BioGenesis Podcast: Summer Morrill of the Amon Lab on Finding a New Way to Study Cancer
Introducing BioGenesis: a new podcast from MIT Biology and Whitehead Institute where we get to know a biologist, where they came from, and where they’re going next. In each episode, co-hosts Raleigh McElvery, Communications Coordinator at MIT Biology, and Conor Gearin, Digital and Social Media Specialist at Whitehead Institute, introduce a different student from the Department of Biology, and — as the title of the podcast suggests — explore the guest’s origin story.
Season 1 focuses on stories of surprise. In the third and final episode of Season 1: Surprises, graduate student Summer Morrill from Angelika Amon’s lab tells us how her interest in cancer had her on track to become a genetic counselor, helping people process challenging diagnoses — until she realized how she could make a difference in another way, by studying the most fundamental of cellular functions.
Summer Morrill: In order for you to know what’s going wrong with a disease, you have to understand how things work in the first place. And what people probably don’t know is that the biggest discoveries throughout history have been made by studying model organisms.
Raleigh McElvery: Welcome to episode 3 of “BioGenesis,” where we get to know a biologist, where they came from, and where they’re going next. I’m Raleigh McElvery from the MIT Department of Biology —
Conor Gearin: And I’m Conor Gearin from Whitehead Institute —
McElvery: And together, we’re showing you the people behind the biology.
Gearin: This first season has focused on surprises — personal epiphanies and research “ah-ha” moments. This week, for our final episode, we’re talking to grad student, Summer Morrill, who had a very specific idea about what it meant to be a cancer biologist before arriving at M.I.T. and stumbling upon her research calling.
Morrill: I'm Summer Morrill. I'm a graduate student in the biology department at M.I.T. This is my fourth year, and I'm in Angelika Amon's lab. I was originally from Oregon on the West Coast. My family moved out here when I was 10. I definitely feel like Boston is the best possible place we could have ended up, at least in terms of my interest in biology. Of course my parents had no idea when I was 10 that I would be interested in biology but I think ending up at a place that is the biotechnology and biomedical hub of the country has been really awesome for me and my growth as a scientist. From my earliest memories I dreamed of being a paleontologist which I think comes from watching Jurassic Park. But I think starting in high school I did know that I loved biology. I did know that I loved solving problems.
McElvery: She remembers having this sort of “eureka” moment in her high school genetics class.
Morrill: Have you heard of the tasting test?
Conor: It’s a relatively straightforward experiment that involves running test to see if they have the gene that encodes for the ability to taste a particular chemical. For about 30% of people, this chemical has no flavor. But for the other 70%, it has a bitter tang.
McElvery: Then they see if their tastebuds match up with the genetic test by licking a piece of paper with the chemical on it. Summer can taste the chemical —
Morrill: I do. Very much so. What I read on a gel with pieces of DNA came out to be true. So that was kind of the first time that I saw that connection.
Gearin: That same high school genetics teacher even let her do research with him one summer before college, studying a type of bioluminescent bacteria that colonizes squid off the coast of Hawaii.
Morrill: I saw that you could apply what you were learning in the classroom and and make a difference — and show people show people that biology was exciting and was important.
McElvery: Despite the fact that — in retrospect — she didn’t yet have a handle on how her day-to-day experiments fit into the bigger-picture goals of the study, Summer was thrilled to be doing real science.
Morrill: Yeah. So I'm a first generation college student. No scientists in my family. And I think the real guiding factors in my life have been teachers, have been professors. I did always know that I wanted to go to college and that was really, I think, because of my parents. They knew the opportunities that they had missed out on, not having gone to college. And seeing that I was excited about school and excited about science, that was something they always encouraged me to look towards.
Gearin: She applied to colleges all over the country, but Tufts University stuck out to her because of its strong science program.
McElvery: Any hesitation about majoring in biology quickly vanished during freshman orientation, when it came time to sign up for classes.
Morrill: I was one of the last slots for signing up for classes and I didn't make it into the intro biology class. And that's when I knew I really wanted to do biology, because that was devastating that I couldn't get in. Of course I emailed the professor, got into the class no problem — but I think that moment of panic, when I thought I wasn't going to be able to start my biology major, really told me that I was in the right place and doing the right thing.
Gearin: For a while, she was on actually on track to double major in both biology and psychology, before dropping the latter to focus on research.
Morrill: One of the earliest things that I thought about doing as I considered a career in biology was genetic counselling. I really was passionate about taking taking what I knew about genetics and about biology and using it to help someone navigate disease, navigate their own personal health issues. I think without knowing that side of things, that human aspect, it's really easy to get detached in biology — to kind of look at it from this microscopic level you zoom in, you understand what's going on in each cell, and you don't think about how that impacts the person that it's happening to.
McElvery: She never really considered a pre-med track or med school, but she did have an acute and very personal interest in cancer biology research.
Morrill: My mom is a breast cancer survivor and cancer runs in our family, so many of my family members have had cancer. So I think having that background, having that influence in my life, was another factor in pushing me towards biology and towards genetics — and cancer biology in some cases.
Gearin: So, by the end of her freshman year, she knew she wanted to join a lab that focused on human health and disease —
Morrill: And there were quite a few of those at Tufts —
Gearin: But she actually ended up in a research group that was very much rooted in basic biology.
McElvery: And when we say “basic biology,” we mean studying the most fundamental cellular processes that compose life.
Morrill: One professor, Steven Fuchs, who sat me down and just started drawing out projects all over the board. From the very first time that I stepped in the lab, he gave me an independent project and said you run with this, you see where it goes. And I think that openness and that invitation to kind of explore was what made science so interesting to me.
McElvery: In the Fuchs lab, Summer studied the tail end of a protein called RNA polymerase II, which is responsible for making proteins in the cell. She did all this in yeast, one of the simplest eukaryotic organisms. Despite being so simple and easy to manipulate, though, these single-celled critters boast many of the same cellular processes that we humans have. And that makes them incredibly useful in the lab.
Gearin: She worked in that same lab for three years. And when it came time to think about life post-graduation, her professor encouraged her to apply to grad schools — an option she hadn’t been seriously considering.
Morrill: Yeah, I think this is another one of those moments where having teachers and professors who can mentor you through that decision was really important for me. Having someone sit you down and say, you would be good at this you can do this, and give you a picture of what it might be like to be a research scientist was immensely helpful in deciding what came next.
McElvery: Still, though, she was set on pursuing translational research with clinical applications — and had a very specific idea of what that kind of career would look like.
Morrill: I applied almost exclusively to biomedical institutions knowing that I wanted to do something that was focused on disease, particularly cancer biology programs. And when it came time for applications to be submitted, I guess that’s December, my academic advisor sat me down and said: Hey, I think you might want to look at M.I.T.. I hadn't had M.I.T. on my list at all. They do not have a biomedical track, they are a general biology program. And she said: But look at their research, look at who is there and what they're doing, and give it a shot.
Gearin: Despite doing undergrad not far from M.I.T., her first visit to campus took place during the winter of 2015 — or the “Snowpocalypse,” as it’s now remembered.
Morrill: It snowed pretty much every Monday about two feet. And one of those Mondays was when I was interviewing at M.I.T. and the whole city of Boston was closed. The T was closed. The school was certainly closed. But the interview still went on and the professors still made it here. Some of them slept on their couches in order to do the interviews. And I just remember thinking, you know, these professors and these other students care so much about the program that they're willing to be here on a day like this — that means something. That means that the program cares about its people.
Gearin: She was sold on M.I.T., and she started classes that fall.
McElvery: And, like all the other first-years, she was required to take a graduate-level genetics class. And there, she met professor Angelika Amon.
Morrill: So Angelika is ... she is a hard woman to describe. But I have to say when I think about who she is at her core, she is a very powerful and strong woman, a great role model as a scientist.
Gearin: Summer was initially drawn to Angelika’s lab because Angelika is a well-known cancer biology researcher in the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at M.I.T.
Morrill: She focuses on studying the way that cancer cells segregate or mis-segregate their chromosomes — meaning that they don't go into the correct cell. And I knew that she studied that both from a translational cancer biology perspective and from a basic biology perspective.
Gearin: The translational perspective, though, was what Summer was most interested in pursuing. Granted, at that time, she didn’t know just how persuasive Angelika could be.
Morrill: She has a lot of strong opinions. One of which she shares very openly and freely, which is that yeast biology is the best biology. And if it's not true in yeast then it's probably not true in humans.
McElvery: As it turns out, Summer wasn’t all that hard to convince.
Morrill: I really wasn't. The project that I worked on an undergraduate was a yeast project. I knew the benefits of working with yeast and seeing someone who was doing such exciting research that had to do with disease and cancer biology but could be studied in yeast swayed me a hundred percent. And I think having both sides of that was very appealing to me, where you can do a very basic project, yet still have these ties to the things I was passionate about: cancer biology and so on.
Gearin: Summer has been a member of Angelika’s lab for several years now, and studies what happens when chromosomes mis-segregate, leaving the cell with the improper number of genes.
Morrill: Right, So you have one copy of a gene from the paternal genome and one copy of a gene from the maternal genome in every cell in your body. In cancer cells and in some other diseases you have the wrong number of chromosomes and that wreaks all kinds of havoc on cellular physiology. But what that comes down to is having the wrong number of genes. Most genes, if you lose one copy, you're fine. But there is a certain subset of genes where you lose one copy and it's detrimental to the cell. It's almost as bad as losing or gaining a whole chromosome.
Gearin: There must be something special about those genes.
Morrill: What we found was the reason why you can't lose a copy of these genes, you can't decrease the amount of stuff that you have being produced from that gene, is because it's highly sensitive to increases.
Gearin: Summer and Angelika decided to consider things from an evolutionary perspective. Why would losing a copy be so bad if you could just produce more from that one copy?
Morrill: Overall you might end up with the same amount of stuff being produced. But if increasing the amount that you produce is also detrimental then you have a problem. You can't decrease expression. You can't increase expression. You're kind of stuck. And so our conclusion to this project is that there are a small subset of genes, 3 to 5 percent, known as haploinsufficient genes, that are evolutionarily stuck. They will always be haploinsufficient, whether you look at them from yeast to humans.
McElvery: Given how fundamental these mechanisms are, it seems strange that several years ago Summer would never have pictured herself as a basic biologist.
Morrill: It felt like I was turning my back on studying cancer biology in some ways. But now I can see that it's been super important for me to see how cancer biology can be explored in these really basic ways that are easy to study. Most people know about genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2. And those genes are actually haploinsufficient genes.
Gearin: Outside the lab, Summer and Angelika have teamed up to spread the word about the importance of understanding basic cellular biology. They’ve taught undergraduate classes together at M.I.T., and Summer has mentored students in their lab.
Summer: And that certainly has been eye opening for me: understanding what it means to start someone off on their scientific career and to get them interested and passionate about what they're doing. I mean for me it made all the difference, right? I would never have known that I was interested in biology and genetics so early on if it weren't for those influential people in my life. I would love to be that person for someone.
McElvery: Although she spends her day-to-day with yeast in the lab, she’s determined to constantly remind herself about the people and the cause that drive her research. She works for Camp Casco, a camp for children cancer patients and survivors.
Morrill: You know that the research that you do might not lead to a cure, right — there are so many different types of cancer. But it might lead to better outcomes for a few people. And that's worth it.
McElvery: Well that’s a wrap on Season 1. Thanks for tuning in. We hope to bring you more stories about the lives of biologists and why they do what they do before too long. So stay tuned.
Gearin: Subscribe to the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes or find us on our websites at MIT Biology and Whitehead Institute.
McElvery: Thanks for listening.
Music for this episode came from the Free Music Archive, Blue Dot Sessions at www.sessions.blue, and Podington Bear at soundofpicture.com. In order of appearance:
“Something Elated” – Broke for Free
“Camp Fermin” – Blue Dot Sessions
“Bedroll” – Blue Dot Sessions
“Bundt” – Blue Dot Sessions
“Palms Down” – Blue Dot Sessions
“Trod Along” – Blue Dot Sessions
“Guinea” – Blue Dot Sessions
“Entwined Oddity” – Blue Dot Sessions
“Thrum Room” – Podington Bear
Communications and Public Affairs