new assistant professor at the Jackson Laboratory for Mammalian Genetics in Bar Harbor, Maine. All opinions expressed in this blog are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @stevemunger.