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April's Member Profile: Meet Dr. Trista E. North

Posted By Connections Editor , Friday, May 02, 2014
Updated: Monday, April 28, 2014
Trista E. North, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Pathology at Harvard’s Medical School in the Department of Pathology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She has dedicated over 18 years to the field of hematology and stem cell research, and has spent 6 of those years as an ISEH member. She is the newest addition to the Editorial Board of Experimental Hematology.

 Dr. North has lent her considerable knowledge and experience  to the ISEH Board of Directors, the ISEH publications committee,  and various abstract review committees for ASH and ISSCR. As a  full member of the Harvard Cancer Center, Dr. North focuses her  research efforts on hematopoiesis and HSC  regulation/transplantation. 

 Dr. North graciously answered some questions for ISEH.

 How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells  scientific field? 
 I started working in the field of hematology when I joined the  lab of Nancy Speck as a graduate student. My project was to characterize the normal role of Runx1 in hematopoiesis using a lacZ knock-in mouse. Prior studies had indicated it was a fusion partner in leukemia, and knockouts resulted in loss of definitive hematopoiesis. We found it was expressed in the cells with hemogenic potential in the recently (at the time) identified AGM, and demonstrated its expression marked AGM cells with adult-repopulating hematopoietic stem cell potential. 

And then how were you introduced to ISEH? 
I was introduced to ISEH via colleagues in my postdoc lab as well as those whom I regularly saw at other meetings, and was encouraged to attend. My first meeting was in Boston and I was immediately surprised by the level of familiarity I had with the attendees from having met many of them previously at other occasions or read all of their prior work. I was also surprised and impressed with the generally open and constructive interactions between participants - it felt instantly like a family reunion.

Who was your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you? 
I think both my graduate advisor (Nancy Speck) and postdoctoral mentor (Leonard Zon) were hugely helpful toward my growth as a new investigator. 

Nancy had me jump right in with both feet and really got me invested from day one with my project. She taught me how to ask relevant questions and, probably more importantly, how to follow through on experiments that didn’t go the way we anticipated from the outside. I really learned to keep my eyes wide open and follow the data rather than second-guess my results. She also was an amazing role model in terms of presentation organization and speaking skills, and I try to pass on what she taught me to my own group. 

Len taught me how to be independent, how to push the boundaries of what I knew and how to ask for help when things were out of my reach. He did an amazing job helping me find my way into the spotlight - he had a great knack for knowing what would be the most interesting or exciting outcome. He really taught me how to move a project forward in a manner that wasn’t so linear as to skip the interesting tangents, but nonetheless focused toward a logical goal or application. Len also showed me the value of networking and salesmanship - he was a firm believer that the ability to communicate a good story was equally as important as discovering it in the first place, and made sure we were prepared to discuss our findings at any moment. 

Perhaps most importantly, both Len and Nancy were accessible whenever I needed them, easy to talk to when I had questions and concerns (or was simply excited about a new finding), and both of them were quick to share credit with me when discussing my data. I think their willingness to share credit made it much easier to transition out on my own as people were already familiar with me as a person, not just with papers on my work.

How are you helping to mentor new investigators at your lab/facility? 
I really try to take what I learned from both Len and Nancy and pass it on to my students and postdocs. Probably most importantly, we work a lot on being able to take ownership of ones work and communicate data - both the details and big picture - effectively to lab mates as well as at meetings (which I always encourage everyone to attend). ISEH in particular is fun as there are so many huge names in the field that will come right up and talk to you at your poster - everyone is so excited to put faces to the names they know and have a meaningful discussion with someone they admire, which in a lot of cases provides both inspiring and helpful comments.

There are a lot of interesting aspects of this scientific field; what do you find the most exciting? 
In general, I like that the field is always evolving. I also feel like we are at such an advantage in the hematopoietic field in terms of what we know, and what we can do for assays that the sky is really the limit. I am excited about the more integrative studies that are going on currently. Biology is very interconnected, and while I appreciate that we sometimes have to take things apart to understand their function or potential, I do like that we are now moving toward a more integrative understanding of HSC regulation - one that assumes multiple cell types play non-overlapping and equally relevant regulatory roles, and takes a look at feedback, spatio-temporal input and HSC extrinsic pathways that are unlikely to be static to allows us to integrate seemingly conflicting data and really begin to understand what is happening in vivo.

What is the most exciting study or project happening at your lab/facility? 
We use the Zebrafish as our primary model and I have to say I am excited by our ability to be holistic. I think some of our projects that look at the interplay between metabolic, hormonal and nutritional input with traditional transcriptional or growth factor regulators is important to our understanding of mechanisms that are likely to modify function or outcome in vivo. These interactions may help explain why basic knock-down/overexpression studies do not always show one-to-one correspondence with what many regulatory factors seem to do in the live vertebrate embryo or adult, including contributions to hematopoietic disorders or leukemia.

Given your experience in the field, how have you seen the field change in the last five years? 
I think people are becoming more willing to not see everything as so black and white - that there is one relevant factor and others are not relevant. Instead, I think many in the field are appreciating that the production and maintenance of the blood system is so fundamental that the body has evolved multiples ways to regulate it: to get it going to the right level, to keep it in check and to ensure that all lineages are being covered, meaning that there will actually be surprisingly few things that can completely eliminate its function below a baseline (erythroid/myeloid) level in order to keep the organism alive.

It’s clear that the field is going to continue to evolve at an amazing pace. How do you see it changing over the next five years? 
I think it will continue to be more integrative, more systems-oriented than single factor driven.

What do you consider the biggest challenge currently facing the hematology and stem cells scientific field and how can it be managed? 
I think we still haven’t quite achieved the ability to regulate cells ex vivo without disturbing their long-term potential to allow an efficient production of HSC or lineage specific replacements beyond donated cell units. Related to this, despite a growing knowledge of factors that can influence HSCs or their differentiation capacity - with the exception of a select few cases - we really haven’t figured out a way to harness that knowledge to “fix” hematopoietic disorders or stop leukemia progression or recurrence.

Does your lab have any big studies or projects planned in the near future? 
We have a lot of fun things on going, but most are still too early in the process to predict their scale and/or whether they will be impactful at this time.

How would you describe the funding climate for your specific type of research? 
While I think hematology is in general well supported, I do get the impression that the funding climate is still quite tough. It is nice that the NIH finally has a budget and some larger organizations are recognizing the needs for bridge-type funding, but it is still hard - particularly for those who are still on the earlier end of being independent. There is huge competition for smaller awards, and a very abbreviated window for most new investigator funding (unfortunately not always reflecting the current length of a typical postdoc) which can make it difficult to sustain the lab at a productive size in the gap between start-up funding and significant R01 or equivalent levels of support. 

What advice do you have for new investigators entering this scientific field? 
I think you have to follow what you enjoy. Don’t be afraid to try things that may be difficult or for which the linear relationship isn’t immediately clear. I think we often find the most exciting discoveries when biology doesn’t behave as we might have anticipated, so it is always good to move forward with an open mind.

What do you find most valuable about ISEH? 
For me, I think the most valuable part of belonging to ISEH is the ability to connect with others in the field in a more meaningful way. You often see people year after year at meetings and really get to know those in your area as well as those who may work on topics you stumble into during the course of your research. The science at the meetings is always top notch and 9.5/10-times almost completely unpublished so you get a real feel for what is on the forefront research-wise. It is just much more intimate than other meetings in related topic areas so I think you really get to know people and because of that you get much more constructive feedback about your own data, which can make a huge difference in the trajectory of your project and career.

Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
I go for the science - all the new cutting edge things that are going on - as well as to catch up on ongoing projects in my colleagues and collaborators labs. I always find someone whose data dovetails with ours, or who has a new reagent that would be really helpful, or simply meet someone who’s research I have read about for years. The size really aids the exchange of ideas and personal interactions.

What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory? 
That is tricky; I have had so much fun at all of them!

Why did you decide to become a member of the Editorial Board of Experimental Hematology?
I wanted to become a board member as a way to give back- the meeting has been so helpful to me in terms of making connections that I wanted to do what I could to help keep things moving in the right direction.

What are your:

I love to sing- I’ll listen to any type of music and will sing anywhere full voice. I also like to set new words to nursery rhymes or popular songs and sing about how much fun it is to do chores or why my children should behave- it makes everyone laugh, but I have no recollection of what I said almost the moment it leaves my mouth…

I also like to play in the garden- it is always a surprise what will work and what won’t but looks nice regardless.

Favorite book(s)?
That is a tough questions, I don’t think I have just one- I love to read. I was a big fan of the Harry Potter books- read them in grad school (while running the FACS machine, sorry Nancy!). 
Oh, Tess of the D’Ubervilles- have loved it since they forced me to read it in the 10th grade. I read it again every few years or so and I am always impressed that despite of everything, she keeps trying to make everything work and remains optimistic- I guess I have a similar bent…

Favorite movie(s)?
Serendipity. Love Actually. Groundhog Day. Les Mis. The Natural. It always has to work out in the end for the main characters or I don’t like the movie…

If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
I’d love to see all of my grandparents again to show them that I turned out OK. I think at times they might not have been so sure it would have all worked out. They almost never completely understood what I was talking about when it came to science, but always listened patiently and were enthusiastic supporters!

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