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
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
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
field, what options do you see for Saint Michaelís College
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.
specific opportunities you think biology majors should pursue before
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.
advice would you give current Saint Michael's College students
interested in graduate study and/or specifically interested in
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.