SMB People

SMB People

  • 5 Questions with School of Molecular Biosciences alumna Jennifer Adair

     Jennifer Adair in her lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.Jennifer Adair in her lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.


    by Josh Babcock

    Jennifer Adair (’05 PhD, School of Molecular Biosciences) had never heard of Pullman when she considered  WSU’s National Institute of Health Protein Biotechnology Training Program. She even shamefully admits, at first, she confused WSU with the University of Washington. Now, the Coug is developing gene therapies to treat genetic disorders, HIV and cancer. Adair is the Fleischauer Family Endowed Chair in Gene Therapy Translation at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Her goal: provide safe, cost-effective applications for gene therapy that can be implemented worldwide.

    What does your job entail?

    My research team develops new technologies that help to distribute gene therapy treatments on a global scale. We focus on delivering gene therapy to blood cells for a wide variety of diseases including diseases that arise from our own genetics (inherited diseases), or from infections, such as HIV, and also cancers. These diseases have incredible impacts on the population and they are global health burdens. Currently, the best approach to treat these diseases is a bone marrow transplant from someone with the same tissue type. Finding those matches is difficult and getting the matches to accept one another adds another layer of difficulty. We’re working to create a better treatment solution by using the patient’s own blood cells, completely eliminating the need for a match from another person.

    Why is your work important?

    Tens of millions of people on the planet are struggling with diseases that could be treated with blood cell gene therapy. Imagine if in a five-year period those tens of millions of people had the ability to work and be healthy and live a better quality of life. That’s tens of millions more brains worth of ideas that could have the freedom to think of other solutions to problems like climate change, food insecurity and political stability. Providing basic human health exponentially increases the advances we make as a species.

    Why did you choose to join the graduate program at WSU?

    My undergrad specialized in chemistry and I wanted to branch out and do more of a genetics and cell biology-based doctorate. When I came for the graduate school interview, it had only been a short time since WSU had announced the formation of the  School of Molecular Biosciences, which meant you could do a doctorate in microbiology, genetics and cell biology, or biochemistry and biophysics, with any of the professors in any of those programs. I was also impressed with the structure of the program. I felt very comfortable that I would know exactly what my path was. Plus, out of all my graduate school interviews, it was the only one where there were other parents interviewing, and it was affordable.

    How did WSU prepare you for your career?

    WSU’s graduate program showed me how to do the basic research needed well, and the National Institute of Health Protein Biotechnology Training Program showed me what it would take to get the basic science to the FDA and the path to develop a future drug, experience that was crucial in landing my job at Fred Hutchinson. I loved the basic science exposure I got, but my enthusiasm came from doing science to change the way we treat diseases so we could rewrite the playbook for physicians. I was never embarrassed by enthusiasm and those at WSU never made me feel like that was something unacceptable in the field. I had big dreams when I came to WSU. The training program put me in a position to see those dreams to their current reality. I picked an encouraging adviser and along the way developed a skillset that gave me a lot of options once I realized that I was farther along the path than I thought I was.

    What advice would you give students about to embark on a graduate degree?

    Remember that great success primarily comes from failures, not by getting it right all the time. Take each failure as another step forward on the path to making a great advancement. Never feel like you already know it all. It’s great to be confident, but it’s good to be open to learning new things. When you’re humble and open minded it gives you the space to appreciate the value in other people’s ideas and will only encourage you to have better ones yourself.

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  • From WSU to the Mayo Clinic: My Summer as an Undergraduate Research Fellow

    by Pierce Claassen, a microbiology undergraduate student in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences

    Pierce Claassen at MayoWalking quickly through an underground tunnel that stretches nearly a half mile, I carried samples frozen on dry ice between two buildings on the Mayo Clinic campus to be tested as part of a clinical study on irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Analysis of the tissues may help physician-scientists understand the causes of IBS and one day find a cure. In other places, it could take hours or days for analysis to begin, but here at the Mayo Clinic, I was impressed by how almost instantaneous everything is. The testing for these samples began just 15 minutes after they were taken.

    For 10 weeks in the summer of 2018, I had the pleasure of interacting with some of the most skillful physicians and knowledgeable scientists in their respective disciplines as an undergraduate research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Most days, shortly after waking up in my sky-rise apartment, I would hustle to the Mayo Clinic campus to work in a laboratory within the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, analyzing tissue samples where researchers are trying to learn more about the pathological mechanisms of gastroenterological conditions.

    But it was lunchtime I really looked forward to because every day, the Mayo Clinic held Grand Round talks with guest lecturers from top medical institutions such as Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania. There I witnessed physicians discuss cases and learned how doctors think through medical issues and make decisions regarding treatments. On Thursdays, I attended gastroenterology and hepatology sub-specialty case conferences where I observed gastroenterology fellows from the Mayo Clinic discussing medical cases, current research, and even legal aspects of the field. Before this fellowship, I may have had a few minutes to ask questions to physicians I was shadowing back home. Here, I was able to listen to board-certified professionals discuss medicine with their colleagues for an hour every day.

    The physician I worked under was devoted to clinical and translational gastrointestinal research, which means that the investigatory work that was done in the laboratory was directly related to ongoing clinical trials that will ultimately help treat patients. This area of research was ideal for an aspiring physician, like me, because so much of it was directly related to patient care. One of the things I really enjoyed about being at the Mayo Clinic, where over one million patients are seen annually, was observing the interaction between medical doctors and scientists who are always working with the best interest of the patient in mind.

    Being awarded this M.D.-Ph.D. preparatory fellowship is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. This experience showed me how doctors and scientists collaborate to answer extraordinarily complicated questions, how physicians-in-training interact with master clinicians, and most importantly how these professionals collaborate to provide the highest quality of care on such a large scale.

    Pierce Claassen was 1 of 130 select undergraduates in the country to receive a SURF position out of 1,350 who applied. As a junior, he was also one of the younger fellows. Pierce is a WSU Regents ScholarWSU Auvil Fellow, and received the Alice L. and William E. Diers Student Endowment in the spring of 2019. He has been researching in Dr. Rey Carabeo’s lab since the beginning of his sophomore year at WSU and has participated at SURCA multiple years. He is the son of a third-generation wheat farmer from Clarkston, Washington, and has been a dedicated Cougar fan his entire life. His long-term goal is to return to his hometown to practice medicine and serve the community that has been his family’s home for many generations. He is currently going through the medical school application process.

    Pierce would like to thank his School of Molecular Biosciences mentors, Dr. Rey Carabeo and Dr. William B. Davis, as well as his advisors in the Health Professions Student Center, Dr. Lourdes Giordani and Dr. Donald Allison for their steadfast support and professional guidance.

    Read more stories about the School of Molecular Biosciences

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