Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Danielle Tomasello

A woman with curly hair stands in front of lab shelves.

Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researcher Danielle Tomasello


Seferina Starks/Whitehead Institute

Danielle Tomasello is a postdoctoral fellow investigating neurodevelopmental disorders in Whitehead Institute Member Hazel Sive’s lab. Tomasello is a Simons Center for the Social Brain fellow and was previously Whitehead Institute’s Balkin-Markell-Weinberg Fellow. She is also the creator of The Social Scientist, an outreach and networking site for scientists. We sat down with Tomasello to learn a bit more about her and her experiences in the lab.


What do you investigate?

I'm researching the underlying biochemical changes that occur in complex mental health disorders. Specifically, I’m working on 16p11.2 deletion syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder in which a core of 25 genes are deleted from chromosome 16, resulting in a huge mixture of disease manifestations; including autism, epilepsy, intellectual disability, ADHD, and language deficits, as well as body changes such as obesity. We want to find out if looking at metabolomics—the study of all of the small molecules—in cells of people with this disorder is a good strategy to learn about it and determine treatment approaches. This is an alternative approach to looking at neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders, getting down to the basics and understanding what's changing at the molecular level inside the cell and then working up to see how that fits in with the physiology and behavior. So far, this approach has helped us to discover alterations in pathways we would not have looked at otherwise.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Bench science work is never boring or monotonous to me. You're always trying new techniques and finding new ideas, which I think is fun. I also appreciate the impact our work can have down the line. One in one hundred people that have autism have this deletion; it’s very common in autism. I feel as a basic researcher you can get lost in the bench work, but I recently went to a neurodevelopmental disorder symposium with a focus on autism. Seeing the clinical side, and meeting patients’ families who said that they need our help to find out what is happening with their kids was renewing for me. The work is difficult, and I'm not working with patients every day, so it’s good to see that what I'm doing is important and can help families.

What’s your least favorite part of your job?

I believe we all fall into slumps where you're troubleshooting and trying to figure out what's going on. That’s hard, when things aren't working and you're not sure why, and sometimes you don't have many people to turn to. Those are the worst times, but you have to keep your head down and push through it because things always pick back up. 

Why did you choose to come to Whitehead Institute to work in Hazel Sive’s lab?

I was really interested in the work that Hazel has been doing with this neurodevelopmental disorder. Hazel’s lab is known for utilizing zebrafish as a model. Coming from a mouse lab, I appreciated the approach of using zebrafish because they are a vertebrate system and amazing for studying neurodevelopment. They're transparent during development so you can easily visualize their brain and you can do a lot of high-scale testing such as behavioral and pharmacology analysis. I also really liked the work that she was doing with this disorder specifically. We agreed to branch into stem cell work when I started here. I recently started working in collaboration with Whitehead Institute Founding Member Rudolf Jaenisch's lab to use cell lines from patients. This will be a great overall model, combining the zebrafish and human stem cells, to attack the issues with this disorder. 

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

I was a lab technician for a few years before I started my PhD. One day, I went under the chemical hood to grab some methanol and accidentally knocked over nitric oxide [a highly corrosive and hazardous chemical]. It started to eat through the floor and spilled all over my boots. When I called Environmental Health and Safety they were pumped about it and brought in nearly 30 people for training. Our lab was swarming with super excited EH&S people. I was really depressed, sitting by myself, when my postdoc friend comes over and says, "That's okay, those boots were ugly anyway." It was a rough day and I have never lived that down — I still get harassed by members of my old lab. But I am very, very careful now.

What is The Social Scientist?

It’s a non-profit initiative I launched this summer where scientists can network with volunteer science professionals for career and life advice. Where I am today is based a lot on the relationships I have. Talking to people has been one of the most beneficial aspects for my career, but there isn’t necessarily an easy place to make those connections. It can be difficult to learn more about other fields or to break into them. My goal for the site is to help all science professionals and enthusiasts get wherever they need to go.

The site is for everyone: researchers on the job market looking for advice, a high school student thinking about going into science who doesn’t know what fields or types of careers are available, or even an assistant professor looking for a tenure position who needs advice from someone who has already gone through that process. Our volunteers are dedicating their time to answer questions that will benefit your interests, including a view of their work, environment and what it took for them to get there. The first people I asked to become volunteers were people who helped me get to where I am. They are all really enthusiastic to help with this initiative. We also have a number of volunteers from Whitehead Institute, which is really great. I’m currently working on publicizing the site and expanding the volunteer pool, especially to represent places outside of the United States. I’m always excited when people reach out to me with questions about the site or want to get involved.

Where did the idea for The Social Scientist come from?

When I went to my first conference as a postdoc this past summer, I put a lot of pressure on myself to network. I have been to a great deal of networking events and career panels, and everyone will say you need to cold call or go right up to people and introduce yourself. I'm personally not good at that, and I feel like a lot of people also struggle with that circumstance. Even if you make a connection, it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have a valuable conversation. So, I was extremely frustrated, and I would go back and sit in my hotel room alone thinking that there needs to be a better way. That's when I came up with the idea. I wanted to provide a way for people to talk to other science professionals, but in a more low-key, informal setting. I also wanted to make it easier for scientists to give advice: being a volunteer on the site isn’t a huge time commitment. Taking ten minutes to write an email or make a phone call can be a huge help to someone.

What are your hobbies outside of work?

I love to try new restaurants. My husband and I are big foodies so coming to Boston was especially fun for us. We like to try all types of cuisines and during the summer we go to a lot of food festivals. I've had a couple people tell me to do Yelp reviews because I go to so many restaurants. My family owns a restaurant so I grew up in the restaurant business. Since I know how restaurants are run, I can sometimes be a little bit picky.

What kind of restaurant does your family own?

It's a family style restaurant. They are known for their fish fries on Friday nights and they have a bit of everything. My dad's the front of the house, my stepmom's the back of the house. My dad will be that person who will take your kid and walk them around so you can have a nice meal. I worked there for most of my life. They still tell me I can take over the restaurant whenever I want.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I would be incandescently happy to be in a government position as a principal investigator. I feel in those positions you can pursue a bit more high-risk research because of the way that it's set up. You get reviewed every four years but you're not spending all of your time writing grants. That's why I like the idea of it, but I need to know more about that setting. I also have to be realistic in this very competitive environment. If I can run my own team in an industry position or at a university I'd also be very happy.


Danielle Tomasello is a postdoctoral fellow investigating neurodevelopmental disorders in Whitehead Institute Member Hazel Sive’s lab. 



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