Embryonic stem cells can either make more copies of themselves, or differentiate to form any cell type in the body. This means that they have the potential to form any tissue, that is, they are pluripotent. How pluripotent cells make the decision to differentiate, and which cell type to differentiate into, is defined by which genes the cell turns on, and which it turns off. Genes are encoded in the cell’s DNA, which gets packaged up in the cell with proteins into a structure called chromatin.
Our lab studies the function of a group of proteins which can change the structure of chromatin, turning genes up, down, or off, in pluripotent cells. Our key questions are: How do pluripotent cells control their gene expression in order to make developmental decisions’ How does the function of chromatin-modifying proteins precisely control gene expression patterns?
We are addressing these questions by studying both embryonic stem cells, but also pluripotent cells that exist very early in mammalian development. We aim to better understand how cells make decisions during normal development, but also to understand how these processes occasionally go wrong and result in human diseases such as cancer.
A typical day for me is mostly lab-based, growing generated cell lines in culture and maintaining them in their optimal conditions. I then harvest these cells, running experiments on them to see for example their gene expression dynamics (qPCR analysis), or running western blots. I also do some admin/lab management work, liaising with company representatives, as well as some science communication, like through my YouTube channel, seuninscience.
The most inspiring day I have had so far was listening to a talk by Nobel Prize winner Sir John Gurdon, which says something the Cambridge science community. The researchers here are leading experts in their fields, but there are lots of opportunities for free-flowing science discussions with them, as well as access to see and learn about the range of good research being done here in Cambridge.
As a person of colour, it can be intimidating or disappointing to see a lack of representation in my field, and that has led to underlying feelings of imposter syndrome , but my advice is to remind yourself that you deserve to be here. I also believe that being open about your journey and experience as a woman in STEM is key, because representation matters!
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