Scientist Profile: Kelly M. Haston, PhD

My path to becoming a scientist was non-traditional. I grew up in Canada and due to a turbulent family situation left home and school at the age of 15. Returning 12 years later I started classes at Foothill College and discovered a passion for science. I got involved with research immediately upon transferring to UC Berkeley and as an undergraduate and master’s student at UCB, I studied environmental endocrinology with Dr. Tyrone Hayes, performing field studies in Africa and the American Midwest. My research with Dr. Hayes on pesticide feminization of male reproductive development in larval frogs was published in EHP and Nature in 2002.

I pursued my PhD research with the goal of a career in academia. My thesis work, with Dr. Renee Reijo Pera at UCSF and Stanford University elucidated the genetic, epigenetic and “niche” requirements of early germ cell pluripotency and development in both in vivo and in vitro models of infertility. I moved to the field of neurodegeneration for my postdoctoral work to help address a devastating set of diseases that are both physically, emotionally and financially draining to the afflicted, care givers and health care system. Furthermore, there has been limited success developing drugs in model systems such as the rodent, and therefore was a place I could incorporate my work with embryonic and induced pluripotent cells to develop human models of these diseases. In 2010, I began a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, with Dr. Lee Rubin, in the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Department. I developed a collaboration with the EPA’s Toxcast Program to explore the role of environmental factors in the development and progression of neurodegenerative diseases. Focusing on ALS, I used a high-throughput screening assay of ESC and iPSC lines, differentiated towards motor neuron lineage in the presence of environmental agents, to interrogate the role these compounds have in disease pathogenesis. For family reasons, I returned to San Francisco in July 2011. Although I looked at different opportunities including industry I wasn’t quite ready to leave academia and was extremely fortunate to join the Gladstone.

My current work with Dr. Finkbeiner includes developing a human pluripotent stem cells -derived model of the neuromuscular junction, the location where communication (also called a synapse) occurs between motor neurons and skeletal muscle, which leads to movement. The neuromuscular junction is a site of early vulnerability in several neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington Disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and is also important in other muscular disorders and injury. Developing human models of cells impacted in disease, in particular ones that show changes early in disease, will help us understand the basic biology underlying changes seen in the disease state and also provide a platform to test potential drugs that may act as therapeutics. This is why I find working with human stem cell models so interesting, and believe in their unique potential to address questions of human development and disease. Key to our success will be utilizing Dr. Finkbeiner’s revolutionary robotic microscope, which will allow us to follow single cells and characterize disease pathology in live cultures.

I have had a diverse set of research experiences, yet each has reinforced my interest in the study of genetic and environmental factors that influence development and occurrence of diseases. Studying biology can be hard, and there can be years of delayed gratification before you get answers to your questions, however I am still get excited when I take my first look at a new experimental result. However, it is more difficult than ever to figure out what to do with your future. Academic jobs are extremely difficult to get. Industry has more opportunity, but it is harder to find a job where you get to work on the very thing you love. These, along with life balance are the difficult parts of science.

In my spare time I love reading and American football. However my number one activity outside of lab is running and other outdoor activities.  I started running seriously in my first year of grad school with my classmates, but in the last few years I have moved into the ultra distances and since 2013 I have completed over 20 ultra marathons, including Rim2Rim2Rim in the Grand Canyon (see picture) and three 100 milers. My big race in 2015 was UTMB, in the Alps, which went through three countries. This year I will be attempting Leadville 100 mile run in the mountains of Colorado.

 

Article by Kelly M. Haston