This month’s Mentor of the Month conversation highlights the mentor-mentee relationship of Dr. Reed and Sean Koebley.
(COHD) How did you begin your biomedical research career?
(R) That’s a good question. I did my PhD in the field I work in, with molecules. I worked in the industry for a while before turning to the academic track. I came here from UCLA where I was at the Nano Systems Institute working on nanotechnology applied to biomedical problems. That’s what I do and so I brought that research with me here. Sean is involved with that. My collaborations at VCU are all with the cancer center primarily in the medical school, the health disparities group is one of the areas that I work with, and other areas in the medical school of pathology, radiation, and oncology. [These are] areas where we can apply technologies to help solve problems that are basic science-related to either drug development or drug discovery. [They] even [apply to] some things that have translational potential and molecular diagnostics or therapy selection for patients primarily in cancers.
(COHD) Did you say nanotechnology? Can you define that?
(R) It’s kind of a catch-all term. Generally things that are smaller than you can see with a light microscope are Nano in size. So tiny, a nanometer is a unit of measure and it’s a billionth of a meter. Things that you can see with a light microscope tend to be thousandths of nanometers in size so it kind of got the name from that. If it’s smaller than you can see with a light microscope you need special methods and objects that you’re working with are in nanometer size. That goes from components of a cell down to atoms really and so some of these images are taken with tools that are Nano scale measurement tools. Some of the features that are in these images are Nano sized features that you couldn’t see easily or measure accurately.
(COHD) What kind of tools, if you could say quickly?
(R) A lot of these tools are used in manufacturing or quality control in the semiconductor industry. They are optical interference methods that use lasers and other optical tricks to measure distances on the scale of almost close to atoms. Atomic force microscopy, which is a scanning probe microscopy approach, is like a record needle that moves across the surface and traces out the shape of the surface. That’s the area I work in. Electron microscopy - that’s another area that involves just bouncing electron particles of the surface of the object and making an image of it. So all of these methods can see things down to the size of an atom.
(COHD) So they’re interpolating what they’re seeing and translating it into a new image?
(R) That’s right and so we use those techniques to measure accurately these structures that are in our case biological structures. It’s primarily measuring them and then using those measurements to determine the effect of say, a drug or whether it’s a mutation. One of the things in Sean’s project is we actually measure DNA molecules very, very accurately. By measuring the spacing between markers that we can put on these molecules we can tell whether there’s a mutation there or not. So we’re developing that technology for a number of areas in diagnostics and that’s purely a Nano program.
(COHD) What made you change from industry to research?
(R) My main interest was in the technology development side of things and what I was doing was more sort of investment related things. So you didn’t have a chance to really get deeply into the technology, which was more interesting to me.
(COHD) What would you say the ultimate goal of your research would be?
(R) The ultimate goal particularly of the project that Sean’s working on is to develop diagnostics that can be used for DNA analysis much cheaper than current methods. There’s a number of types of mutations that occur in diseases like cancer, particularly blood cancers that are really complex and hard to measure. We’re hoping the systems that we’re developing can be something that can be used in any lab. In particular, labs that are not the fancy ones that are in University medical centers but out in the community hospitals where a lot of people need treatment or first show up to their doctor. That kind of technology really hasn’t moved out for various reasons. What we focused on are things that can be cheap and fast yet still retain this really special level of accuracy. We’re pretty close to that. I mean we’ve started a clinical trial in leukemia, which is one of the big areas that Sean’s worked on. We’re working on multiple myeloma. Those are the applications and then there’s some other things in inherited genetic diseases. A lot of these diseases are the kinds that, like Huntington’s, are also very difficult kinds of mutations to measure, so patients are not getting the best diagnostics. It’s also about making it accessible in the sense it needs to be inexpensive. The cost of the healthcare system gets layered on more and more capability. You can’t have all the best things if it’s going to cost more and more and more. It needs to scale cheaper and cheaper as well as be more capable. We think the technology that we’re developing has that scalability and we’ve been doing it for a while.
(COHD) How long is a while?
(R) I don’t know, let’s say 2009? Over ten years from sort of the beginning of the ideas that these kind of things could be done to actually making it happen.
(COHD) What do you wish you knew when you were your mentee’s age?
(R) A lot. When I was in his position I was sort of in a project which was, I don’t know if it’s typical in some academic labs, where the mentee is coming in and receives help on their project but not necessarily help on their career. So I attempt to do that with Sean. I have a lot of different experiences that may be unusual for an academic, so I try to bring those into the picture [to] make sure that this is a stepping stone to something that Sean wants and his family wants as well as just a research project. I think that’s what the job is.
(COHD) Did you have good mentors?
(R) Some, some not. I mean it kind of varies. To be honest, the corporate world is much more advanced in the way that they handle training and things like that than the academic world. The academic world is really backwards in that respect with how they view people that are coming through the system and how they can be trained and sort of work/life balance stuff. It’s changing a little but I’d say compared to my experience with large corporations, that aspect of it I try to incorporate into my work but it’s not natural in the academic department. I was fortunate enough to work at some large companies that do a good job.
(COHD) What do you hope to gain from this experience with Sean as your mentee?
(R) Everybody has a different perspective and way of solving problems. Everybody that I’ve worked with - I think I’ve learned different ways of attacking problems from them. Sean has really been a great mentee. He’s been very skilled in what he’s done but he’s also been very professional. It helps the whole culture of the lab to have someone like him here and it’s something we can build on. It helps us work with the other programs here at VCU, which is really important.
(COHD) Can you describe the ideal mentor/mentee relationship? Is there an ideal relationship?
(R) I think that the ideal is that the mentee is engaged and feels like they’re valued - that they’re moving along their career path the way that they should and it’s kind of reciprocal for the mentor. Fun interaction and productive interaction for the lab and that they bring something to the experience.
(COHD) So what do you do away from the lab to relax?
(R) Mostly I’m running around after my kids. I have three kids. They vary between six and thirteen. That in and of itself takes up much of my time. The oldest one is now old enough to babysit the youngest one so that is that most recent advance we’ve made.
(COHD) Can you describe what you do in the lab and what your responsibilities are?
(S) Yeah, so I’d say I’ve kind of taken the co-lead of the AFM project. [That's] the Atomic Force Microscopy project - looking at the DNA links that Jason just talked about along with Andre next door, the other postdoc in lab. He handles more of the molecular biology side of things. He’s working with preparing the right solutions that we need, working with the cells, and working with the DNA to get them on the slides. I’ve kind of taken over as a specialist of working with the Atomic Force microscope and analyzing the data. It’s been one of my main roles I’ve been able to take from my past work that I did at William and Mary. I was also working with a similar instrument - also an atomic force microscope, not quite as nice as this one. I’ve been able to use a lot of that experience and skill to bring to my work here and then really build on that. I’ve really grown a lot in my programming abilities, my analysis abilities in this lab as well as my molecular biology abilities too. I’ve helped out with Andre quite a bit. I’ve worked with another member in the lab to develop the auto pipetting robots that you see behind you. So we developed our own custom built pipetting robots that are able to do a lot of the work that a human could do with pipetting some of these really small volumes of fluid. Just very miniature - very, very small amounts and the idea is that we need to be able to do that accurately and quickly - so they do it for us.
(COHD) Can we take a picture of that?
(Dr. Reed) You can take a picture of anything in here. We can show you the microscope. Sean and another engineer, who was a former student who works with us, together built those out of parts that they ordered mostly on Amazon.
(Sean) They used to be 3D printers actually.
(Dr. Reed) So this is an important part of what we do. This kind of a thing where we’re mixing disciplines. We try to be innovative by taking advantage of technology like this to do things that are unusual. We build a lot of our own stuff for that reason, but we also build it out of cheap stuff so that it’s scalable. So the students learn from it, I learn from it but it also means the stuff is scalable. You could pay fifteen thousand dollars on it, you know, but this probably cost two thousand dollars, or five hundred bucks. So they solve a specific problem. The atomic force microscope which I can show you, it’s in the other room, is one we built with our collaborators that developed it. It’s a home-made system. They developed it and we’ve been applying it to these DNA analysis technologies. It’s something like this with a little fancier parts to it but it’s not something you can buy.
(Sean) Yeah, there really is a pretty potent mix in this lab of biology, physics, engineering, and I’d say computer science as well. All four of those are pretty necessary to everything we do.
(COHD) And photography probably plays a role a little bit?
(Sean) Well imaging is key. Everything that we’re doing revolves around collecting images.
(Dr. Reed) So we collect images and then we measure the features there very, very accurately. That’s kind of the core idea - to get close to atomic level measurements out of the things we get from images, either molecules or cells.
(Sean) I’ve kind of stepped into this lab. These projects were all started before I came. I’ve really helped try to push them along the last year and a half that I’ve been here getting to the next step where they bring in clinical samples working towards making this feasible and scalable.
(Dr. Reed) Sean is heading up the project where we just got our IRB approval from the medical center, getting samples from leukemia patients that have a certain type of mutation that can be difficult to detect. Our partners there have been saving some samples from patients that are now archived and we’re going to analyze those samples with our technique to show comparison and hopefully it’s more sensitive in certain ways. VCU has been good with that. It’s been easy to make collaborations across the campus and [with] the medical center.
(COHD) What do you think some of the benefits are of working with a mentor?
(S) Well, Jason’s been a fantastic mentor. I’ve had a few mentors over the years as well of varying degrees, at one point or another, of success in the relationship and Jason’s been absolutely fantastic. As he mentioned, he’s not just helping me learn the science - he’s helping me advance my career. That’s very clear from the way he approaches our conversations and the way he talks about the work we do together in lab. I can tell he’s working to set me up in my career and advance that career. He really listens to what I’m saying in a sense of what’s interesting and what my priorities are. It’s been great.
(COHD) How did you two end up together?
(S) Funny story. It’s pretty serendipitous I’d say. I worked down the road at William and Mary for my PhD working with atomic force microscopy. I was already in a similar field because about half of what we do in this lab is atomic force microscopy. That’s not actually how I found out about this lab though. I found out about Jason and his work through another member of this lab, Kevin Leslie, who was my freshman hall mate from William and Mary when I went there for undergrad back in the early 2000s. Kevin came to work here to help start the lab. He was the original lab manager and really helped get a bunch of these projects off the ground. I was in contact with him over the years and he was telling me about the work they were doing. He was saying they were doing atomic force microscopy and I thought that was very interesting - I’m going to have to take a look at that and I did. As it came closer to the time for me to graduate I looked more seriously at the work they were doing and it was very much in line with my background and my interest. I had some conversations with Jason and I learned about the IRACDA fellowship and it all just kind of worked out.
(COHD) How have you grown as researcher in working with your mentor?
(S) It’s crazy to think it’s been a year and a half. It’s been a lot of growth over the last year and a half. I feel like I’ve expanded into a couple different fields compared to where I was when I graduated with my PhD. Like I’ve said, I’ve become much stronger on the analytical side of things, the computer processing side of things. Coding has gotten a lot more advanced. [I’ve advanced] my knowledge of electrical engineering, engineering in general and especially the molecular biology side of things. Jason, Andre, and other members of [the] lab worked with me the last year and a half to develop these projects and I’ve gotten a lot of great knowledge out of that. It just makes me a much more rounded candidate and much more confident to go into any different field that I’m interested in. There’s a much broader range of topics that I’m interested in. I’ve gotten from Jason’s perspective and other members in the lab, too, much more of an idea of the business side of things - the entrepreneurship work that’s been done here and that Jason’s allowed me to do some work with. Also the grant writing side of things, looking for money - all of that is an important part of research as well. Definitely [I] got a new experience with that as well.
(COHD) What do you like about VCU and Richmond?
(S) VCU has been great. I was at William and Mary for my PhD and it had its strengths but it was smaller and didn’t have a lot of the resources that VCU does, where there really is a priority of research. It’s nice to be working in a lab with multiple postdocs. [There is] a support team that’s really able to push forward the research much faster than in a school that maybe doesn’t prioritize research in the same way. Also through the IRACDA program I’ve gotten some exposure to the teaching here too. I have to say I’ve gotten good experience with that too. I’ve shadowed a couple classes and took some classes on teaching that I loved. I really enjoy being here at VCU and I like living in Richmond. I’ve been living close to the lab this whole time so I get to walk to work every day. It’s been good, no complaints.
(COHD) So what do you do away from the lab?
(S) Good question. So my fiancé is up in Manassas, VA. She’s doing science communication up there. She’s actually doing a lot of what you’re doing. She’s talking to researchers and getting their stories. I’m up there a lot. We love playing board games. Yeah, we’re getting married at the end of the year.