Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Sonia Iyer



Sonia Iyer is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Founding Member Robert (Bob) Weinberg’s lab investigating ovarian cancer. We sat down with Iyer to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.


What are you investigating?

I have been interested in studying the tumor microenvironment--the cells, molecules, and blood vessels around a tumor--and am specifically focusing on the ovarian cancer tumor microenvironment. When I joined the Weinberg lab, there were eleven postdocs and two graduate students all working on breast cancer. After a few months in the lab, I brought up the possibility of working on a different cancer. I chose to research ovarian cancer, and although the choice was not the Weinberg lab’s primary subject of study, Bob was and has always been very supportive, and that's been really amazing.

In order to really understand the molecular networks involved and gain insights into the biology of this very complex and deadly gynecological malignancy, I have developed the first set of genetically defined immunocompetent mouse models, models that allow us to test cancer therapies in mice with a functioning immune system, that the field will be able to use to see how the genetics of the tumors shape the microenvironment. The overall goal of the project is to, by studying this complex biology, help create more informed treatment options for these cancers. Patients don't all need the same cookie cutter treatments; we want to be able to give patients the most helpful treatment for them individually, and we don’t want patients to have to go through unnecessary treatments.


Can you tell me more about how your research could be translated into treatment options for patients?

We’re always interested in how to improve treatment strategies for patients. One of the biggest concerns with ovarian cancer is the fast and aggressive relapse that can occur, so one of the big questions I was interested in was whether one could develop therapies that would reduce the possibility of relapse. With the mouse models, we have identified many potential therapeutic combinations that could achieve this. Then we started meeting with clinicians to get their insights into whether our approach was feasible for translation from mouse models to clinic. 


How did you end up at Whitehead Institute?

I was at Upstate [State University of New York Upstate Medical University], and six months before wrapping up my PhD work in William Kerr's lab, I made a list of PIs that I was interested in for my postdoc. Bob was my number one on my list; I had read his book “Biology of Cancer” in school, and looked up to him as a scientific guru. I aspired to be around someone of his ilk, and to learn from him. So, when I started sending emails to PIs, I emailed Bob first. 

When I got the invitation from the Weinberg lab to interview, I was ecstatic, and I prepared like my life depended on it, but I totally bombed at the interview.

I came prepared with rehearsed slides, which is how we did it at Upstate. You have your talk timed, and so as you talk, the slides move. I had not anticipated that my future colleagues from the lab would interrupt during the presentation. So, my slides kept moving as I was answering questions, and I was getting all flustered. I was thinking: This is perfect, my first ever interview, in the lab that I dreamt of, and I’m bombing. I think Bob noticed it, and during my presentation, he asked if I would like some tea. I said yes, and that helped break the ice. After that I loosened up, and the energy was great. When I eventually heard back from Bob that he wanted me to come work at the lab, that was one of my best moments. He’s been a great mentor ever since.


What did you want to be as a kid?

At one point I wanted to be a teacher. Then suddenly the dancing bug bit me, and I wanted to be a dancer. My mom put me into this classical Indian dance class, but I was very politely asked to leave because I was not that great. Then I wanted to be a badminton player. Ultimately, good sense and sage advice from my parents and well-wishers guided me to the path I am on now. 


What are your hobbies?

To be honest, this is a very demanding career. I love it and I'm very passionate about it, but most of my time is spent here or with my family. I have two girls, who keep me very occupied. I love playing with them. We run around together, we love going on walks as a family, and we play games at home when it’s cold outside. Also, I love cooking, and I bake with my older daughter. Our favorite is flourless chocolate cake. I think you can never go wrong with chocolate. We almost invariably finish the cake within a day. I love trying out different recipes. One of my go to recipes right now is biryani, a dish with rice, meat and some exotic spices. I finally have a good recipe that my kids love, and I try to stick to it. The scientist in me always wants to experiment and make it better, but I think if I stick to protocol, things are more reproducible.


Do you collect anything?

I like to hang on to things, especially when they bring good memories. When I moved to the US, I packed half a bag full of things that bring me good memories. I still have gifts that I received from friends: a pen stand that my friend gave me when I was in high school is in my house on my study table. I have coins. I have my first paycheck. I have letters from my friends and my dad who were in Bombay [Mumbai] when I was doing my master’s in Bangalore. Those are great, fond memories. I have clothes from my undergrad. When I moved to the US, my mom said, “You will never fit into these clothes,” but I told her I just love them so much, and I brought them. With my daughters, I didn't know if I was going to have a second daughter, but I was ready for it. I had all the clothes from the first one ready to go for the second one. I still have them, even though we don’t plan to have any more kids. 


Do you go back and visit your parents often?

Yes, I was in India two months ago for my brother's wedding. We had an amazing time. Indian weddings are over the top with family and friends and almost a week of festivities. I love being with my family, seeing my friends, relatives, distant relatives. My kids love it there too; they love getting spoiled rotten. They get pampered by my parents and my in-laws, who also live in Bombay. It's great going back home and just relaxing. My siblings and I have a great time together, and all my extended family. We have many parties—too many parties. We love to get together.


What’s the biggest disaster you’ve had in the lab?

I've not had a big disaster, but we’ve all made mistakes, and like any scientist I’ve dealt with many hurdles: times when a hypothesis didn’t pan out, or an experiment didn’t go the way I was hoping, or when you realize you made a poor choice about which experiments to do. I feel like those failures are important to shape your thinking as a scientist. You start thinking a little more broadly. Sometimes the outcomes are more interesting. I had a paper in my grad school that was full of negative data, but we still published it because that is also important. Even if something didn't work out, that might be the seed for something, a new idea. I feel it's important to have failures for your overall growth as a scientist. It’s not fun, but that's the name of the game.


Where do you see yourself in ten years?

My goal is to develop into an independent biomedical scientist. I'm open to academia or the biotech industry, and I have yet to make the choice, but I want to be a scientist who can creatively think about a problem and can make a difference in the lives of patients. I’d also like to take on more leadership roles. I’ve had a lot of that training in Bob's lab; I've mentored eight students here, and learned how to teach and handle teams. I like learning about complex networks and interactions, so I think continuing to investigate the tumor microenvironment would be really exciting. I’m also hoping to identify modes of therapy that could benefit patients. In summary, I hope in the next five to ten years, I can be more independent and do work that benefits patients. I think that's the biggest thing.


Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researcher Sonia Iyer

Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

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