Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Haley Licon
Haley Licon is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Sebastian Lourido’s lab studying how the parasite Toxoplasma gondii switches between stages during infection. We sat down with Haley to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
I'm broadly interested in the genetic mechanisms that help certain parasites adapt to their hosts and progress through the different stages of their life cycles. Our lab works with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (Toxo), which causes the disease toxoplasmosis and is closely related to Plasmodium—the parasite that causes malaria. Toxo actually infects about a quarter of the world's population, but most people who are chronically infected don't have symptoms. That's because the parasites transition to a slow growing stage that can persist long-term without actively causing disease. But if someone becomes immunocompromised—like in people who have late-stage HIV infection or are undergoing some sort of immunosuppressive therapy—the parasites can reactivate. The questions I’m interested in center on how the parasites transition from the disease-causing proliferative stage to the chronic stage and back again.
When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Weirdly, a coroner. I guess that somewhat connects to what I do now—not the crime-solving, but the exploration and answering questions? I think I just watched a lot of CSI.
When did you become interested in science?
I've always really liked science. My mom was a biology teacher so, as a kid, I was very lucky in that I had a lot of exposure to science generally. I had someone around me who was an effective communicator of science. When I got older, I wanted to be a doctor, which I think is a pretty common trajectory for a lot of students interested in biology. Then, as a pre-med, I was told that medical school admissions officers like students to have some sort of research experience, so I joined a lab working on parasitology. The biology was interesting, and I found that I really liked being in a group with other scientists exchanging ideas, so I ended up pursuing research instead, and never really managed to escape parasites.
Growing up with a science teacher parent seems to have been impactful for you. Do you have any interest in teaching or other science outreach?
Absolutely. I just started working with my first undergraduate mentee in the lab here, which I'm very excited about. I have also volunteered with the CURE program through the Dana-Farber/ Harvard Cancer Center, which enables students from underrepresented populations in science to do hands-on lab work. The students also go to lectures, and have a journal club to discuss papers, so I’ve been able to help out with some of those things.
What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had in the lab?
Nothing completely devastating comes to mind, but if I had to choose something, the highest-stakes disasters would probably be something involving a lapse in containment, like pulling a frozen stock of cells out of liquid nitrogen and having it explode. It can happen if the nitrogen seeps into the tube. The stock quickly becomes unfrozen and then you have a parasite that’s only supposed to be handled in spaces designed for a biosafety level 2 hazard outside of that space. It happened a few times in my old lab when we switched to a new brand of cryovials. Health and safety had to come in and handle the clean-up. Otherwise, no major incidents, thankfully. Just regular things, like failed experiments and ugly blots.
What are some of your hobbies?
I'm a runner. I rock climb. I like to paint. I enjoy a lot of outdoor activities. I grew up in the southwest and being outside was a big part of childhood. It remains a big part of my life.
Where do you like to run?
I like running by the Charles River, heading away from downtown, where it gets a little quieter and there are stretches of actual dirt trail. I prefer trail running if I can. But I moved to Boston during Covid, and I think one of the best ways to get to know a city is to run around with no goal, just seeing the roads and neighborhoods. It helps you get to know the lay of the land—no small feat in Boston. Also, you get to see all the little things that give a neighborhood character, that you might not notice just driving through: the little free libraries, trees hanging with decorations made by the kids who live there, silly stuff like that.
Do you think there are parallels between what makes for a good runner and a good scientist?
Sure, especially endurance running. I think both require a lot of patience and persistence. In research, sometimes you get lucky and have a productive run of data collection, but there are also periods where not a lot happens and it's demoralizing. You kind of just have to keep pushing and trying things until something works.
What do you like to paint?
Mostly landscapes because they don't move and they don't change too much. My favorite type of landscape is high desert. I grew up in Nevada, in the Sierras. It’s really beautiful and mountainous. Big, pointy mountains are hard to come by out here, and I quite like them. I usually paint after I've gone on a trip or been somewhere outside, when I'm missing the wilderness.
Do you collect anything?
I have way too many plants. I don't mean to collect houseplants but I keep walking to the plant store in my neighborhood. I’ll find a cute pot I want to buy. Then I need a plant to fill the pot, but I find two plants I like, so I need another pot—it’s a cycle. So now I have a collection. My favorite houseplant is probably my Christmas cactus. It really only does much once a year, but when it feels like producing it’s really colorful.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ideally, I’d like to run a lab. Academia is obviously a hard road to tread so who knows what will happen, but I would love to be running a group, working in this field and still exploring interesting questions.
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