What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
My research program is focused on the development and utilization of iPSC models of human lung disease to overcome a critical lack of model systems that closely reflect disease pathogenesis as it occurs in humans. One of the major limitations to studying human lung disease is limited access to primary airway epithelial cells and poor recapitulation of human disease in rodent models leading to fewer therapies making it to the clinic for lung disease. Our primary research efforts are focusing on rare lung diseases where human samples are particularly difficult to obtain or only obtained from end stage disease, namely Cystic Fibrosis and Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia. We use in vitro, in vivo, iPSC, and 3-D spheroid models combined with state-of-the-art gene editing technologies to a) model and study mechanisms of lung development and disease and b) investigate approaches for tissue regeneration and stem cell-mediated repair of the airway epithelium.
There are many rewarding aspects to my work: I love the freedom that academia allows for me to focus on the scientific questions that I want to ask. The rewarding days when the experiments work and you make it one step closer to revealing a new pathogenic mechanism. Seeing the excitement of a trainee when they make a breakthrough, however small it may be (yes I was one of those trainees who ran around the lab celebrating these small successes!). The most rewarding times, however, are the opportunities through the foundations that I work with – the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia Foundation – where I am able to interact directly with patients. Understanding what it is to live day to day with these debilitating lung diseases and realizing the potential implications a small breakthrough in research may mean to them.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
Growing up I wanted to be a veterinarian and I spent much of my spare time working with animals. Despite getting the grades needed I did not get a place in Veterinary School in the UK and I re-evaluated my goals and accepted a place on a Pharmacology Masters undergraduate program at Bath University. One way or another I wanted to make a difference and help cure disease. During my final year of undergraduate I worked in the lab that would be the one I stayed in to complete my PhD and my focus became lung disease. For my PhD I focused on the vasculature, switching to the airways during my postdoctoral training. My transition into pluripotent stem cell research came after attending a seminar at UCSD by Jamie Thomson shortly following the publication of breakthrough papers on induced pluripotency. The subsequent formation of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine lead to an opportunity to learn these techniques and apply them to studying lung dieses through the CIRM postdoctoral training fellowship. From this point forward I have focused on developing methods to apply patient specific pluripotent stem cells to model rare lung diseases.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
One of the most exciting aspects of my work is the opportunity to collaborate with other experts in the field. Bringing together scientists with different ideas and expertise and lead to the most innovative and exciting interdisciplinary scientific endeavors. My laboratory is lucky to have forged several such collaborations that I hope will be inspirational to the next generation of scientists training in my lab.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Choose a project/research area that you are truly excited to study, work hard, plan well, network effectively, be patient, be resilient and to quote the words of my current mentor and division chief, Dr. Zea Borok, “Just do it!”
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
I have been incredibly lucky to have had some of the best mentors guide me through my career so far. Each and every one of them has played an important role in shaping my career and getting me to where I am now, starting with my family, my parents brought up to believe that you can achieve anything if you work hard enough and never give up. My scientific mentors start with Dr. Sergey Smirnov (PhD mentor, University of Bath), Dr. Jason Yuan (Postdoc mentor, UCSD) Dr. Inder Verma (Postdoc mentor, The Salk Institute), and Dr. Zea Borok (Faculty mentor, USC). I have also found fantastic mentorship in my current collaborators, at every stage of your career mentors are critical. I am eternally grateful for their guidance and only hope to be able to pass along what I have learnt from them to the next generation of scientists.
How do you spend your free time?
Right now I spend as much time as possible with my family. I have a 9-month old daughter, Maddi, who fills our lives with so much happiness. My husband, Dan, and I both share a love for the outdoors so we try to hike as much as possible with Maddi and our dog, Jacki. We chose to live inland of LA to be able to easily hike in the San Gabriel Mountains, head inland to Idyllwild, or north to the Sierras.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
Most people know of my love for sport. I am a Cat 2 amateur bike racer and love triathlon and adventure sports. I have completed 2 ironman triathlons and enjoy ultra-running. Things have slowed down a little since Maddi was born!
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
The wide application of stem cells to pretty much any disease or organ makes the annual meeting extremely exciting. It’s a great way to meet scientists in the field and learn about the most recent advances in stem cell research. There are many opportunities through the ISSCR to meet people and discuss stem cell research.