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CRISPR Scientist Dr. Jeffrey Huang and Neuroscientist Dr. Robert Marr Reflect on the Power of Mentorship

Jeffrey Huang, PhD ’11, focused on Alzheimer’s disease while a student at the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, where mentorship by associate professor Robert Marr, PhD, helped him follow his passion. Acting on a crucial piece of advice from Dr. Marr to use his postdoctoral fellowship (Oregon Health & Science University) to chart his own course, he immersed himself in a new field — genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9. Today, Dr. Huang is the founder and lead scientist of the Center for Advancing Rare Disease Editing (CARE) at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, CA.

Here the two scientists reflect on their experience as mentors and mentees.

Dr. Huang: I was Dr. Marr’s very first graduate student, and seeing how he built up his lab from scratch, formulated his work and chose his lab members was formative.

Dr. Marr: You have to make sure you hire good people — people who are personable, hardworking and responsible. It isn’t just looking at CVs. The lab manager, technician and postdocs provide key interactions and role modeling on a daily basis. I could be a great mentor, but if it’s a toxic environment the work suffers. If someone’s not responsible, things are left undone and the pressure builds on the students.

Dr. Huang: Dr. Marr modeled excellent characteristics as a mentor. He trusted me with a great deal and was always willing to empower me. Some other advisors might have been more worried about a newbie in the lab contaminating cells or, God forbid, setting the lab on fire, but I never got that feeling from him. He entrusted me with processing invaluable human Alzheimer’s brain specimens, performing stereotactic neurosurgical procedures on an Alzheimer’s murine model and purifying live viral vectors for Alzheimer’s gene therapy studies.

Dr. Marr: I make sure to give graduate students enough room to make mistakes and to find their way — that’s how you learn. Some mentors have different metrics and styles that are much more controlling, observing everything that is done. I could check the lab book every day, review everything in intense detail and make changes, but there’s more than one way to do things. Within guidelines, within reason, I let grad students work things out. Because we’re a relatively small lab, we can have unscheduled, impromptu regular meetings, so students don’t feel pressured to have data ready. We just talk about how things are progressing. We also have regularly scheduled lab meetings every three to six months.

Dr. Huang: He always cared about every part of my well-being. He checked on my comfort level in the lab and whether my hours were okay. He kept his office door open during work hours and responded quickly. I’ve tried to emulate that personal connection, making sure everyone in my lab feels valued.

Dr. Marr: I talked to Jeff every day. A positive, supportive environment helps our members manage stress. Science can be incredibly stressful because it’s variable risk and reward. You can be working on very exciting things, but if it doesn’t work out for you it affects your career, grades, your whole life. Trying to reduce the stress level of graduate students is extremely important to their well-being and to science.

Dr. Huang: I find myself circling back to Dr. Marr’s example, trusting and empowering my students and interns. Early on, it was harder for me to let go — I was hovering a little too closely, not providing the freedom Dr. Marr gave me. Students learn best when you take the training wheels off.

Dr. Marr: My mentors gave me a lot of freedom to work things out for myself. That’s also how I was mentored at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in the lab of Dr. Inder Verma, where some postdocs complained that in such a resource-rich environment, there was a dearth of technical assistance. But Dr. Verma believed in the power of troubleshooting — that we needed to develop our own technical skills. We could reach out for help and there was always plenty of help. I think that was wise. When I came to RFU, I wasn’t dependent on anyone for protocols. Anything my lab could do, I could do. That’s very empowering.

Dr. Huang: Mentorship has helped me see the big picture of my research and to really value the contributions of my team. We find inspiration in designing models of patients’ genomic mutations, sculpting them from the inside out. I see the preclinical murine models as the closest thing on this earth to the patient in the exam room. I find joy knowing I’ve created something unique, exploring therapeutics safely and ethically as we search for a way to help our young patients.

Posted April 13, 2020
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