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Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics Meet Kelly Whelan

Kelly Whelan, Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics Program Alum


Undergraduate: Rosemont College, BA in Biology
Graduate: Drexel University College of Medicine, PhD in Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics


Can you tell me a little about yourself before you came to graduate school at Drexel?

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not grow up wanting to be a scientist. I actually didn't know that this was a potential career path until I was well into my undergraduate career. I completed a BA in biology and worked as a technician. When I was working, I realized that I could do what the individuals who are graduate students and postdocs were doing, and it seemed kind of cool. I knew I didn't want to be a technician anymore, so I applied to graduate school. When I came to Drexel, I didn't yet know exactly what I wanted to do, but early in my time there, I realized that I liked to teach.

Why did you apply to Drexel's Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics (MCBG) program?

Actually, a postdoc in the lab where I was a technician, Lyndi Rice, is an alum of the MCBG program, and she said it was great program. I applied throughout the area and was accepted to different schools. When I interviewed at Drexel, I had a gut feeling about it, which is why I ended up going there, and it worked out really well for me.

What was your experience in the program like?

I have always been very good at book learning, so I did really well in the courses. From that, I was invited to tutor students in the incoming class. Doing that is how I realized that I like to teach and what you actually need to do to become an effective teacher. For example, there are things that I had maybe learned 20 times in my life, like glycolysis, but I realized that in order to teach it to others, I actually had to understand it rather than just have it memorized. That was a transformative experience for me. I think it's also helped me to be a much better speaker in terms of my own work, because I know what I need to tell people to convey what I want them to know.

For the first two years, I struggled in the lab. I was always a hard worker, but science is one of those things where you can work really hard and things don't necessarily go anywhere. There was a phenotype that I just couldn't reproduce, and I banged my head against the wall for a long time. We finally realized it wasn't me; it was the cells. That was an interesting experience. While it frustrated me, it also taught me what you need to do to have success in the lab. You need to just keep trying. Now I tell my students that it's probably not you; it's probably something else. And we try to figure out systematically what that thing is. I learned that lesson the hard way in the lab.

Additionally in the lab, I was very well-trained technically. Mauricio Reginato, PhD, was my thesis mentor, and he was very good at teaching us technically what we had to do. I still, though, had a hard time figuring out what the next set of experiments was, so I needed a lot of guidance, more so than other graduate students. I think it was an issue of engagement. I knew that we were doing research in breast cancer, but I hadn't yet found out for myself that it would maybe someday be translational, meaning it would move into and help patient care. For me, that understanding came during my postdoctoral studies. When I realized what we were doing was truly able to impact the lives of patients, it made me want to do research.

What was your relationship with your classmates like?

At Drexel, I met some of the most wonderful people that I have ever met in my life. I became much more aware of how diverse the world is. I think for a long time, I was in a bubble. At Drexel, I met a friend who is from Jamaica, who I'm still very close friends with; I have a friend who is from Egypt, who I'm also still very close friends with; and I have connections with people from India. I became much more aware of things in the world, so from that perspective, it was a transformative time.

What was your relationship like with your mentor?

There were certainly some struggles. In graduate school, it's a time for you to grow. You're trying to grow into who you're going to be, and that doesn't necessarily always jive with what your mentor wants for you, but Mauricio was a fantastic mentor. When I finished at Drexel and was looking for jobs, I had opportunities to become a full-time teacher and I had postdoctoral opportunities. He was the person who really advised me to do a postdoc. I went on to do a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania with Drs. Hiroshi Nakagawa and Anil Rutsgi, two fantastic mentors, and it was incredibly successful. Then I ended up having my own lab, and that wouldn't have happened if I had just gone into a full-time teaching position. He has been a great mentor, not only in the lab but also professionally.

Can you tell me a little about the research you did for your dissertation?

I looked at the role of hypoxia and hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) in mammary oncogenesis and morphogenesis. Mauricio had noticed that in the mammary gland, when you have tumors, they express markers of hypoxia, or low oxygen levels. That makes sense because, as a tumor grows and grows, it outstrips the existing resources, so then you might not have enough blood there, which creates a hypoxic area. The question became: "Is that hypoxia a byproduct of that uncontrolled growth, or is it actually promoting tumor formation?"

We had a great experimental platform to address that in the 3D mammary acinar model. We would take mammary epithelial cells that were normal, put those into a 3D culture system and grow structures that mimicked mammary ducts. Under normal conditions, they're hollow. Taking those normal cells and putting them into hypoxia actually caused them to remain filled. Filling of the ducts is a hallmark of early cancer, suggesting that hypoxia is not only just a feature of that increased cell growth, but it's actually a mechanism to promote different pathways that are causing these tumor phenotypes. Interestingly, when we took our cells out of hypoxia and reoxygenated them, they didn't hollow back out, so just a transient exposure to this tumor microenvironmental factor, hypoxia, was able to allow these cells to have a maintained change that was potentially contributing to carcinoma in the mammary glands.

Were you publishing also during this time?

I had three papers from my thesis studies. The first is the study that I mentioned, just looking at the mammary glands and the impact of hypoxia. That took a long time to get out, about three-and-a-half years. The paper was in Molecular Biology of the Cell, and following that, Cell Cycle, another journal, wrote to ask us to submit a second article related to that. For that article, we showed that the reoxygenation doesn't reverse the phenotype. It was nice to get two papers on basically the same project. We really maximized the data that we had there.

The third paper came when I was already in my postdoctoral studies. We were looking at not just hypoxia in the context of normal cells, but also in tumor cells. We found that there was stabilization of hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) in an oxygen-independent manner, which is not typically what you would see in these breast cancer cell lines. That signaling was promoting cell survival, inhibiting apoptosis and helping the cells to be tumorigenic. We were able to collaborate with someone that Mauricio met to incorporate some animal work, which I hadn't had any experience with, but that really elevated the paper. It was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

What was the biggest takeaway you had from your experience at Drexel?

The one thing that really amazed me once I left Drexel is that I was never made aware of the fact that, as a woman scientist, I wasn't necessarily treated equal to men. I never felt that at Drexel. As I've gone out into the larger scientific community, it's become much more apparent to me, and I am now a big advocate for getting more women involved in science. However, at Drexel, there was absolutely none of that. I don't know if it was because Jane Azizkhan-Clifford, PhD, was the head of the department or what the difference was, but I remain so impressed by that.

Can you tell me a little bit about the research that you're doing now?

My lab in the Fels Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Biology focuses on understanding mechanisms of homeostasis in the esophagus. What we want to know is how the esophagus stays normal and then how pathways that keep the esophagus normal go awry in the context of different esophageal diseases, whether that be cancer or food allergy. The ultimate goal of those questions is to identify pathways that go awry in disease and figure out how we can we use that information to best serve patients who are afflicted by these esophageal diseases.

We have several projects going on in the lab right now. One large area of our focus is on autophagy, which is a mechanism by which the cell eats parts of itself. Things that are no longer needed or are dysfunctional, can be broken down into their constituents and recycled to make things that the cell does need. There are two types of cancer in the esophagus. Both have upregulation of autophagy, as does a type of food allergy called eosinophilic esophagitis. It seems that autophagy is a critical pathway involved in esophageal homeostasis, and now we're trying to discover how we can target it to better treat patients who have these diseases.

What has it been like for you to go from working in other people's labs to now running your own?

It's been interesting and also a lot of fun. I get to come up with questions that I find interesting and we get to try to answer those questions. That is the part of it that I love. However, I am surprised by the amount of nonscience that is involved in this position. I have to learn how to manage a budget. I have to manage people. I have to consider the career trajectories and the wants and the needs of a group of people. These are things that you're not trained for. I feel like, scientifically, I've been incredibly well trained, even for my professional development: I know how to write a successful grant, I know how to write a paper, and I know how to revise a paper. However, in terms of managing people and budgets, no one ever really trains you for that, so there has been a learning curve.

In addition to teaching students in the lab, do you also give lectures?

As part of our tenure, we have to show excellence in teaching. For the first three years, in an assistant professor position here at the Fels Institute, you're largely kept from teaching. That being said, I will go up for reappointment in three years, so I have to show that I can teach. I have taught three lectures so far, and this year I'll pick up an extra class. I do find that it is still something that I love. I learn the material in more depth than I typically would, and I get to meet new graduate students and try to convince them to come to the lab. It is definitely something that I hope to do more of as I move forward. For now, however, it's really about building my research program and getting that off the ground.

What advice do you have for students considering Drexel's MCBG program?

I would say that you don't have to have it all figured out when you start graduate school or necessarily even when you finish graduate school. You should explore any option that you think is appealing to you, whether it's within or beyond the status quo, because you never know where your career is going to end up. My second piece of advice would be to pick your mentors carefully because you can have someone who can mentor you in a way that will help you get to where you want to be, or you could have someone who will actually hinder your ability to get to that place, so you truly want to be selective when you pick the people who mentor you. I certainly was lucky to end up with excellent mentors at Drexel, Penn and now at the Fels Institute, but I try to make trainees aware of the importance of actively seeking out solid mentors.

A Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics program graduate student working in a laboratory at Drexel University College of Medicine.