NIAMS Scientists – Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

May 8, 2014

A Conversation with NIAMS Scientist Dr. Golnaz Vahedi

Photo of Dr. Golnax Vahedi
Golnaz Vahedi, Ph.D.

Golnaz Vahedi, Ph.D., an electrical engineer by training, joined the NIAMS in September 2009 as a postdoctoral fellow in the Molecular Immunology and Inflammation Branch of the Intramural Research Program. She conducts research in genomics and immunology in the lab of NIAMS Scientific Director, Dr. John O’Shea. She completed her undergraduate studies at Sharif University of Technology in her native country of Iran. She received her master’s degree from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, and her doctorate from Texas A&M University, College Station, all in electrical engineering. In this interview, Dr. Vahedi discusses how she uses her unique expertise to decipher the regulatory elements of the genome and understand how gene alterations can contribute to human diseases.

What motivated you to come to the NIAMS?

I was familiar with Dr. O’Shea’s important discoveries in describing epigenomic mechanisms underlying lineage commitment and plasticity of CD4+ T cell subsets. Epigenomics refers to the packaging of DNA. One can think of our genome as a thick instruction book. Each cell type reads only one chapter of this book. Epigenomics tries to address how this instruction book is read differently by the many cell types in our body. Dr. O’Shea’s early adaptation of next-generation sequencing technology in the immune system made his lab very appealing to me, so I applied for a postdoctoral position in his lab.

What or who influenced you to pursue a career in research?

My parents and teachers were very influential. After I finished my master’s degree, I was debating whether I should join industry like many of my classmates, or continue graduate school. My husband encouraged me to pursue my passion for research and apply for a Ph.D. During my doctoral studies, my advisers, Drs. Edward Dougherty and Jean-Francois Chamberland, encouraged me to follow my scientific dreams and tackle challenging problems. Ultimately, my postdoctoral training at Dr. O’Shea’s lab convinced me to continue with a career in science.

How did your academic training influence your career path?

The research projects I conducted during my master’s and doctorate programs sparked a genuine interest in academic research in me. At Texas A&M, I was inspired by an enthusiastic group of investigators, including my adviser Dr. Dougherty, to believe that systems biology approaches may hold great promise for understanding human diseases. During my studies, with the help of collaborators at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, I developed new mathematical approaches for the reconstruction of regulatory networks and modules from genomic data.

What is the focus of your research? What is your area of expertise?

I am a computational biologist with an interest in epigenomics and immunology. I also have a strong background in mathematics. My doctoral research focused on systems biology approaches to model dynamics of gene regulation in healthy and diseased cells. At NIAMS, I became interested in the gene-free part of the genome in T lymphocytes, and I have charted the genomic enhancer elements in different T cell subsets using the chromatin signature of regulatory enhancers. These regulatory enhancers act as "switches," controlling the expression of key genes in T cells and consequently defining cellular identity. This work illustrates how the cellular environment helps determine cell identity. Specifically, we demonstrated that STAT proteins act as cellular environmental sensors that, by regulating enhancers residing in the "junk" region of the genome, determine what subtype a T cell becomes. This work, in which I was the lead author, was published in the journal Cell in November 2012.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

The incredible, and at the same time, challenging aspect of science is that there is always something new to learn. Discovery may be the reward, but I am constantly learning new skills and concepts to take my research to the next step. I believe that the joy of discovery at any stage of my career enhances my fascination with research in both engineering and immunology, and how they intersect.

What have been the most rewarding or fulfilling aspects of your career?

Technological advances have made the current state of genomic research incredibly fascinating. It is very rewarding for me to investigate genomic measurements such as gene expression using the skills I have learned throughout my training, and linking them to immune system disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. It is very exciting for me to be able to connect many seemingly irrelevant measurements and ultimately explain a biological phenomenon.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

Coming from an engineering background to immunology was extremely rewarding, but at the same time very challenging. With different disciplines come different personalities, scientific cultures, and ways of thinking. These experiences helped me to become more assertive, but it is clearly a challenge. To have a productive dialogue, you need to be able to interpret the different scientific "languages" unique to each discipline.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

Like many people in the Washington, D.C. area, I enjoy running. It can become a bit obsessive, but the area and its many beautiful trails encourage this obsession.

Can you offer any advice for people who wish to pursue a career in science?

It is probably a cliché, but the real keys are perseverance and optimism. Pursuing a career in science is riddled with short-term setbacks and rejections. I believe that we shouldn’t be discouraged and take these personally. The key is to develop a capacity to judge our own work, learn from our mistakes and adjust the course of our progress as needed.

Why is it important for people from diverse backgrounds to participate in research, both as investigators and as patients?

Many major scientific advances result from tackling a problem from different angles. Each of us possesses a set of unique talents and skills, and devises different approaches to address a scientific problem. Only by utilizing our collective potential can we fully benefit and give back to society. Patients from different backgrounds also are an essential component of medical research. They allow us to understand diseases resulting from genetic variations that stem from diverse backgrounds.