Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Leah Bury
Leah Bury is a postdoc in the lab of Whitehead Member Iain Cheeseman, where her research is focused on understanding transcription of DNA into RNA at the centromere, a region of the chromosome important in cell division. Bury, who is originally from Germany, completed her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Her work in the Cheeseman lab is supported by the American Cancer Society. In addition to her work as a researcher, she is also an illustrator and animator who creates science-themed art. Examples of her work can be seen on her website.
What are you investigating?
I’m researching centromere transcription. The centromere is a region of DNA that defines where the kinetochore forms in mitosis—the kinetochore is this huge protein complex that forms in the middle of a chromosome during cell division. It’s where the microtubules attach when the cell divides to pull the chromosomes apart into the daughter cells. It’s important that there is one centromere per chromosome because there needs to be only one attachment point, or else chromosomes could be pulled from multiple places and be torn into pieces.
Most of the lab is more focused on the functional aspects of the centromere: building the kinetochore, attaching to microtubules. I’m focused on the DNA aspect. The centromere is really interesting because it's not just like any part of DNA: it's repetitive DNA, what used to be thought of as junk DNA. Only a small percentage of the genome is actually genes, and people used to think those were the only things being transcribed or expressed. Now we know that some of the repetitive DNA regions are transcribed, including the centromere. I'm interested in why it's being transcribed, how it's being transcribed, and how this is important to cell division.
How did you get interested in this area of science? How did you end up at Whitehead Institute?
I would say it goes back to undergrad. I was always interested in the fundamentals of cell biology and how that connects to disease. I studied molecular medicine in Germany for my master's program, taking a lot of medical classes as well as cell biology. I wanted to explore science outside of Germany, so during my master’s I did an internship in a lab at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston studying the cell cycle. I worked on proteins that are important for cell cycle progression and also regulate transcription. Then for my PhD, I went to Cambridge in the UK and studied mitosis and meiosis. That was the first time that I did a lot of microscopy and I really fell in love with microscopy. After that I decided I never want to work in a lab that doesn't have microscopes. I don't want to look at just bands in gels anymore. That was one of the priorities that led me to Iain’s lab at Whitehead. I also liked Boston and wanted to come back, and I liked Iain's philosophy that the most important thing is that you're passionate about your project. He gives a lot of freedom because his philosophy is that if you're passionate about your work then you're going to be motivated to work hard. So then I ended up working on transcription again which is kind of where I started out.
What's the least fun part of your job?
More experiments don't work than do work. Things always take longer than you think, so it's hard to plan. When things go wrong, you have to pick up the pieces and move on.
What's the most fun part about your job?
The microscopy. I like that a lot because you actually see something. Even if the experiment doesn't work, you still stained microtubules and it looks cool. It's always rewarding and makes you feel unbelievably lucky to be able to visualize these details that not many people in this world get to see.
What's the biggest thing you've broken in the lab?
I would say not necessarily broken but wasted money. I use probes for single molecule fluorescence in situ hybridization that are super expensive and you don't really know if they're going to work or not. So, you order two sets of probes for $1500 and then they don't work. You would never do that at home, waste that kind of money, but here it happens and there's nothing you can do. That sort of feels like breaking something.
When you were a kid, what did you think you would be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a vet. We had guinea pigs and they were cute.
How did you get into creating science art?
I really love talking about science and visualizing science in that way and making it understandable. One of the things that I find frustrating is that my family has no idea what I do. Both of my parents are artists. So one time I drew a cell and a mitotic spindle, and my dad asked me what it was. He thought it looked like a spider. And then I could tell him a little bit about that, about mitosis. What I like about art is that you can use it to talk about science in a different way and people actually understand the science a little bit differently and can relate to it differently. It’s funny because I hadn't drawn in forever and the science gave me an outlet. I really like science as the subject of my art.
What is a favorite recent piece of yours?
I did a graphical abstract as an animation for a scientist about a paper where they did cell tagging, like barcoding and lineage mapping of different cells. The story was pretty complex, so we went back and forth and broke it down into the main pieces and then I animated that. The scientist showed the animation to the lab and other scientists and she said that it helped them understand the paper better. After watching the animation, people saw things in the paper that they hadn't before. You know, you have ten pages of a paper that it takes forever to read and then you have this little graphical abstract you can watch in two minutes and kind of get it. I really like that.
Do you collect anything?
No. When I was younger, I used to collect everything I could, from bouncing balls to shells to troll dolls—the ones with the different color hair. I collected stamps because my grandma collected stamps and I wanted to make her happy. I had a lot of different collections, but somehow now I don't collect anything anymore. Moving a lot, it’s like you’re a hermit crab. I moved from Germany to the UK and then here and every time you move it's like you bring a few suitcases, so you can't really keep that much.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I would say hopefully in some kind of science communication position, as an illustrator or an animator. I have absolutely no regrets about doing research, but I would like to one day focus on visualizing science. I think that a lot of people think science is something super scary or that they are too stupid to understand it, and art can make science more accessible. It sparks curiosity and can provide a different perspective. It gives people a different access to science than they would get in a textbook or an article. Also, for me, art is relaxing. You draw something and then you’ve finished it and you’re happy.
Communications and Public Affairs