Anthea Letsou, Ph.D.
Defining what it means to be a "good scientist"
Picture Thomas Edison or Marie Curie working in their laboratories, trying one thing after another to make their experiments work:
"A small adjustment here, perhaps."
It's the process of discovery that has motivated scientists since science began and still challenges and fascinates people. Anthea Letsou, Ph.D., a professor of human genetics at the University of Utah, understands and thrives on the challenge of discovery. As a student at Harvard, her lab was the darkroom where she developed photos she took for the campus newspaper. As a scientist at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics, she works with fruit flies (Drosophila) searching for gene mutations that cause problems in flies similar to birth defects in humans.
"Being in the darkroom is similar to working at a lab bench: it's exciting. The pleasure you get from discovering you have caught the perfect moment in a photo is the same type of feeling you get from doing a good experiment," she says. And the work environment is similar too. "The newsroom is like a lab: the fun of working on a team and putting together a daily paper - everyone with a common goal - it's the same dynamic for people who work together in the lab."
For Anthea, the move from photojournalism to genetics was a surprising twist, since she wasn't a biology fan, and she never enjoyed dissections. Despite all that, Anthea found science to be the most challenging subject to study and the best place to be involved in discovery.
"When you find something you enjoy doing, it becomes a career, not just a job," says Anthea. She now investigates cellular interactions involved in embryonic development. The experiments in her lab elucidate how genes direct the closure of the epidermis at the dorsal midline (the center of the back, or spine). In humans, gene mutations affecting an analogous process can cause death of the unborn child or result in spina bifida. Anthea hopes that work on these genes in Drosophila will help us understand the role of genes in the development of a human baby.
As a faculty member in the Human Genetics Department, Anthea's career extends beyond her lab work to teaching and mentoring students to help them appreciate the discovery process. She recalls that her own lab experience was the "most important part" of her graduate school training at Yale. There she learned from her advisor the process of science and how to be a good scientist. "You have to ask important questions and define definitive experiments. And your results must be interpretable," she says.
Doing good science is important to Anthea, but so is teaching others about this process. "When you see your students move on and start careers on their own, it gives you a feeling of achievement." Karl Simin, a student of Anthea's who now works at the University of North Carolina, says that Anthea's mentoring was helpful in learning to do experiments and to use new advances in his experiments. "The day-to-day work of a scientist can be tedious, but Anthea always has words of encouragement that help see a project through to the end. Also, Anthea thinks creatively about solving problems. If a new method has the potential to yield better or faster results, she is eager to incorporate the new techniques in her reseach," notes Simin.
People inside and outside the university benefit from Anthea's commitment to teaching good science. When not at the University, Anthea can sometimes be found at the Children's Museum of Utah, where she serves on the program committee and designs opportunities for children to experiment with science. Perhaps some who play with these experiments will become hooked and grow up to be good scientists.
Funding for this feature was provided by The R. Harold Burton Foundation.
Author: Kristen Kamerath