DNA in her blood – Cheryl Keller Capone joins Real Scientists!

We know that red blood cells technically don’t contain DNA, but our latest curator is here to tell us why it’s so important to understand the genes responsible for blood cell development. Cheryl Keller Capone (@KellerCaponePhD) is a Research Associate and DNA sequencing whiz at the Center for Comparative Genomics and Bioinformatics at Penn State University. Since obtaining her PhD at Penn State working on the molecular biology underlying the embryonic development of fruit fly (Drosophila) muscles (and picking up a slew of awards along the way!), Cheryl has led a varied post-doctoral life. This includes a neuroscience post-doc position, some time in industry working on mitochondrial DNA forensics, freelance writing and editing, and teaching sophomore molecular biology at Penn State. She is also a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Talk about diversifying your portfolio! Here is Cheryl with a little more on what makes her blood boil (in a good way!), and why you should all be excited about her curating Real Scientists for us this week:

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I’ve been curious about biology and medicine for as long as I can remember, and I majored in biology in college with the intent of going to medical school. During my senior year of college, I took a part-time job working for a cardiologist who did clinical research trials. It was a great experience and gave me some insight into both medicine and research. And while I enjoyed interacting with patients, I decided that my interests were more aligned with scientific research than the clinic, so I went on to graduate school at Penn State.

Although my current research focuses on genomics and gene regulation of blood cell development, I actually started my career studying muscle differentiation in fruit flies. Interestingly, however, despite the more obvious differences between the fields of study, the underlying themes and research questions we ask are actually quite similar. For example, how are genes turned on and turned off? What effects do mutations and other perturbations have on gene expression and function? How is cell fate determined? What factors influence cellular differentiation and maturation? These are all enduring questions in biology that can be asked and addressed to varying degrees using techniques such as genetics, genomics, biochemistry, and cell and molecular biology. In genomics, we ask and answer research questions using biochemical assays that involve massively parallel high throughput DNA sequencing and computational analyses.

My expertise lies in genomic technologies, methodologies and instrumentation. Since 2010, I have been involved in generating and sequencing of over 1200 biological samples. I love DNA sequencing!

I’ve been working in Dr. Ross Hardison’s lab at Penn State since 2009, and since then have been involved in several projects with an overall research goal of understanding molecular mechanisms and gene regulation in mammals using blood cell development in mouse as a model system.

Our latest project is called VISION, which stands for Validated Systematic IntegratiON of hematopoietic epigenomes, and spans 7 different institutions across the US and UK. The goal of VISION is to integrate and validate large amounts of emerging genomic and epigenetic data that will help facilitate advances in both basic research as well as medical applications such as precision medicine.

Blood cell development is vitally important to human health because we must continually replace old and damaged cells, and because many diseases, including leukemias and anaemias, result from mis-regulation of gene expression during blood formation. What’s really exciting about VISION is that this approach can be applied not only to blood diseases, but to other diseases as well. One’s genetic profile can have a significant impact on susceptibility to disease and response to specific treatments, however, most genetic variants associated with disease or other traits are not in the 1-2% of the genome that encodes mRNA, but rather in the much larger non-coding genome. Our VISION team is looking at these non-coding regions and finding new ways to extract valuable information about these variants, including their roles in disease.

(And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for – how did she get into personal training?) Around the same time that I started working in genomics, I suffered a couple of running related injuries that led to several years of chronic pain and dysfunction. As part of my recovery during physical therapy, I developed an interest in movement and strength training. Now I am a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and work part-time with clients to help them learn to move well and get strong.

I enjoy hiking, running, swimming and cycling and hope to complete my first triathlon this summer. I also write a blog called Science and Strength at www.cherylkellercapone.wordpress.com and share science, health and fitness related information on Instagram @cherylkellercapone

Please welcome Cheryl to Real Scientists!

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