Close up of Brad Wierbowski

Brad Wierbowski


Courtesy of Brad Wierbowski

Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Brad Wierbowski

Brad Wierbowski is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Bartel’s lab studying the turnover of messenger RNAs. We sat down with Brad to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.

What is your current research focus?

At a broad level, my project is focused on the lifecycle of messenger RNAs (mRNAs), which are the molecules that carry the instructions written in our genome to the machinery that builds our cells’ proteins. If we think about gene expression in the cell, or how much protein is made from a gene at a given time, this is a function both of how much of a given mRNA is present and how efficiently that mRNA is used to generate protein. The level of an mRNA, in turn, is determined by the relative balance of its production rate—how much mRNA is being made from the DNA—and also its decay rate, or how quickly the mRNA is degraded. I’ve been studying that second process—mRNA decay.

Specifically, I’m interested in understanding how and why certain mRNAs are more resistant to the general pathway for mRNA decay in the cell. Generally, what happens is that mRNAs are made initially with a long tail, which is gradually chewed back by the activity of molecules called deadenylases. When the tail becomes very short, that signals that this mRNA is ready to be degraded. For most mRNAs, the rates of tail shortening and subsequent degradation are tightly coupled, which prevents mRNAs with very short tails from building up. However, some mRNAs are degraded less rapidly, even when their tails become short. We’re trying to understand what makes these mRNAs special, with the hope that it’ll offer insight into the general decay process and, possibly, provide us with new ways to help stabilize synthetic mRNAs in experimental or therapeutic contexts.

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in scientific research?

I've had a lot of different interests over the years, and I certainly didn’t grow up knowing I’d be a scientist someday. In high school, I had a strong interest in the creative arts. I loved my studio art class—especially pencil drawing, pastels, and painting. I played piano and was also very interested in creative writing—I actually ended up double majoring in English literature in college. However, I was also drawn to science and to biology in particular. When I went to college, science seemed like a more practical choice to pursue than my other interests. Initially I veered in the pre-med direction, but I later found out that I was a lot more intellectually stimulated by basic research.

How did you discover that basic research was a good fit for you?

At first, I actually thought I would be disinterested in basic research. I had this idea, which I don't know if I got from television or movies or whatever, that science is this discipline that's very cut and dried—that it's rigorous and systematic in a way where there's always a right and obvious way to do something, and it will always produce results that are interpretable and unambiguous. It took me until I actually started working at the bench to realize: Oh, there's a lot of messiness, there are a lot of different ways you could do something, and you actually have to be intensely creative. For the person doing it, science is a very subjective process where you're constantly having to articulate different possible realities, and then think about new ways to verify or rule out those possibilities. This is really the thing that I love most about what I do, but it took me a while to realize that it was lurking under the whole research enterprise.

The experience that really shaped me and got me interested in grad school was the summer after my junior year, when I worked in a cell biology lab at Rockefeller University for about eight weeks. The grad student I worked with was an amazing mentor. She was just so excited about basic science, and everybody in the lab was very social, very excited, very helpful, and working on very different kinds of things. I had worked in a lab the previous summer as well, but that was at my small liberal arts college which, for all its strengths, had a pretty constrained research budget. This second experience exposed me to a whole different scale of the sorts of questions that you could ask in research.

How important have good mentors been in your research career?

When I try to reconstruct how it is that I ended up in academic science, I feel like I really owe it to my mentors at every stage. Going back to my undergrad lab, I worked very closely with a student who was one year above me. Again, this was at a smaller school, and we weren't super plugged into the PhD trajectory. Not a lot of people went to graduate school in my program. My mentor kept me from falling through the cracks. I watched her go through the application process one year before me, and she was the person who told me to apply to summer programs like the one that ended up getting me really excited about science. I’ve been fortunate to have had many other kind and generous mentors, and I don’t know where I would be without them.

Do you now enjoy mentoring other students?

Yes. In graduate school, I worked with most of the visiting students who spent time in our lab. Because I've had all these strong mentors in my own scientific career, it’s important to me to pass that on. It means a lot to me to make sure that the people who work with me have a project that they’re excited about, and that they have a chance to work and think independently, while also having somebody who can help them through whatever they're troubleshooting. Enabling them to feel ownership of a project is something I feel strongly about.

At Whitehead Institute, you help to organize the weekly “Forum” where trainees present their work to the wider community. Why is Forum important to you?

Forum feels to me like it is at the crux of our community. We have a lot of clubs, affinity groups, and other institute events, but Forum is really the only pan-Whitehead event where so many of us are able to come together on a weekly basis. I think it’s super important for generating that sense of community that took a hit in a lot of workplaces during the Covid pandemic. I benefit a lot from the Whitehead community, and I wanted to get involved with organizing Forum as a small form of service to that community—even if that is mostly providing free food.

What are your hobbies outside of work?

Since joining Whitehead Institute, I've been doing a lot more community exercise through the Whitehead Running Club and the Club for Muscles. Both groups have been super fun, and a great way to stay fit and hang out with other people at Whitehead Institute in a non-scientific context. I used to run cross country in high school, but then stopped running for a long time. I really only picked it up again since coming here. When I was new here, in 2021, the running club was really the first place I got to know people outside of my lab. It’s a really great community, and it's grown a lot since I first started. Again, it’s also a great exercise tool to have the social reinforcement of “yes, you're going to go for a run this week.” Another hobby that I have is cooking. My wife and I enjoy cooking together.

What do you most enjoy about cooking together?

Food is a major thing that the two of us bonded over. I've always enjoyed eating food, but I didn't appreciate home cooking until I met her. We’re both scientists—she works at Whitehead Institute as well—and in a lot of ways that’s great. We understand what each other does and the demands of the job in a way that others might not. We both spend a lot of time in the lab, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s great to have this time carved out every day where we cook dinner together. We get to spend time talking to each other, catching up about our days. And we also get to explore new recipes together.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

That’s to be determined, I think. When I was in graduate school, I was sure I wanted to run an independent lab. As a grad student, I had few responsibilities and a well-defined research area to work in, and I could've kept doing what I was doing forever, I think. As a postdoc, I'm more proximal to the reality that, as a PI, what I do would impact not only me but the people who join my lab. If the lab's project is boring, or we finish it to satisfaction and I get scientific writers' block, I'd be putting a huge strain on those people's careers and happiness. I’m still trying to figure out my personal research niche—a problem about which I have a unique perspective; to stay in academia, I need to feel like I have an idea that has enough substance from which to develop a sustainable research program—I owe that stability to my future trainees. Right now, this is a work in progress, but I hope that, in a year from now, I’ll be closer to finding it.



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