Dr. Molly Gale Hammell is an Associate Professor in Quantitative Biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Molly received her PhD in Physics and Astronomy from Dartmouth College. She then conducted postdoctoral research with Dr. Victor Ambros at the University of Massachusetts Medical School before joining the faculty at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Molly was named a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar in 2014, and she was awarded the Ben Barres Early Career Award in 2018. In our interview Molly shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:16)
In her free time, Molly loves gathering a group of friends together to attend some of the many fantastic live music concerts in the New York City area.
The Scientific Side (3:06)
Molly sequences genomes and analyzes genome sequences to understand which differences in our genomes are due to random variation between individuals, and which are associated with diseases. In particular, she focuses on studying elements of the genome associated with neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
A Dose of Motivation (4:00)
“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.” – Theodore Roosevelt
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:13)
Science fascinated Molly from an early age. When she was 14 years old, she participated in an after-school program in nuclear physics where she had the chance to do mini-experiments with a nuclear reactor. This experience helped cement her interest in physics and showed her some of the really cool instruments used in science. As an undergraduate student, Molly had an amazing internship working at a particle accelerator. Later in graduate school, she analyzed data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Her PhD thesis research investigated the distribution of galaxy clusters in the early universe, taking into account what was known about visible light from stars, dark matter, and dark energy. Dark matter and dark energy were exciting emerging areas of physics at the time. While Molly was reading physics articles in scientific journals, she stumbled across articles on the sequencing of the human genome and understanding the “dark matter of our genomes”. Molly discovered that about 98% of our genomes are not actually genes, and she had to know more. She decided to switch her field of study to biology and sought a postdoctoral opportunity where she could re-train as a biologist.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (14:53)
In science, there are so many potential variables you could test that the likelihood of your first idea being wrong is very high. One line of research in Molly’s lab focuses on better understanding “jumping genes” or transposons, which are viral-like sequences of DNA that can extract themselves from one spot in the genome, move to another spot, and insert themselves there. Transposons make up about half of our genome. Looking back, Molly has had ideas on what was going on in the control of transposons that turned out to be completely false. When they did all of the experiments and reviewed the data, they ended up proving themselves wrong.
A Shining Success! (17:05)
For years, Molly and her group have been working to better understand the connection between transposons and the disease ALS. They believed that in ALS, there may be a failure in the mechanisms that normally keep transposons dormant. As a result, the transposons are activated and begin moving around within the genome, potentially causing problems. Previously, they seemed to never have quite enough data for the statistics to work out properly. At the end of her studies, there would be hints and promising leads, but they could never make conclusive connections. Connecting with a large consortium with data on many samples from ALS patients changed everything for Molly and her lab. It was just before Thanksgiving two years ago when they finally finished processing and transferring all of the data. The numbers were in, and about 30% of the samples had exactly the signature they were looking for! Molly ran from her office to find someone in the department to verify that she was interpreting the results correctly, and it was confirmed!
Book Recommendations (20:26)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
Most Treasured Travel (21:25)
Visiting Barbados for a conference was among Molly’s most memorable travel opportunities for science. McGill University has a research lab on this amazing Caribbean island, and they hold excellent conferences there. The schedule is packed in the mornings and evenings with 90 minute lectures, but the afternoons are left open to give attendees a chance to explore the island. While there, Molly had a wonderful time swimming with sea turtles, snorkeling, exploring the coral reefs, sampling the local rum, and cliff jumping into the ocean.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (23:09)
During Molly’s years as a postdoc, they put up a Christmas tree in the hallway each year around the holidays. Everyone was invited to decorate the tree, but there was a rule that you could only make decorations out of things you could find around the lab. It was amazing to see the elaborate and creative things people put together out of lab gloves, test tubes, paraffin tape, and other lab supplies. In her current lab, Molly celebrates birthdays and lab successes with delicious cupcakes from local bakeries.
Advice For Us All (28:12)
There isn’t just one way to be a good and successful scientist. Diversity in backgrounds, experiences, opinions, and specialties is important in science. Find mentors who can support you and help you reach your career goals. Also, it’s important to foster a love of science in everyone.
Molly’s research is mainly focused on understanding the impacts of jumping genes in our genomes. Most recently, her work has focused on how jumping genes (transposable elements) contribute to the neurodegenerative disease ALS. Her laboratory works with many large scientific consortia: scientists from all over the world who are pooling their scientific resources and expertise to try to understand what starts the process of neurodegeneration and whether new therapies might be able to help stop or slow down the progression of these diseases. Outside of work, Molly enjoys all of the perks that living outside of New York City on the Long Island Sound has to offer: from live music to paddle-boarding to curling up with a good book.