Silvi Rouskin: exploring life’s non-linear paths
TabulaSynthase The blog of Whitehead Institute; bringing together ideas and perspectives from the Whitehead community and beyond.
Silvi Rouskin, a Whitehead Fellow who studies RNA structure and its implications for health and disease, has been called by her colleagues fearless, relentless, fiercely independent and—if she’d started from a different place—perhaps smarts and curiosity alone would have let her follow a straight path to her goal.
But Silvi was born in early-1980s Communist Bulgaria, and her parents were rock musicians who performed primarily in Norway. Raised by her grandparents until age six, Silvi didn’t share her parents’ passion for music. She was enthralled by biology and chemistry and loved the critical thinking they demanded. At age 15 she made an intrepid decision, joining a high school exchange program that sent her across the globe to Emmett, Idaho. “I wasn’t very worldly, but I knew that studying science in the United States would be my best chance to become a great researcher,” she recalls.
She arrived in Idaho with little knowledge of American society, but with single-minded determination. Within 12 months, she’d earned a high school Graduate Equivalency Diploma and enrolled at Florida Institute of Technology. Four years later, with a degree in physics and biochemistry, she applied to the best graduate schools in the country and was rejected by them all. Some people thought it hubris to aim for only top schools. But she was committed to studying with the best people and equipment and willing to take whatever time was necessary to do that.
To gain skills and knowledge that would better position her for top-level graduate study, Silvi sought a job working with microarray analysis, then a cutting-edge technology pioneered by scientists at Stanford, University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). So, she flew to San Francisco, checked into a hostel, and went in search of a position in this burgeoning area. Within months, she was working as a research technician at UCSF, using microarrays to detect and track viral infection. Her three years in that job afforded deep experience and earned her glowing recommendations. When she applied again to the top graduate schools, they all accepted her and she opted to stay at UCSF.
Silvi’s graduate research in Jonathan Weissman’s laboratory sought to answer a long-standing question about how RNA molecules fold in living cells. Through four years of work she didn’t have a single successful result. But she persisted, inspired by Thomas Edison’s statement, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” In her fifth year, her work paid off, demonstrating she was on the right track. “When I saw the first positive result, I jumped up and down like a child,” she remembers. “I’d never experienced such joy.”
When she completed her degree, she made a welcomed U-turn, back to the East Coast to create her own lab at Whitehead Institute—an opportunity rarely offered new PhDs. The Whitehead Fellowship was the only position she’d applied for. “When you have no Plan B, you really push hard for Plan A,” she observes.
For the last three years, Silvi’s occupied the place she’s most wanted to be: running her own lab, collaborating with some of the world’s most talented scientists. She’s making the most of it—for example, recently introducing an algorithmic approach making it far easier for researchers to study RNA folding and recognize connections between folding patterns and certain neurodegenerative diseases.
“I originally focused on RNA structure, because it was a big mystery with undeniable importance,” she explains. “Today, we know that—beyond its role in translating DNA into the proteins that make (and spur actions within) the cell—RNA can fold into structures that, themselves, interact with other molecules or catalyze biochemical reactions. I’m looking specifically at the structures of messenger RNA (mRNA), which are critical for embryonic development and normal cellular function.” By learning the principles guiding mRNA folding, Silvi hopes to better understand how RNA structure regulates normal cell activity—and what specific aspects go awry and cause disease.
“My mother was proud of my science, but very interested in knowing how it might be applied. She always asked me, ‘What will this mean? How will you be helping people with this work?’” Silvi recalls. Her mother’s unexpected death last spring has left her feeling the physical and emotional distance from her family in Bulgaria. “I didn’t spend much time with my mom, but I learned a lot from her. When I left Bulgaria at 15, she told me that the world is full of good people, and that people are much more alike than they are different. And she was the reason I never felt fear or loneliness, or lacked inspiration.”
Balancing the pain of losing her mother is the pleasure of raising her now four-year-old daughter. “As driven as I am as a scientist, I’m relaxed as a parent,” she explains. “I don’t carry the weight of being a perfect mother, because my mom was such a non-traditional role model.” At the same time, leading a research lab carries its own kind of expectations for her as an authority figure and role model. “It’s the ultimate dream to have your own lab. It carries a real sense of freedom, but a sense of responsibility, too,” Silvi says. “Responsibility for people whose jobs depend on me managing the lab well; and for those who view me as a professional role model, especially the women pursuing a career in biomedical research.
“I strive to create an environment where everyone in the lab can focus on their science without distraction. You see, my life’s unusual path—while challenging and somewhat isolating—provided a kind of intellectual shelter for me to focus almost solely on science. The people in my lab are trying to answer complex questions about the structures underpinning life; and one of the most important things that I can do is create a lab environment that provides a shelter for pursuing their science and their professional lives.
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