“It’s Very Exciting To Make a Discovery.”



Hi. My name is Heather Wheeler and I have a PhD in genetics and I work in Eileen Dolan’s
lab. So I came as a postdoc about five years ago and now I work as a research professional
and I do computational biology research. So as a member of the Dolan lab, we are interested
in how people respond differently to chemotherapeutic drugs that are used to treat cancer. And one
project I’m working on is looking at genetic variation among a cohort of individuals who
have had testicular cancer and one of the drugs that they get treated with causes some
really debilitating side effects so they can loose their hearing and they can also have
neuropathy or loss of feeling in their extremities and we’d like to understand why some people
get this symptom and some don’t. By looking at the differences among the DNA of some individuals
we can try and tease that apart. So I grew up in rural Minnesota. So growing
up in a small town is great cause you get to participate in tons of activities. So in
school I did sports, I did music, I did math league, I did all of that. And then as I grew
up and became a teenager I actually got interested in forensic science mainly because I loved
reading crime novels. That led me to look for colleges to go to that had forensic science
programs and so I ended up at Hamline University which is in St. Paul. So I majored in biology
and also did their forensic program and actually worked in the state crime lab for two years
doing DNA analysis. And as I was doing this I realized although it’s really cool to use
DNA as a fingerprint to identify people, I was more interested in how these differences
in the DNA that we were measuring led to differences among individuals. So why certain people get diseases and others
don’t and that led me here to Eileen’s lab to study pharmacogenomics. So again, continuing
on, why do these DNA differences lead to differences among individuals. So in my day to day I do a lot of scripting
using programming languages like python or R which is a statistical programming language.
A lot of that is data wrangling, getting data in the right format. But it’s sort of like
solving a puzzle and I always liked puzzles so One aspect of my job that I really like doing
is I’m the first person that gets to synthesize the data. So we have clinical data coming
in from medical doctors who see patients and collect the data. And then we have the genetic
data coming in from sequencing centers so we measure the variation among individuals.
And I’m the person that gets to put that together so to see if we can find associations between
different things so it’s very exciting to be the one to push the button and make a potentially
new discovery and to think about how we want to present any results we find in terms of
making plots and then followup studies from that. So tell your kids out there who are interested
in biology or maybe even slightly interested, I would encourage you to take as many math
classes as you can, to learn how to program, go online, download bioinformatics tutorials
because I think that’s where biology lies. And even if you’re interested in going in
the lab and pipetting, that’s great too but still focus on the math because cancer isn’t
easy and we need as many tools as possible to understand and to move forward with better
treatments.”