Connell lecture series: Dr. Maitreya Dunham

Interview by Cindy Yimei Wan

Written by Cindy Yimei Wan and Kate Jiang

Dr. Maitreya Dunham is a professor at the Genome Sciences department at University of Washington. Dr. Dunham was invited to give a Connell lecture on May 10th, 2023, during which she talked about her lab’s work on functionally annotating human pharmacogene variants using yeast activity assays. The Transcripts team had the opportunity to interview her about her path to becoming a yeast geneticist, her love for science fiction and her passion for teaching and science outreach.

From Sea-Monkey Raiser to Yeast Geneticist

What made you want to be a scientist or PI as opposed to any other scientific career?

Well, I always liked science, even when I was a kid. I think there is a drawing I made of myself as a scientist in kindergarten. I was wearing a white coat and carrying liquid that was colorful, and that was the caricature of being a scientist. When I was in junior high, I went through a variety of career ideas for myself, including being a game show host and being a laser surgeon, because I thought lasers sounded really cool. And then it was really in high school that I started learning more about what we could do with the genome. The genome sequencing was just getting started, which is a long time ago, obviously. And when I went to college, I was pretty sure that I wanted to do science. I still remember learning that you got paid to go to grad school and being like, “Wow, okay, maybe I can do this. Maybe there is a career.”

For deciding I wanted to be a professor, I started thinking about that in college. But I think there’s so many interesting career paths. I’ve occasionally daydreamed about alternate universes where I went down different roads.

You could have hosted The Wheel of Fortune. But I think a lot of people seem to find that in college, especially when you start doing your first lab experiences. I know you were with Bob Weinberg in your undergrad, which is cancer [research] and then you did a genetics PhD, so you kind of sampled different things and came upon yeast, right?

Yeah. So [during] my college, I had an excellent TA in one of my intro biology classes, who I was talking to about grad school. And he was like, “if you want to do science, you should get into a lab as soon as possible, but nobody’s going to take you until after you take the intro lab course.” And so, I was like, “Great.” But I wanted to get into a lab sooner than that. So, I got a job feeding zebrafish in an immunology lab with Lisa Steiner. It was fun because you got to grow up these big vats of brine shrimp, which I had grown as a child in a kit called Sea-Monkeys.

I remember Sea-Monkeys. I had those!

And I was like, I’m a professional Sea-Monkey raiser, this is hilarious! The fish only wanted to eat live sea monkeys. You had to purify them—I had a tray and I shined a light at one end and they all swam towards the light. Then I’d siphon them all up with my pipette and feed them to the fish. I had that job and cleaning tanks and everything, and I was apparently responsible enough that they let me stay over the summer to start doing research. That was a great experience.

From there, I read an article about research going on in the Weinberg lab and went to talk to him to try something else. I worked in his lab for a couple of years, but I spent a summer working at Cold Spring Harbor in a plant lab. So I really did get to sample a bunch of different things. And then in grad school, [one of] my rotations was in a lab doing technology development, [and my third rotation was in a worm lab with Stuart Kim]. The lab I ultimately joined [was] the David Botstein lab. So I really got the zoo!

Unbiased question: why is yeast the best model organism?

I think what’s going to give yeast longevity is that it’s not a model, it’s an organism. It’s a production organism historically for civilization, for all sorts of products. The companies make stuff with it. But the real power is that you can mess with it and do whatever you want. It’s so flexible. You can address evolution questions, you can address biochemistry questions, you can…it’s just such an abstraction of the cell. It has the essentials.

I think none of the yeast people will challenge you on that.

Absolutely. Other people might.

Well, we don’t worry about them.

Teaching and Outreaching

You’ve had teaching and science outreach be a big theme throughout your career. What do you think of the importance of outreach for someone in a similar position of academic-like experience and seniority like you? Should other people be doing that?

I think it should be something on everyone’s radar just because, first of all, it’s a public good. I think it’s our responsibility as scientists and particularly as professors and people who work at universities to be telling other people about what we do, about science and correct, accurate information-derived ways. And I also enjoy it, I derive a lot of satisfaction out of it. It really complements the other elements of my job. And teaching is really immediate gratification. You go, you give a lecture, and you know you probably could have done a better job on some things and did an okay job on other things. But it’s over. You’ve accomplished your mission. You can move on.

Up to them to retain.

Right. And every year is a little different, but it’s really enjoyable. This year I had a student raise her hand in my class with 300 something people and asked, “Could you make a Punnett cube?”

Well, that’s an interesting way of visualizing it.

It also ended up bringing up some interesting topics, like, what would that mean? You have a Punnett square where you’ve got gametes from two parents, but for a Punnett cube, you’d have gametes from three parents. And what would the meiosis look like? You’d have to reduce it to 1/3. The students always surprised me—no one had ever asked me about a Punnett cube before.

Maybe that’s the next big area of research.

Right. I find that teaching requires you [to] really clarify how you explain things. I think that’s a useful skill for writing, for explaining, for thinking. Especially for students. In my first TA experience, I was TAing genetics at MIT and really learned a huge amount about genetics that I had not learned the first time I’d actually taken the class. I think there’s a lot of elements to it that are kind of a win-win.

You kind of cement your own understanding.

I think the other thing is teaching lab courses, like [at] the integrated science course and the Cold Spring Harbor course, we’ve been able to intercalate research objectives with teaching objectives so that we’ve been able to publish papers about data produced in course settings. And it kind of helps you get some of the traditional signifiers of scientific progress out of those experiences.

I feel like when you were talking about all the different high school outreach, it just felt like a lot to balance. And I was also curious if you’ve ever found that to be challenging. I mean they don’t really train you guys that much to begin with.

I will admit I am completely underwater on a few things right now—behind on some manuscripts in particular [that] I really need to finish. But it really matters that the team is on board. I would not do a lot of this unless I had people in my lab who were excited about it. And one thing that’s been really fun is [that] since we’ve started doing more of this work, people have started joining my lab because they know I work on this. I think I attract like-minded trainees and encourage them to spend time on this and value it, and that is reciprocated.

I guess being a PI, apart from the part that is writing grants and manuscripts 24/7, you’re also doing a lot of mentorship of your own students, right?

And how can I teach my students more of those skills? Well, nothing like running a project or having to work with a variety of people in the world or having to balance two projects together. So, I think it is developing some of those skills. And we’ve had a lot of undergrads involved in that as well. And so, the postdocs and the grad students get experience mentoring and the undergrads are involved in projects and everything.

They pay it forward maybe when they become…

I hope so.

The Bridge between Science and Sci-Fi

I have a couple lighter question that I’m curious about. I stalked you a little bit online, so I know you like science fiction.

Oh, yeah.

And I love science fiction. And I was curious if you have any authors or books that you might recommend.

Well, pre-pandemic I was part of this really great book club called the 21st Century Science Fiction Book Club. There’s a focus on a diverse range of authors: we’ve read science fiction from other countries and from a lot of authors who are women and non-binary and from underrepresented minority backgrounds. It has been just a super fun book club, and it was a really good group to get together and talk about things too. (…) And I brought with me as my airplane book The Lathe of Heaven, which is a classic that I’ve somehow never read. It’s supposed to be good.

I’ve read other stuff by the author. What’s her name? Le Guin. I have The Dispossessed on my shelf and it’s been there for a year, but I’m going to get to it because I really like the other stuff.

During the pandemic, I bought a house (which I do not recommend, by the way) and I was living on a houseboat at the time, and the houseboat became very small very quickly during the work from home. But the house that I bought is like three blocks away from the library. And I found out the other day what the maximum number of books is [that] you can have out from the library.

The maximum so far…

No, no. They actually stop you. They made an exception for me because I got a book that they had to get on an interlibrary loan. So, it’s a piece of feminist fiction from some of the science fiction from like the late 70s–I found an article [on books about] other dystopian futures. This book has a whole lot in common with The Handmaid’s Tale. I was like, What? And it was pretty good actually. The title of it was The Beehive. I had to get it on interlibrary loan because it’s totally out of print. But it’s pretty good. It was a little strident, but it was still fun to read. They made me an exception to let me check it out, so I could get 51 books out instead of just 50. I also like to check out cookbooks and art and crafting books and like that. I have a table that’s the library book table.

You should just have a corner that’s just the library corner, and it’s the books you get from the librarians that bring it to your home.

I have it! It’s the entry table. And I like short stories too.

Those are really good. Have you seen that recent movie–well, not so recent–Arrival, 2016. Ted Chiang – he’s so creative.

Yeah. I think he might live near Seattle.

You might run into him.

We have a yearly retreat for our department. And when I was in charge of running the retreat, I really wanted to get a science fiction writer to come, because who communicates science to a broad number of people? Fiction is a huge way of communicating that. And that’s actually when I was in high school, one of the reasons I fell in love with science is the creativity and just thinking future-oriented and everything.

So, Neal Stephenson also lives in Seattle. I did manage to get through to his agent and invite him. And he was on book tour and couldn’t make it, but he said he appreciated the invitation. So, I keep passing on his secret email address to the next person, hoping that one day. One day.

A Parting Advice for the Trainees

Lastly, what is one piece of advice you would want to give to current trainees who are interested in research in any capacity, something maybe you wish you would have known back in the day?

For me, I did not realize when I was choosing my very first project as a graduate student that I’d still be working on it, over 20 years later. Be a little careful. But I love what I work on. It all worked out right and I’ve added to it—it’s not that I only work on experimental evolution, but no, it’s just amazing the stuff that I can do now that I couldn’t do then.

One thing is it’s always the best time in history to be a scientist. Right now is the best time we’ve ever had because we understand more, and we can do more than ever. All the technology, but also all the data and the interpretation and the history that’s come before us. So just appreciate how exciting it is to be at the forefront of discovery.

You can find out more about Dr. Dunham’s research at

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