A blond woman stands in a stairwell.

Whitehead Institute Postdoc Ann Boija


Gretchen Ertl/Whitehead Institute

Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Ann Boija

Ann Boija is a senior researcher in Whitehead Institute Member Richard (Rick) Young’s lab studying the role of cellular structures called condensates in gene regulation. We sat down with Boija to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.

What are you investigating?

In the Young lab we are interested in various aspects of gene regulation. Gene activation (turning on a gene in a cell) is essential for cell identity and proper function of the cell. For example, it triggers specific developmental pathways and gives rise to specific cell types in the body. Similarly, gene activation allows the cell to respond to various environmental stimuli. When gene activation is dysregulated, diseases such as cancer arise. We and others have recently shown that key components regulating gene activation are concentrated and compartmentalized into liquid droplets or condensates in the cell, which are formed by phase separation. This is a process that will be familiar to anyone who's made a salad vinaigrette where the oil and vinegar will separate. These liquid compartments or condensates are very different from traditional organelles; they lack membranes and are formed by weak interactions between biomolecules and thereby provide a whole new way of thinking about cellular organization. With this new understanding, we’ve been asking questions about the implications of condensates on how medical drugs work. We found that commonly used cancer drugs concentrate in these droplets and that if they concentrate in the droplets harboring their targets, that can make them more effective. We’re particularly excited about how we can use this knowledge to optimize cancer drug activity, best design the next generation of drugs, and understand more about the properties of condensates that might be altered in cancer.

What made you choose to do your postdoc at Whitehead Institute?

I always find myself drawn to science that focuses on large concepts rather than the mechanistic details. I heard Rick giving a keynote talk at the Keystone Conference, and he was talking about these large regulatory elements called super-enhancers and their key role in regulating genes, both in health and disease. I decided there and then that I would be very interested in joining his lab, they were doing so much exciting science. And it turned out to be even more exciting than I thought, since the lab started to think about condensates and their implications in gene control.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be?

I never really had only one dream of what I wanted to be as a kid. I thought there were so many exciting things you could do. I wanted to be anything from an actress to a lawyer to a medical doctor. Then in college, I started studying biomedicine, and after spending a summer in a laboratory I fell in love with science.

What are your hobbies?

I really like traveling and trying new foods. I spend most of my time outside of the lab together with my family, my husband and my two kids, six and eight years old. We moved to Boston from Sweden about four years ago. It's been a really wonderful experience to be able to do this together. I have a lot of thankfulness for my husband, for his love, encouragement and support. Our family always has so much fun; we go out on camping adventures and we also love to try out new food around Boston. 

What’s your favorite restaurant in Boston?

I really enjoy a delicious lobster roll during the weekends in downtown Boston. With the Covid situation, I have been trying a lot of takeout food. I went through my takeout bucket list, and have just been taking the opportunity to try a lot of food since for the past year, we haven't really been able to go out to restaurants. I also love cooking, right now I am doing a lot of recipes from Alison Roman’s cookbook Nothing Fancy.

Where do you like to travel and what do you enjoy about traveling?

Before I moved to the States, I did most of my traveling to the States, actually. I think the US is a very interesting country and very diverse, depending on where you go. I also really enjoy going to various places in Europe and Asia. I like meeting the people, experiencing new cultures and trying different food. Also, coming from Sweden, I do appreciate a warmer climate. 

What has been your experience of the Young lab?

It's been really fantastic. First of all, Whitehead Institute is an amazing environment to be in, being surrounded by very talented, driven, creative people. In Rick's lab, there's people from many different backgrounds like medicine, biology (like myself), bioinformatics, chemistry. Forming teams and coming together to solve scientific problems has been so much fun. We also do a lot of social things. We drink a lot of coffee together. We have a couple of coffee machines in the lunchroom and we trade off making coffee. That's really where most of our scientific ideas come from; while we have coffee together, people are always up for giving advice and we have lots of discussions on how to best tackle a scientific problem. It's a very exciting environment to work in. Due to the Covid situation, recently we’ve been having a lot of Starbucks coffee outside. I'm looking forward to having long coffee moments and wild discussions with the team once everything is back to normal again.

What’s your go-to coffee?

I'm a regular black coffee type of person. Straight up. When I'm making coffee for the lab, it becomes very strong and there's always comments on that. 

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in the lab?

Probably when I saw my first condensate under the microscope. We were this team trying to build condensates for the first time and looking at them under the microscope, we could see these spherical structures. I call them pearls because they look just like pearls on a necklace. I was so amazed at how spherical and beautiful they were. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I’d like to see myself driving science forward at the intersection of transcriptional regulation, cancer biology and condensates. I hope to use what I have learned from Rick’s lab, including that some of the tricks for doing good science are to surround yourself with talented people, step out of your comfort zone to challenge how we were thinking about science, and collaborate with people from various fields. I think that's when you're actually able to do science with great impact and of course, not forget to have fun while doing it.

Do you currently collaborate often with researchers from other labs and organizations?

All the time. That's definitely a major part of the work and I really enjoy it. One of the exciting parts of being in Cambridge is that we have so much expertise and so many talented people just around the corner.




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