an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

Alumni Profile
Dr. Rachel Litman '03




Rachel Litman graduated with a biology major from Saint Michaelís College in 2003. She completed her Ph.D. at UMass Medical Center in Worcester, MA, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Harvard Medical School. 

What sparked your initial interest in cancer biology, and what eventually lead you into your current line of research?

In my first year of graduate school, we were required to ďrotateĒ through three separate labs before we chose the lab we wanted to conduct our thesis research in. My second rotation was in the Department of Cancer Biology, studying the link between DNA damage repair and cancer predisposition. When I joined the lab my PI had just discovered that mutations in the BACH1 gene were linked to two patients with hereditary breast cancer. I was initially fascinated by the thought that my research could ultimately help patients understand why they had developed cancer. Interestingly, in my first year as a graduate student I discovered that BACH1 was involved in repair of damaged DNA and also mutated in a rare childhood cancer syndrome called Fanconi Anemia. Patients with Fanconi Anemia are plagued by hematological malignancies, including leukemia and lymphoma, and sadly die early on. It is not well understood why FA patients develop leukemia, but it has been attributed to the defects in the cells ability to repair damaged DNA. Similarly, as a Postdoc, I am interested in understanding how DNA damage at telomeres, the ends of linear chromosomes, contributes to leukemia and lymphoma. Ideally, I would like to define the weaknesses in these malignancies and eventually, design highly targeted and specific therapies for the treatment of cancer.

What is a Postdoc and what is it like to work at Harvard?

A Postdoc, or Postdoctoral Fellowship, is an additional level of research training you can pursue following completion of your doctorate. The main goal of a Postdoc is to give you more independence as a researcher and to encourage you to take responsibility for the direction of your project. It is also an important opportunity for you to apply for funding and get an idea of how to write a fundable grant application.

A Postdoc truly demonstrates what it would be like to be a primary investigator, without having to worry about actually keeping a whole lab running. Working as a Postdoc at Harvard has been a great experience. The extensive research community in Boston creates an environment that fosters discussion and promotes collaborations. It is amazing to see what can be accomplished scientifically when researchers come together to help one another.

What is your long-term career goal?

To extend my current research focus to start my own lab and to teach. Iím exploring the possibility of achieving these goals at both primarily undergraduate institutes and also hospital based research facilities.

What about your experience in the Saint Michael's College biology department prepared you for your career?

It wasnít until I got to graduate school that I realized how well the biology department at Saint Michaelís had prepared me for a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. From my first trimester in graduate level biochemistry to my final trimester in cell biology there was never a lecture that was entirely new to me. I spent less time learning the material and more time learning how to apply that information to address more complex scientific questions. I think I received a solid foundation in biology at Saint Michaelís and in my opinion this helped me become a successful graduate student and ultimately, a better scientist.

Within your field, what options do you see for Saint Michaelís College biology graduates?

There are so many opportunities for Saint Michaelís biology graduates in the field of cancer biology. I chose to continue doing research in academics and would like to conduct research in my own lab in the future. However, that is certainly not the only possibility. I have classmates who also chose more traditional career paths and work in biotechnology companies like Perkin Elmer and Milipore, and also pharmaceutical companies including Merk, Wyeth, and Genzyme. I also have classmates who chose less obvious career paths in forensics, law, and even government. There are just so many options available for students; itís just a matter of finding whatís out there.

Are there specific opportunities you think biology majors should pursue before graduation?

I think students should really try and get an idea of what avenues of science they would like to pursue in the future and get involved early. Ask employers about fellowships/internships, even if they are unpaid! Experience is everything and it can really allow you to get an idea of what a particular profession has to offer. I did a summer research fellowship at UVM and also a year of senior research at Saint Michael's; these two experiences really solidified my decision to attend graduate school and follow a career in research.

Finally, what advice would you give current Saint Michael's College students interested in graduate study and/or specifically interested in cancer biology?

For students interested in graduate study, I would encourage them to get research experience before applying. I worked as a recruitment assistant at UMass and the recruitment officer would immediately discount any candidate that did not have research experience. I canít say this is true for all schools, but I can assure you, research experience will not hurt you in the long run. For students interested in cancer biology specifically, I would say not to overlook other disciplines. I entered graduate school looking to join the department of immunology and virology, but ultimately, I graduated from the department of cancer biology! I went into graduate school thinking I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but in my first year I experienced other types of research at a very intimate level and it was then that I realized what I truly loved. I guess my advice would be to keep an open mind and be willing to try something new.



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