Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Whitney Henry
Whitney Henry is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Founding Member Robert Weinberg’s lab and a Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellow. She is investigating ways to target a type of cancer cell that is particularly prone to metastasis and resisting treatment. We sat down with Henry to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
Our lab studies a fundamental program of the cell called epithelial–mesenchymal transition (the EMT program). This process, in which certain cells adopt a stem like cell state and gain the ability to migrate, is important for several biological processes during embryonic development and wound healing. However, it is also implicated in the metastasis of cancer cells, as well as in cancer relapse and resistance to treatment. I am interested in targeting these cancer stem cells by disrupting their metabolic processes.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A teacher. At that phase of my life my role models were my teachers, so I wanted to emulate them. That evolved as I was exposed to more things, but I still think learning how to teach is important for any career.
What led you to becoming a scientist?
I am originally from the Caribbean — Saint Lucia — and in high school my favorite subjects were math, chemistry, and physics. I really enjoyed problem solving. However, I never thought I would be doing research. Growing up I didn't know anyone who was a research scientist. Most of the people that I knew who pursued careers in science ended up in medicine. After high school I accepted a full academic scholarship to pursue my bachelor's in biology in the United States, with plans of attending medical or dental school. However, once I got to see firsthand what research entailed, what the lifestyle was like, and how exciting it was to be part of the discovery process, I was hooked. I remember at one summer research program, I took a weekend off to go to a dental workshop, and all I could think of were the experiments I planned to perform when I got back to the lab. I realized that I had a passion for research, and was excited to accept an offer from Harvard for my PhD.
How important was mentorship to your career?
Had I not been exposed to research, I would not have known that it was something I could do or would enjoy doing. Exposure is key. Having the right people around you to foster your interest is equally important. Looking back, I have to give credit to those mentors who encouraged me to apply to summer research programs, and then to institutions like Harvard for grad school. They saw my potential even when I couldn’t see it myself. This kind of support has changed my life’s trajectory. I've been fortunate to have great mentors, and they come in all forms — different professional ranks, genders, and cultural backgrounds. I think it's good to have that diversity because everyone brings in a new experience, a different angle to a given problem, and you benefit from that. I tap into my mentoring network not just for research purposes, but also for psychological support. Having a group of scientific mentors that can not only give you practical advice, but also be there to listen and empathize is invaluable. And so, I make sure to pay it forward.
What are your experiences as a mentor?
I’ve been mentoring my entire life. At Whitehead, I have taken on undergraduates, international students, and a high school student who has been with me for about two years.
It’s gratifying to see my students gain independence, build confidence, and start suggesting experiments of their own. It’s fun to share the excitement about a finding with them, especially when they realize that they may be the first person to ever make that discovery. Sometimes, I see parts of myself in my trainees, especially when they may doubt themselves, and I am particularly committed to being there for them in these moments. I’ve found that mentoring is mutually beneficial. While you invest in your student’s scientific training, you also benefit from the fresh, positive energy that they bring into the lab — it’s contagious. I think sometimes that energy can taper off for postdocs, so it’s nice to get a boost.
What are your hobbies?
I spend a lot of my spare time with my Caribbean cultural dance group. We do a lot of traditional dances and performances in the Boston area. I love performing. I feel like I get to express a different dimension of myself. I enjoy the creativity, engagement with the audience, and being part of a group of talented, energetic individuals. It can also be a nice break from the lab, and it reminds me of home and my roots, which is comforting. I also do a lot of outreach and mentoring. You can often find me on a student panel, talking about my grad school experiences and imposter syndrome.
Do you still experience imposter syndrome?
All the time. I've gotten better at recovering, though. It was worse in grad school, with the transition to Harvard from a small HBCU (historically black college and/or university) in rural Louisiana. With this move came many insecurities, so I think I faced imposter syndrome almost every day. I remember feeling scared about my technical skills at the start of grad school: What if I didn't know something I should have, what if I asked a stupid question? Now, when I feel imposter syndrome coming on, I use logic to deal with it. I tell myself, this may be how you feel, but look at the facts, at your record and accomplishments; there’s no way this was all an accident.
How often do you go back to Saint Lucia?
I go home at least once a year, otherwise I think I would risk burning out. Almost everyone lives there, so I can get homesick sometimes. I appreciate that Bob [Robert Weinberg] cares not only about our scientific training and success, but also our overall happiness, and so he encourages these trips. So far, I have been able to go home for most Christmases and summers to spend time with my family.
What’s the first thing you do when you visit?
Go to the beach. I live less than a five-minute drive away and that's the first thing I want to do. The water is blue, clear, and warm. I remember during my first summer here in Boston everyone was so excited about going to the beach, but they all warned me, “Whitney, I don't think you’ll be entering the water. It's not like what you have in the Caribbean.” And they were so right about it. It was way too cold for me.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Right now, I really enjoy being immersed in developing my project, presenting my findings, writing grants, and mentoring students. Bob’s lab provides excellent training for becoming an independent principal investigator. It’s still early in my postdoc to say for sure, but I’d like to run a lab someday.
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