Part 1: Meet the UCLA Research Team Series

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Part 1: Meet the UCLA Research Team Series

As an undergraduate volunteer in Dr. Weidhaas’ laboratory at UCLA, which focuses on the genetics behind cancer, and how it impacts biology—specifically microRNA genetic differences, such as MiraKind’s KRAS-variant, I have an insider’s look into the day-to-day experiments, interactions and collaborations taking place amongst the Weidhaas research team. For the past year, under the guidance of two Staff Research Associates, I have learned to isolate DNA from patient saliva and blood samples and make copies of DNA regions of interest, among a variety of other lab techniques. Gaining insight into the complexities of the research process has given me immense appreciation and admiration for the work of the full-time staff.

Mara Heilig, one of the Staff Research Associates (SRA) in the lab who has mentored me over the past year, explains, “Nothing is ever linear—one change might lead to two opposing effects, which can then have their own cascading effects.” Molecular biology aside, the multidisciplinary trajectory of our research can also be described as a cascade which encounters patients, doctors, medical personnel, donors, researchers and members of the MiraKind community.

Cancer research traverses many disciplines—connecting a variety of people in the process.

A cancer patient’s saliva sample, obtained by a doctor or nurse in the hospital, gets passed from the bedside to the lab bench. Subsequently, we can isolate the patient’s DNA. The DNA can then be evaluated to make individual genes readable. We often recognize that one of the patient’s genes—the KRAS gene, perhaps—is different than other people’s. This means that the individual has the KRAS-variant, which could have implications for them, telling them if they might have a higher risk of getting cancer, and what kinds of cancer treatments would work best if they do.

Amidst the setbacks and complexities of their research, the team works diligently toward the goal of expanding and improving our understanding of how cancer works and how it can be treated.

I posed some questions to a few of the researchers in the Weidhaas research group. Emily Reitdorf, an SRA II, has worked in Joanne’s lab for two years, Mara Heilig, SRA I, for just over a year, Song-yi Jung, a Postdoctoral Fellow, for three years, and Ye Yuan, a Postdoctoral Researcher, for 6 months. Each has provided me with assistance, training or advice in some form or another, and I can say without a doubt that I admire greatly their mentorship, ceaseless curiosity and dedication to their investigations.

Was there a particular moment—whether a previous job, class or experience—that made you want to pursue research?

“As an undergraduate, I took a developmental biology seminar course in which we had to present and lead discussions on different articles. I remember initially being quite overwhelmed and nervous, but as I slowly started to pick-up on the rationale and understand key points, I found myself getting excited whenever I was able to predict or understand how each question would lead into the next, and how the different research approaches strung all the questions together. That process of thinking piqued my interest in the actual process doing research.” –Mara

“I developed a passion for research as an undergraduate at Stanford where I worked part-time in a cancer biology lab. I love that biomedical research requires equal parts creativity and scientific rigor.” –Ye

How did you get to where you are today?

“I graduated with a BS in Biology in 2007 from University of Redlands, then graduated with an MS in Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2013 from Western University of Health Sciences, and then was hired here in June 2015.” –Emily

“A general curiosity for the process of research, and encouragement from more experienced folk in the field who have pushed me to keep asking questions have helped me get my feet into the research world.” –Mara

“I received my undergraduate degree in biology at Stanford and then went on to medical and graduate school at Northwestern. After returning to warmer climates for my Radiation Oncology residency at UCLA, I joined Joanne’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher.” –Ye

What is the focus of your research?

“The purpose of my cancer research in Joanne’s lab is to understand some of the basic differences in breast cell biology associated with the KRAS-variant. Our previous study suggests that changing estrogen levels, specifically taking estrogen away, increases cancer risk for women with the KRAS-variant, a finding we confirmed in biological models in breast tissues with the KRAS-variant…Using these cell lines [some have the KRAS-variant, while others do not], we are investigating underlying, baseline differences in breast cell biology to understand how estrogen withdrawal leads to aggressive breast cancer for women with KRAS-variant, and to determine which approaches work best to prevent and treat the first, and second breast cancers that KRAS-variant women are likely to develop.” –Song-yi

Describe a typical day in the lab.

“Depending on the day of the week, I do my cell culture work (cell maintenance and sample processing if we receive a blood sample), isolate DNA from saliva samples, and/or genotype samples for various SNPs.” –Emily

“Fortunately there isn’t a “typical day” in the lab—it can vary week-by-week and even day-to-day. It really just depends on what project or experiments are set for that day or week.” –Mara

“As a resident in the UCLA Department of Radiation Oncology I split my time in the clinic and in lab. Typically, I’ll attend clinical conferences in the morning where we review and discuss radiation treatments for patients at UCLA. My clinical experiences often spark new research questions that help us design actual experiments in the laboratory.” –Ye

What do you find most interesting about the research you are conducting?

“My mind is always blown whenever we have lab meetings and Song-yi presents on all the intertwining signaling pathways that she studies…it’s neat to watch how she approaches the project like a puzzle that she is diligently trying to piece together. That has been really impressive to witness, and is also quite inspiring.” –Mara

“The potential clinical impact of the KRAS-variant and how it can be used to guide treatment for patients is the most exciting aspect for me. Part of my research is to find new clinically significant genetic variants similar to the K-RAS variant that can alter the regulatory function of microRNAs.” –Ye

What are your hopes for the future of cancer therapy and/or research?

“In general, I would hope that cancer therapy and prevention can continue to become more patient-specific while still being accessible to people from diverse backgrounds. And in general that research and science can better be communicated to and with the public.” –Mara

“Given that the general idea for the future is individualized treatment for patients, I can only hope that we see that come to fruition with all types of cancer, and other diseases for that matter. If we can get to a point where all someone has to do is a quick genetics test to determine what treatment(s) to give them for the greatest success (if not outright cure), then it’ll be amazing.” –Emily

What do you enjoy most about working with Joanne?

“I always enjoy having discussions with Joanne. She is very enthusiastic about KRAS-variant research.” –Song-yi

“I’m intrigued and motivated by her ability to bridge her interests in science, medicine, and outreach through the different avenues of her work.” –Mara

“I really enjoy Joanne’s boundless and infectious enthusiasm for science and translational research. She also has a patient-centric approach to her research and working with her has helped me develop an appreciation of how our day to day work can directly impact patient care.” –Ye



Reader Interactions


  1. I was tested through Mirakind almost two years ago because we have 3 generations of lung cancer (2 of 3 did NOT smoke) My Mom is currently in remission with NSCLC and has the Kras-varient as do I. This will enable me to get better screening and for this I am grateful.
    I am happy to make a donation today to further your research and hope you may continue to unravel this gene and hopefully find a way to address it’s negative impact.

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