Article written by Greer Arthur.
Dr. Trudy Mackay, the first Associate Director of the Translational Genetics and Genomics (TGG) division of the CMI, is leaving NC State University to accept a prestigious position as director of the Center for Human Genetics at Clemson University, South Carolina. Her move is a significant loss for the CMI, but with the legacy she leaves behind, genetics research will remain a major strength of the institute.
“Genetics is pervasive,” says Mackay, who is also a Distinguished University Professor and Goodnight Innovation Distinguished Chair of Biological Sciences at NC State. “It is not impossible for the three remaining CMI divisions to have a strong genetics component.”
Due to her departure, TGG will integrate into the remaining three divisions of the CMI, which include Functional Tissue Engineering (FTE), Translational Pharmacology and Physiology (TPP) and Emerging and Infectious Diseases (EID).
“The genetics graduate program at NC State is, by its very nature, trans-department and trans-college. In a sense, the CMI is similar,” Mackay says. “If you look at the list of geneticists in the CMI, every one of them is a member of the other CMI divisions. Genetics can be integrated into the other divisions readily.”
“Members from TGG have found a strong home in EID due to overlapping research interests,” says Dr. Sid Thakur, Associate Director of the EID division of the CMI. “Genomics is an integral part of EID, and our new members from TGG will easily fit in and create new interdisciplinary partnerships.”
“Genetics is fundamental to just about every research project in TPP,” says Dr. Scott Laster, Associate Director of TPP, a position he shares with Dr. Anthony Blikslager. “Without Dr. Mackay and TGG, we will redouble our efforts to integrate genetics into TPP and CMI research as a whole”.
Mackay’s influence on genetics research throughout her career has been profound. Using the fruit fly as her model, she has spearheaded groundbreaking investigations into the genetic architecture that underlies quantitative traits, such as wing length, and complex behavior, such as mating behavior and aggression.
Ultimately, this has far-reaching implications, since it illuminates the complex genetic basis of organisms at every biological scale, from molecular and cellular traits, to diagnosable manifestations of diseases in human populations.
“I’ve done a lot of work with flies on the subject of complex traits, and I see very clearly some themes emerging,” says Mackay. “I would like to carry over those themes to human genetics, because human genetics has gone down a different track and there’s very little integration of lessons learned from model systems. I see this opportunity at Clemson to push those two disparate tracks together.”
By the time she joined the NC State faculty in 1987, Mackay had already received numerous honors and awards for her pioneering research, including the Dalhousie University Medal in Biology (1974), the McCauley Award from the University of Edinburgh (1979), and two postdoctoral fellowships during her time at Dalhousie University, Canada.
Since then, she has become one of the most decorated faculty at NC State, with her collection most notably expanding to include the North Carolina Award for Science (2011), and election to both the Royal Society (2006) and the National Academy of Sciences (2010).
However, her impact in the CMI has extended beyond genetics research. When Dr. Jorge Piedrahita, director of the CMI, appointed her as Associate Director of the new TGG division in 2015, she set out to establish a program, now named the Summer Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (SIRI), which would fulfill the CMI’s key mission of fostering innovative, multidisciplinary research.
“When Jorge asked me to do this, I realized that we had to do something that was going to involve undergraduate or graduate students,” Mackay says. “I think that they are the heart of any program, institute or center. They bring faculty together.”
To begin with, Mackay hosted meetings with TGG faculty and Dr. Kate Meurs at the College of Veterinary Medicine to learn about their individual research interests. Next, they worked together to devise eight research projects, each of which involved collaboration between two CMI faculty and were suitable for an undergraduate student.
With the CMI funding she received as new Associate Director, Mackay returned the money to the institute by creating a fellowship award for each project. This provided a unique opportunity for faculty to gather preliminary data for otherwise difficult-to-fund ideas.
“These are incubator-type projects,” Mackay says. “They are by necessity creative, but they’re rather difficult to get money from funding agencies, which tend to be quite conservative.”
“I was able to provide eight undergraduate students with a fellowship of $5,000 each to do ten weeks of summer research,” Mackay says. “These students are gathering preliminary data that can then be applied to more traditional funding sources. It’s a risk that the institute is taking, but the payoffs are profound.”
For the first eight weeks, the undergraduate students assigned to each project took turns presenting their research to the group. On the ninth week, each student presented their poster speech as if to a judge and received feedback from faculty, before presenting their poster at the university-wide Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium at the end of July.
“It was a research experience, it got faculty together, and the students had some professional development activities as well,” Mackay says. “Some of these projects were actually translated to research applications, and the mentors applied for grant funding.”
“Over time, this could be a successful way of getting faculty together and a research product – but if it fails, it’s not a disaster, because the student comes out as having learned the scientific process.”
Since the launch of this program, Associate Directors of the other CMI divisions have successfully replicated similar SIRI-like programs at both faculty and undergraduate levels. Together, these programs assist the development of new multidisciplinary research groups with the potential to obtain extramural funding.
“Our undergraduate program will remain a very strong component of the CMI’s future, with talented undergraduate students progressively involved in more and more of the research performed by CMI member labs,” says Dr. Anthony Blikslager, Associate Director of TPP. “This will serve to strengthen our graduate and postdoctoral programs as we interest more undergraduate students in clinically relevant research.”
“The undergraduate program, SIRI, created exemplary interactions between investigators and undergraduate students, and has fostered new collaborations between faculty,” says Thakur. “There are multiple undergraduates who have found the SIRI program enriching, and have subsequently moved into research.”
The most recent reiteration of Mackay’s program is the CMI Young Scholar Award, in which graduate students and postdoctoral researchers – the Associate Members of the CMI – replace faculty and become principal investigators of their own undergraduate student projects. This instills the importance of collaboration, and allows junior researchers to gain the skills necessary for their future careers as independent investigators.
“Don’t be afraid to collaborate,” Mackay says to junior researchers. “Collaboration is very important because you need to go beyond your work. There are only so many hours in a day, but if you have some collaborative projects, then all of a sudden the scope improves.”
“Jorge realizes that immensely,” Mackay says. “The CMI totally encourages collaboration – that’s why the Associate Members are a very important component of the institute.”
With the summer undergraduate programs now firmly in place in the CMI, Mackay plans to implement similar programs in South Carolina. Based on her work with the CMI, she knows the impact this will have on future generations of scientists at her new base at Clemson University, and will continue to have on junior researchers at NC State.
“Science is fun. Your job is to make the next generation successful,” Mackay says. “I’d like to thank Jorge for giving me this opportunity. It was a lot of fun!”
Image Credit: Roger W. Winstead