This week’s Scientist is Robert Warneford-Thomson, a PhD student from UPenn who is conducting research on how polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) is recruited to different locations in the genome. Outside of science, Robert speaks fluent Chinese and once completed a 1,500 mile solo motorcycle trip across western China and Mongolia.
Name: Robert Warneford-Thomson
Position: PhD student in Professor Roberto Bonasio’s lab at UPenn
Department / Field: Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics / Epigenetics
Hometown: Born in London, UK and moved to Richmond, VA at age 13
Background: B.A. in Biology from Washington & Lee University; as an undergraduate, developed DNA probes to map genetic diversity in bats via microsatellite repeats
Any clinical implications to your work? Cancer is the primary clinical association with polycomb proteins. Several cancers are characterized by the dysregulation of polycomb genes and these changes often correlate with malignancy. Additionally, mutations in these genes can lead to defects in various stem cell functions in mice. Scientists have been trying to target the action of these proteins as a direct therapeutic tool for certain cancer types, so there’s definitely a strong interest in better understanding their behavior.
What inspired you to get into science? Biology was always my favorite subject and I guess I can partially trace that back to when I was a kid. My great uncle was a molecular botanist and is the guy who everyone looks up to in the family. We’d go on hikes in the woods in Sweden and he’d show us all the flora and fauna and that was just really cool. He had this infectious enthusiasm that made it pretty much impossible not to get excited about whatever he was explaining, be it a rare mushroom or fish or moose tracks. What struck me later on was how he had gotten to travel all over the globe through his career and had developed all these interesting friends. So that definitely shaped my sense of what a scientist is and what kind of life it can offer–that was the root. Then it kind of just, to be honest I don’t have a good answer to when I decided definitively chose biology. When I graduated college, I spent a year teaching English in China and part of it was to take a breath and figure out: do I want to spend five to six years of my life doing a PhD? When I came back, I decided I did.
How did you pick your lab? When I first came to Penn, I had a sort of identity crisis because I had thought I wanted to do structural biology. Then I learned what it can be like working in a crystallography lab: There’s no hard and fast rules – much of it is empirical and you just offer up your work to the gods and hope you can get good crystals. So then I thought I wanted to do bioinformatics, but after a couple rotations of doing that I left like I was missing a molecular component to my training, and that I really wanted to do some biochemistry. I remember first meeting with Roberto and he explained his research to me, and I realized afterwards that epigenetics is a perfect intersection of bioinformatics and biochemistry. Much of the data are generated from various sequencing techniques requiring significant computational analysis, and yet there’s also a strong biochemical component involved in dissecting the protein complexes that structure and regulate our genomes. So even though I’m far outside of my comfort zone, I’m happy to be in a place that will push me to develop a more quantitative approach to bench science.
Fun fact: In 2013 I completed a 1,500 mile solo motorcycle trip from western China across Mongolia to the capital Ulaan Baatar. On the back of my 250cc Honda I carried a tent, a lot of canned fish and stale bread, and a jerry can of spare gas. I navigated using a simple handheld GPS with a route I’d plotted out on Google Earth. It was an incredible adventure, and I loved how every day of the trip threw a new challenge at me: everything from fording several-foot-high rivers, smuggling my bike across a border hidden under a sack of watermelons, to breaking down 30 miles from the nearest settlement in the midst of a torrential downpour. I found that having to completely rely on yourself to get by for a couple weeks was invigorating, and I was was constantly floored by the hospitality and good will of the locals that helped me along the way.
Helpful tip: There’s a tip I learned from my PI that I’ve been using a lot. For every experiment that I do in the lab, I create an individualized code consisting of my initials followed by a number. I tag this code on all tubes, images, and other samples or data associated with that experiment. This system makes everything much easier to search and I find it really helpful for file management. I also do this to ensure that I never lose a sample and I’m always able to trace it back to the code in my notebook. It sounds simple but it’s a huge time saver that creates peace of mind helping me know where everything is.
Words from advisers: Robert’s postdoctoral mentor, Chongsheng He says: “Robert is a very nice guy. As a graduate student, he’s done a great job culturing insect and mammalian cells and has become an expert when it comes to purifying recombinant proteins from insect cells. He’s also worked on inducible protein degradation in mammalian cells, which is very difficult and creative. As a colleague, I enjoy working together with Robert and I really enjoy our discussions on science. Last but most important: as a Benchling expert, Robert taught me how to use Benchling to improve my experiments. Now I’ve become a fan of Benchling.”