Gabrielle J. Dardis, a PhD Student in the Al Baldwin lab did a spotlight on our research group.
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Dr. Jill Dowen’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UNC Chapel Hill studies the spatial organization of the genome, and how this affects gene expression in both healthy and disease states. Dowen, who grew up in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa, started her research lab at UNC in 2016 following her graduate work at the University of California San Diego and postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, and was recently promoted to associate professor with tenure.
The Dowen lab is interested in uncovering how DNA is compacted, organized, and regulated to allow for cells to function – and how this process can go wrong and lead to disease. Using a variety of cutting-edge approaches like CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering and spatial genomics techniques, students address different facets of this big-picture question in their own independent projects.
“I think what fascinates me the most is that if you take DNA from a single cell and stretch it out, it is six feet tall – and that needs to fit inside the nucleus of a cell,” says third-year student Riya Gohil. In her graduate work, she is developing new cell lines to study various proteins and how they govern DNA compaction and genome structure.
In addition to understanding healthy biological processes, the lab harbors an interest in dysfunctional events in genome organization. Natalie Rittenhouse, a fourth-year student, is focused on an important DNA compaction protein called cohesin, and aims to identify novel interacting partners that might contribute to disease states.
In fact, Dowen considers the biggest downstream impact of the lab’s research to be defining the earliest molecular defects that happen in the disease process: “We don’t yet understand the earliest molecular or cellular problems that are the tip of the iceberg that leads to all the downstream disease pathologies, so we hope to make important contributions in this earliest step of understanding human disease.”
Second-year student Geoffrey Fox is particularly interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying gene regulation that go wrong in disease, and ultimately believes, “the biggest impact that could come of that is better informing therapeutic development and the development of preventative measures for disease.”
When reflecting on why they chose to attend UNC, Gohil, Rittenhouse, and Fox echoed their partiality for the collaborative environment. Beyond an excellent cast of Principal Investigators conducting world-class research, the supportive community at UNC and in the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department was cited as both a draw and a continued benefit by all three students. Further, Dowen says her proudest moments are seeing the people in her lab grow and succeed both during and after their graduate training.
The Dowen Lab is currently accepting applications for interested graduate students, and the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department additionally houses an excellent cohort of labs specializing in genetics and molecular biology.
Author: Gabrielle J. Dardis, a PhD Student in the Baldwin lab.