Jul 11, 2017 1:00 PM

 Archana Yerra

Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint. The long journey is fraught with more failure than success, and students must seek support so they can overcome obstacles and avoid burnout. This is the advice that Archana Yerra, a graduate student in the Cairns Lab at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), gives students considering pursing a PhD.

To understand what Archana studies and why it is important, let’s review some basic biology. Every cell in the body contains the same DNA genetic code. The genetic code is a basic blueprint of how a cell grows, divides, and functions. But if every cell has the same genetic code, why does a skin cell function differently than a liver cell? The answer lies in epigenetics, or the study of changes in gene expression. Epigenetics is considered an additional layer of genetics. If genetics is a person, then epigenetics is the clothing that person is wearing. That clothing can change dramatically if the person is a skier, a surfer, or something completely different. So although all cells contain the same genetic code, epigenetics determines how that genetic code is expressed.

Epigenetic marks on DNA and RNA determine how the genetic code is expressed. Marks on DNA indicate which genes should be copied to RNA. Marks on RNA influence how the RNA is folded, how it interacts with proteins or other RNAs, and how it assembles proteins. Archana studies the marks and machinery that determine RNA folding and how the RNAs interact with each other or proteins. If the machinery that makes these marks is deleted, it can cause a range of consequences, from a minor disruption to completely stopping the protein production essential to life. Altering of these marks has been associated with infertility, cognitive impairments, and cancer. Cancer cells have vastly different epigenetic profiles compared to healthy cells because cancer cells are able to “hijack” the normal machinery of the cell to survive and divide uncontrollably. Understanding the basic building blocks of the cell helps us learn how their dysfunction can lead to disease.

Archana says RNA modification is an area of cell biology few people have studied, and the idea of exploring the boundaries of the known world is what first attracted her to a career in science. After completing her PhD, Archana hopes to continue studying RNA, combining bench work and bioinformatics to gain new insights into the field.

This article is part of a series on graduate student trainees at HCI. Educating the next generation of cancer researchers and physicians is critical to reducing the cancer burden and is one of HCI’s goals. Learn more about education and training opportunities at HCI.

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