Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Alessandra Dall’Agnese
Alessandra Dall’Agnese is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Richard Young’s lab studying how certain cellular compartments work in health and disease. We sat down with Dall’Agnese to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.
What do you investigate?
I compare how cells work in healthy conditions versus in disease to try to find differences. In particular, our lab studies certain compartments inside of cells that are called condensates, some of which are associated with healthy processes and some with diseases. We study the processes governing the formation and dissolution of these compartments. My goal is to identify potential ways to make diseased cells start to work like healthy cells again, in order to treat diseases. The diseases of interest that I'm working on now are different types of cancers and type 2 diabetes.
How did you get interested in your field of research?
I've been interested in helping to find cures for diseases since I was very young, because I was sick for many years. I made a promise to myself when I was in kindergarten that my life goal would be to study hard and help identify the causes of diseases and discover new treatments so that people who are sick can be healthy again. I realized how much being sick could make people suffer, how being in physical pain changes them: it affects their happiness, their relationships with others, their productivity, and so many different layers of their lives, and I just didn't want this for anybody. And so, I made a promise to myself, and I am still keeping the promise many years later.
So have you always wanted to be a scientist?
Well, when I was a kid, I didn't know that scientists existed. Because I was always in and out of hospitals, initially I wanted to be a doctor to help defeat diseases. Then in school I started to discover science and biology and biomedical science, so then I fell in love with it. I decided that that was going to be my career path, and I'm very grateful and happy that I get to fulfill my life's dream.
What is your favorite non-research memory at Whitehead Institute?
I really like the winter party. Those are always very fun and what I like the most about them is when people get the years of service awards for being at Whitehead Institute for such a long time. I think it's very important to recognize people who are actively contributing to the success of Whitehead Institute in research and non-research roles and have been doing so for many years. I consider them pillars of Whitehead Institute. My favorite part is seeing the reaction of the people when they get awarded.
What are your hobbies?
I like to be active, so I like to work out. I love weightlifting. I lift weights four times a week at least. I follow programs that I like from an Australian fitness trainer. I like to do it in the morning so I can feel like I have one check in my checklist for the day. Then I feel like I can conquer the rest of the day. I also like to spend time with family and friends, so we work out together, we have fun adventures outdoors, we try different types of food. And then I like to read romances and watch movies with happy endings.
What’s your favorite romance novel?
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Does working out in the morning help energize you for long days in the lab?
One hundred percent yes. It’s good for health, productivity, and brain function and so when I have that done at the very beginning of the day, then I can just focus on science. I like science so much that it's a little bit hard for me to stop and go and workout, because I'll just continue to work forever. So getting that done first thing in the morning is very important.
Do you collect anything?
I don’t, but my mom was very big into collecting crowns and little Venetian glasses and I take care of her collections. They’re my favorite. I used to look at them as a kid, and wasn't allowed to touch them so I’d just stand next to them and look at them for a very long time. She remembered that, so when I moved to the United States, she felt like giving them to me so I would get to enjoy them now even though I'm very far away from my family. The glasses are like bowls, with different patterns inside like flowers or animals. The crowns, I have some that are very little, like a miniature of a Queen Elizabeth crown, and then I have the bigger ones that I could wear, like at my wedding for example.
What is the biggest disaster that you’ve ever had in the lab?
When I was a PhD student, I had to do some experiments that required snake venom. The research project was studying skeletal muscle regeneration, so I would damage the muscle with the snake venom, and then follow this skeletal muscle over time and see how much it regenerates and what is the molecular mechanism for that. One day, by mistake I punctured myself with the venom. My boss at that time was an MD, so he came immediately to help me and did first aid, and then he drove me to the ER. I actually knew what was going to happen to my body because that's what I was studying, but it was still quite scary. I’m alive and healthy, but I don’t recommend the experience.
How did they treat you?
In the end they didn't do anything, because they didn't know what to do with that particular venom, which I guess is something that should be considered for safety in the future. The amount of venom that we use is so little that it was unlikely to cause a lot of damage, and by the time doctors figured out what could have been the antidote, it would have been too late. I was more careful afterwards and Safety changed the policy around handling venom. At the time, it was just myself in a room, so if I would have really hurt myself, I would have been in trouble. Now more than one person has to be there if somebody is handling snake venom.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In ten years, my dream is that I will be running my own lab and teaching at a university. And that I'll be mentoring a diverse group of people, and continuing with the line of research that I'm doing now, merging it with what I used to do as a PhD student to study skeletal muscle, skeletal muscle regeneration, and skeletal muscle diseases. The disease that I'm really passionate about is Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Hopefully in ten years, I will also branch out to other diseases that are relevant for skeletal muscle physiology. I have a little vision board in the lab with what my goals are as a scientist and where I want to be in a few years. I always consider what I do as steps to accomplish the big goal, which is helping patients.
Communications and Public Affairs