Connell Lecture Series: Dr. Maria Jasin

Written by Louis Ho

Dr. Maria Jasin is a biomedical researcher at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. I asked her about her work, the field of DNA damage and the hurdles she encountered in her career as a female scientist.

Dr. Maria Jasin started her career in a topic that, at the time, generated little interest except for niche technology applications.

MJ: “The lore at that time was that HR [homologous recombination] was inconsequential…”

Even though few people saw the significance of this field, she strongly felt that it was unexplored territory and that focusing on it would lead to many different projects in her new lab. She admits that for quite some time they were sort of “left field”: At her first repair conference on double-strand break repair, Dr. Jasin was the only speaker even talking about homologous recombination.

The silver-lining was that it gave her lab space to grow and develop new research. It led to breakthroughs in technology surrounding breast cancer and other gene editing tools like CRISPR.

The field of DNA repair seems to have a long history and a lot of researchers are working on it right now. Do you have any insight into why it has stayed relevant for so long?

MJ: “The staying power of DNA repair is remarkable, isn’t it? One reason is that the area is very broad – the number of different types of lesions and repair pathways. Biochemists have contributed a lot over the years to our understanding of repair mechanisms. The biological roles of DNA repair have been found to be very impactful, especially recently for HR. For example, the discovery that some tumor suppressors are crucial HR factors has fueled a huge amount of interest.”

She notes that these factors are particularly high for breast and ovarian cancer, but the impact in other tissues (prostate, pancreas) has also recently been appreciated.

MJ: “…all of us in the field are thrilled to be doing research that can so directly help patients.”

Is there any advice would you give to young (especially female) scientists early on in their career?

MJ: An unexpected frustration though has been the gender issue. As a post-doc and student, I was an important and critical member of each of the three labs I had been in, so I was surprised as a junior faculty member to find that my voice could not be heard at times. The gender issue is less problematic now, but women still face them as we know. The only advice here would be to not let it beat you down. To be in the privileged position of running a research lab means that an investigator is talented: So don’t let others dictate how you develop your career.”

Dr. Maria Jasin’s Connell Lecture titled: “Protecting the genome by homologous recombination: BRCA2 and its role in genomic integrity maintenance” will be held on September 26th in the Medical Sciences Building Room 2172 at 4:00 pm.



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