Presented by Robert B. Darnell
B.A., University of Pennsylvania
RNA Dynamics in T Cell Activation
Emily Conn Gantman came to The Rockefeller University as an extraordinarily promising young talent and emerged an outstanding multi-disciplined scientist, humanist and . . . a mother. A lot to get done during the course of a Ph.D.
Emily came to Rockefeller very accomplished from the University of Pennsylvania with a 3.9 GPA and wide range of research experience. This included clinical research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and basic science in Arabidopsis, work that earned her the Rose Undergraduate Research Award at Penn. She was a true scholar, presaging her time at Rockefeller with A pluses in her last year in a range of courses including computational biology and physics (although I have to admit she did not approach physics in our lab). She followed Penn with a one year fellowship at the NIH on developmental biology, striking the balance between clinical and basic research that would again presage her graduate work.
She came to Rockefeller interested in molecular mechanisms of disease, and carried her erudition over to the university, earning honors in coursework here, something I didn’t know we even handed out. Even my father, known to be a bit reserved in giving complements, called her term paper “imaginative.” Her interests were a natural fit for our lab, and she began a series of extremely ambitious and imaginative proposals, earning her a Women & Science fellowship from the university. The range of work she accomplished is breathtaking … it’s almost embarrassing to me as I look over it, to think that I would let someone be so broad in their approach to the lab. But Emily was unstoppable. She was the first and to date only graduate student to fully embrace both sides of my lab, the more clinical side (what we affectionately call the “West Coast lab”) and the basic side (the “East Coast,” nothing to do with California versus New York). She developed really two theses in one, falling in love with questions of what drives anti-tumor immunity in patients with rare disorders — paraneoplastic neurologic disease — in which they can eradicate their cancers, even while being attracted to more basic questions of mechanisms underlying the activation of T cells.
It was the latter work that ended up consuming the bulk of Emily’s efforts. She had an amazing ability to project her own limitless enthusiasm and delight for science onto others, which ended up first intellectually engaging them, then charming them into working collaboratively with her. This led to an extraordinarily complex thesis, genuinely going where no one has gone before, to look at detailed aspects of regulation of the “dark matter” of the genome — the regulation of RNA, both by RNA binding proteins and other, micro-RNAs, in resting and in activated T cells. Her work will, I truly believe, be recognized as a foundational study in the years ahead.
Emily’s ability to gather support from colleagues turned out to be especially useful after she gave a special lab meeting one day. At the end of an hour of detailed data, she showed a fuzzy black and white picture that turned out to be an ultrasound showing a little tiny girl in her uterus! This turned out to be a wonderful means of aggregating help, as no one would let her within 10 meters of any isotope, and she in fact ended up redoubling her collaborations in the group. She is now a happy mother, and looking forward to coming back to the lab for a year’s postdoc as she plans her future as a woman in science.