MEET A WHITEHEAD Alumnus: Vijay Sankaran

Alumnus Vijay Sankaran

Vijay Sankaran is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, interim chief and an attending physician in hematology and oncology at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and an associate member of Broad Institute. He earned his MD-PhD at Harvard Medical School, and was a postdoctoral fellow in Whitehead Institute Founding Member Harvey Lodish’s lab from 2009 to 2013. Sankaran’s lab, based at Boston Children’s Hospital, uses human genetics studies to better understand the process of blood cell production and how this process goes awry in diseases. We talked to Sankaran about his career, interests, and experiences at Whitehead Institute.

 

How did you end up becoming a postdoc at Whitehead Institute?

While I was getting my MD and PhD at Harvard Medical School, I had gotten to known Harvey Lodish. In fact, he became an advisor during my PhD and was on my thesis committee. Funnily, at one point Harvey said to me, "You should quit medical school and come over and do research at Whitehead Institute," but I told him I was happy in medicine. However, I had some free time in my last year of medical school, and we had kept in touch, so I started working with Harvey. He invited me to the lab and said I could do whatever I was interested in related to blood production. As an MD-PhD, my experience was a little unusual because while I was conducting my postdoctoral research at Whitehead Institute I was also spending some of my time at Boston Children’s Hospital getting my clinical training in pediatrics, and I subsequently did a fellowship in pediatric hematology and oncology.

 

What do you remember about your time at Whitehead Institute?

I was up on the sixth floor, and I found it a really exciting place to be. I enjoyed the work we were doing and my interactions with colleagues, both in our lab and in adjacent labs. There were great opportunities to learn, like the scientific retreat and the Friday seminars, when people shared their research. Hearing about all of the great science happening in other labs was inspiring for my own work; it made me feel excited that there were so many things left to learn, and things that would be great to pursue.

 

What's the biggest thing you took away from your time at Whitehead Institute?

I took away many things, but the biggest was to think about the problems that interested me in a very fundamental way. Being a physician-scientist, you live in two worlds. You care for patients, and, at the same time, you're trying to train in and eventually run a research laboratory. I had always been in a clinical environment — a very applied science setting — before Whitehead Institute, and so it was enlightening to come to a place where the majority of people are basic scientists, PhDs, who think about problems deeply and fundamentally. There were many times when Harvey and others forced me to question my assumptions, to reconsider things I had taken for granted, and ask, “Why is that the case?” I got to think about a lot of questions that came up in my own medical practice in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do in any other environment. Now I teach my trainees and postdocs to think about problems in the same fundamental way.

 

Could you give an example of how your research at Whitehead Institute informed your clinical work, or vice versa?

One example of a fundamental research question that came about because of a clinical interest was some research we did on the regulation of fetal hemoglobin. We were really interested in understanding how the form of hemoglobin that we all have when we're fetuses is expressed. This is important not just because it's a fundamental developmental problem, but also because it turns out that patients with common genetic disorders, including sickle cell disease and thalassemia, have mutations in hemoglobin, and if they have more production of this fetal form of hemoglobin after infancy, they actually do much better. That had been known for decades, but the question was how the process is regulated. We got an initial clue when I was a PhD student at Boston Children's Hospital, and so I was interested in continuing this line of research while I was a postdoctoral fellow. At Whitehead Institute, we were able to identify some microRNAs that were important in regulating the expression of fetal hemoglobin, and we identified a key transcription factor, MYB, that was important in this process. I think that many of those studies were brought to bear because I was in the right kind of environment. There were people working on microRNAs in Whitehead Institute Member David Bartel's lab just down the hall, and the conversations I was able to have really enabled us to push forward with that research, which in turn has the potential to benefit patients.

 

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I thought about becoming a pediatrician, which I am. Also, I was always fascinated by nature, and so for many years I wanted to be a zoologist. I was particularly fascinated by reptiles, so I guess I actually wanted to be a herpetologist.

 

How did you end up in the field you are in now?

When I came to medical school, I didn't have a great idea of what I wanted to do. I was incredibly fortunate because I met a number of mentors who helped me realize how passionate I was about pediatric hematology. Having mentors like Harvey has been incredible and very formative in my own career. One great thing with this career path is you almost never lose mentors, and you can keep gaining mentors. They help guide you in different ways.

 

What has been your experience of running your own lab?

It's been a big shift, and an eye-opening experience. You go from focusing on yourself, and your own development as a trainee, to focusing on how you can help others develop. That's been really fun, but it's also been a steep learning curve. One of the things that I appreciated about my mentors is that they were incredibly generous with their time and advice. In addition, my postdoctoral advisors allowed me to take many of the problems I began during this time with me as I transitioned to a faculty position. That's really served as a model for me as I have developed my own mentoring style.

 

What are you working on now?

Our laboratory is focused on using a human genetics approach to understand how we all produce blood cells normally in health, and how this process goes awry in different blood disorders. Then we try to marry those findings with functional studies that we conduct in human blood cells and blood cell progenitors.

 

What excites you the most about your work?

One amazing thing is that some of the work that we've done has actually led to therapies, even our work on very fundamental things like how the fetal hemoglobin gene is regulated, which I mentioned earlier. The progress the field has made is incredible, and I think there's real potential to see some of these genetic blood disorders be cured in the next few years. That would not have been possible without the basic studies that we and numerous others have done.

 

What are your hobbies outside of work?

Having been in Boston such a long time, since I began my medical training, I really enjoy exploring the city. I like going around and finding different restaurants, or taking in a Red Sox game, and enjoying Boston for all it has to offer. It’s really fun to just explore the different neighborhoods that we have.

 

Do you have a favorite spot in the area?

We used to live in Jamaica Plain, and I really like that part of the city, but, Cambridge, and especially Kendall Square, is one of my favorite places to spend time. I spent so much time there during my training, while I was at Whitehead Institute, and I still spend time there. I love the energy it has. It's one of the most stimulating and intellectually rich atmospheres I know of.

 

Do you collect anything?

In the early days of my lab, whenever we had a paper published, I would get a bottle of champagne and the first author would pop it open. Now I have all of those bottles lined up on the bookshelf in my office. It feels fantastic seeing them there; it's a great reminder of the wonderful trainees whom I've been lucky to work with and mentor. It’s fun to think about how much they've accomplished. They have continued to be tremendously productive both through their time in the lab and after they've gone to become independent researchers.

 

Do you have any advice for current postdocs?

I would say to really enjoy and take advantage of the opportunities that they have at that moment. I’d also emphasize that is important to build their networks. There were so many people whom I met during that time of my training who remain close friends and colleagues, and many of the connections that I established while at Whitehead Institute really served me well once I had my own laboratory. So that would be my main advice: make connections, and make the most of those connections.

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