Early Career Leadership Spotlight — Abigail LaBella
We’re taking time over the following weeks to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us every week to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.
The genetic code has long been thought of as the language through which all living things encode information and then pass that information along to future generations. Modern genetic and genomic techniques have changed some of our basic conceptions about the genetic code. The notion that the genetic code is “universal” has been challenged by the discovery of codon reassignments in both nuclear and mitochondrial genomes. Additionally, the third codon position was long dubbed the “silent” position since mutations at this position, known as synonymous mutations, do not change protein sequences. Despite this supposedly silent role, the usage of synonymous codons varies non-randomly between genes and between genomes.
Recent evidence has challenged the idea that synonymous mutations have no effect on the physiology of a cell. Use of one synonymous codon over another has been implicated in critical cellular determinants such as the regulation of protein levels, localization of proteins in the cell, and proper folding of proteins. Variation in codon choice can occur within a single gene, across an entire genome, and between species.
My research focuses on using more than 1,000 genomes sequenced from species in the yeast subphylum Saccharomycotina to explore how synonymous codon usage varies at both the genetic and genomic levels. Specifically, I am interested in using biases in synonymous codon usage as a proxy for gene expression as a way to study which metabolic pathways are highly expressed in various ecological niches. My research involves both computational work to analyze the genomes and laboratory work to test our hypotheses.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What career paths interest you the most?
As a graduate student, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with amazing faculty who are pushing research and education to the next frontier. The faculty members who have inspired me the most excelled in three areas: research, teaching and university service. The unique combination of these three pieces in academia is a significant draw for me.
Research in an academic setting is appealing to me for its intellectual freedom, its ability to reach a wide audience, and the opportunities it presents for interdisciplinary work. Not only does cutting-edge research happen within the walls of universities, but this science is also disseminated broadly through efforts by university administration to publicize the work being done. Universities also host a broad range of expertise across disciplines, which can foster exciting and innovative collaborations. One of my favorite features of genomic research is that the same dataset can be used by scientists interested in evolution, disease, ecology, functional genetics, and more
Researchers in an academic setting also have the opportunity to teach science to a broad range of students. As a part of the Certificate in College Teaching program at Duke, I’ve learned skills to make the classroom an engaging learning experience. I’ve implemented many strategies from this program through my teaching responsibilities. I know that my students are truly engaged and understand the material when they ask questions that science has yet to answer.
One often overlooked component of working in academia is shaping the future of higher education by contributing to the strategic mission of a university. From provosts to deans to department heads, faculty in these positions help steer the school towards strategic goals such as increasing diversity and inclusion, aligning education with career needs, contributing to society, and more. I have found that addressing complex issues with individuals from across disciplines and experiences is challenging, inspiring, and rewarding.
In addition to your research, how else do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
Science benefits from diversity. Mounting evidence indicates that diverse teams are able to better focus objectively on facts (Sommers 2006) and are associated with increased innovation (Díaz-García et al. 2013). Scientists can fall subject to preconceived notions just like any other group of people, which could lead to overlooking important scientific discoveries. To create innovative and diverse scientific communities, we must promote diversity and inclusion in every scientific career path, at every gathering of scientific minds, and in all of our communications. Achieving this goal will take the investment of the entire scientific community, and I personally contribute by acting as a role model, mentoring future scientists, and engaging in discussions on these topics within my department, with peers, and within the greater scientific community.
Sometimes the challenges that face future scientists are overt and obvious, like financial barriers and discrimination. Other barriers like microaggressions are more veiled but can be equally as impactful. I have seen the frustration and disappointment when a female medical student was repeatedly referred to as a nurse in an important meeting. I personally questioned my abilities when I was told that my appearance indicated I wasn’t working hard enough. These incidents alone are not typically enough to turn a future scientist away from the field, but when they occur early and often, they can be enough to dissuade individuals with incredible scientific promise. Not only will I have a zero tolerance policy for these types of biases in my future lab but I am also committed to ensuring that other scientists have the tools combat these issues through workshops and trainings.
Working to improve both the overt and implicit biases that occur within science will produce more productive and innovative research—and will generally create a happier and healthier workspace for everyone.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
Improving diversity and inclusion in the sciences has been widely recognized as an important issue. Unfortunately, many who recognize this importance don’t possess the tools to address issues of bias within their own labs, institutions, societies—or even in their own behavior. I’ve gone through the challenging and often uncomfortable process of acknowledging and minimizing my biases, and it is something I want to encourage others to navigate.
My goals as a leader within the GSA is to help provide our members with tools to address biases they see in the world head-on. For me, a key turning point was participating in implicit bias training with Benjamin Reese, vice president of the Duke Office of Institutional Equity and accomplished consultant in diversity and inclusion. Not only did this training help me learn how to discuss sensitive topics, like diversity, but it also helped me recognize the unconscious biases in both myself and people around me. I am excited to work with the Diversity Subcommittee to develop programming for GSA members to help improve their skills as mentors for a diverse group of future geneticists and to ensure that they have the tools to fight back against bias.
Previous Leadership Experience
- President, Graduate and Professional Student Council—Duke University