2011 Amgen Scholar Vanessa Gray Delves Into DNA, Including Her Own

In 2009, as a sophomore at Arizona State University in Tempe, Vanessa Gray started what would become a fruitful beginning as a scientist. She began conducting research with Sudhir Kumar, whose group uses genomics data from species ranging from primates to fish to make inferences about human disease.

Although she was new to the lab setting, Gray quickly learned how to make use of computational tools that analyze genomic data with help from Kumar.

“Working in the Kumar lab was my favorite part of undergrad,” says Gray, a 2011 Washington University in St. Louis Amgen Scholar who is now a second-year doctoral student in genome sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Conducting research gave her the opportunity to implement what she had learned in class.

The Amgen Scholars experience:

Looking to expand her research skills in genomics further, Gray applied to the Amgen Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis in 2011. She got accepted to work with Nabeel Yaseen. When he found out that Gray was skilled in computation, he asked her to analyze data that the group had already gathered.

Yaseen’s group studies acute myeloid leukemia, a blood cancer caused by many different gene mutations; his lab focuses on a specific mutation that causes the protein, NUP98, to fuse with another protein called HOXA9. The resulting melded protein was thought to cause adult cells to proliferate when they shouldn’t — and that process causes cancer. But Gray’s analysis instead revealed that NUP98-HOXA9 could activate a number of other proteins that could help cause cancer. The group will need to study these candidates further, she says.

When she returned to Arizona State and to Kumar’s lab, Gray continued taking on new and increasingly complex computational problems in personalized medicine and evolutionary biology, which led to first-authorships on studies in top-tier journals such as Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology and Evolution.

“She’s very passionate about her research. She spends lot of time working on it, much more than other students,” Kumar says. “She’s devoted. That’s the reason why she’s able to publish so many papers even as an undergraduate in my group.”

Bringing science to others:

Even early on in her scientific career, Gray has brought her passion for science to the community through several outreach efforts. Those activities started when Gray attended a regional conference for underrepresented students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, and heard a compelling lecture highlighting the disparity of minority students involved in the sciences.

“I asked the speaker what I could do, as a student, to ameliorate the problem,” Gray recalls. “I was stunned by the simplicity of the speaker’s answer. As a minority, I learned that one way I could address the lack of diversity is by simply chatting with friends, family and the community about my projects in the lab.”

So Gray did just that. And then, she had another idea with which to reach others—by using a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company to get 100,000 sites in her DNA genotyped. The results helped explain some of the genetics underlying her physical traits and the risk of certain diseases.

She showed the results to her family, friends and new acquaintances, and in the process, not only exposed them to genetics and scientific research but also got them excited about such topics.

In graduate school:

When the time came to apply to graduate school, Gray wanted to push herself outside of her geographical comfort zone. As an Amgen Scholar, she had been able to try full-time research in a completely new setting.

“I did my undergraduate in the same place where I grew up, so going to St. Louis and doing the Amgen Scholars Program gave me an opportunity to see what’s it’s like to go to school in a different place,” Gray says.

Gray works in Douglas Fowler’s group at the University of Washington and has recently earned a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation to complete her studies. The goal of her project is to mutate all sites within amyloid beta protein, which is responsible for causing the hallmark brain plaques to form in Alzheimer’s disease. “If we better understand how amyloid beta proteins aggregate with one another to form plaques then we will be one step closer to designing a drug that can either break up these plaques or prevent them from forming in the first place,” Gray says.

Gray shows a zeal for experimental work, says Fowler, an assistant professor of genome sciences. “I'm excited to see where this combination [of computational and experimental skills] takes her. She is the first student to join my lab, and clearly I'm very lucky.”