The Microarray Of Triumph: How One Student Is Making An Impact On Disease Prevention
Some of us have no recollection of a particular obstacle or event that struck the evolution of our deepest passion. Others, however, experience a single moment of revelation that is simply unmistakable.
Henry Cousins, a Molecular and Cellular Biology student at Harvard University, has a passion for engineering. His realization of this came in high school when he came across his parents’ 1940 edition of Schrödinger’s What Is Life. He grew fascinated by the scientist’s portrayal and encoding of the essence of life in the form of molecular genetics, though in the time prior to the discovery of DNA.
Soon enough, Cousins reached out to individuals in the field and began getting involved in genetics research.
“That was mostly a happy accident. I wrote to a bunch of [principle investigators] and heard back only from my top choice. I ended up working in his group throughout college,” says Cousins.
While some may wonder how one combines engineering with something as complex as genetics, Cousins easily saw their correlation.
“Biochemistry, at its heart, is all about solving problems,” says Cousins. “It’s not as theoretical or abstract as some folks might believe. The problems I’ve always wanted to face are disease-related, which require you to think of the body in a very mechanistic way. In other words, you first ask what’s gone wrong and then think about what kind of molecule might help fix it. That’s exactly the sort of thinking that STEM fields teach.”
Cousins has been conducting genetics research for over two years in Harvard’s Sanes Laboratory. Among his list of achievements, he was also an intern with Boston University School Of Medicine. He spent time studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in NFL athletes, all while staying deeply involved with wrestling, both as an athlete and as a coach.
“There were certainly times when morning and afternoon practices felt like an obstacle to studying or finishing some experiment,” Cousins notes. “Ultimately, though, I could never cut back on either because I just loved what I got to do every day.”
In regards to attaining success, Cousins stands strongly by the belief that you can get anywhere with some small steps and a lot of patience. He believes it’s important to appreciate the process, not just the destination.
“I really believe that you’ll always find a way to get a thing done if you can find a way to take pride in it,” Cousins states.
“Wrestling, like research, has a high attrition rate. We spend a lot of time discussing the question of how to stay motivated when your routine becomes exhausting and maybe has lost some novelty. While there’s rarely an easy road through, it’s necessary to understand – really understand – why you do something. If you can find a clear motivation, the fatigue seems secondary.”
It was through the connection of athletics that Cousins was able to merge his passion for STEM in the realm of CTE in NFL Athletes.
“My research has two parts right now – first, I study how neuronal organization is guided at the molecular level… I’m also interested in how these types of neurological dysfunctions manifest on the clinical stage,” Cousins says.
“My clinical research focuses on the systemic presentation of Alzheimer’s disease – that is, whether the disease is truly just a problem with the brain, or whether other parts of the body (particularly the vascular system) are disturbed,” he explains. “Alzheimer’s has traditionally been thought of as strictly a brain disease, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that its pathology is deeply intertwined with other systems. CTE is a particularly vicious type of neurodegenerative disease that seems to be caused by physical brain trauma.”
However, even when your pool of motivation is full, circumstances can fall out of one’s hands.
“Research projects can often go months or years without any big breakthroughs, which can challenge not just your stamina but your enthusiasm for the subject,” he notes. “Reaching a mindset where you’re able to tolerate a certain element of chance while still staying excited about a field, as well as flexible in a problem-solving approach, is a critical step en route to becoming a good scientist.”
Like so, chance can also work in miraculous ways, especially when it comes to gene research.
“[Genetics has] this amazing element of discreteness – that reordering the same set of small molecules can cause the most profound changes in appearance and behavior. What’s fascinating now is that nearly all of the tools exist to alter the genome efficiently. With the help of computational programs, we can even start to determine exactly what genes or DNA sequences will be most helpful in a specific context. I’m excited to see how the field evolves.”
With such evolution in the field of genetic research, there are now whole sectors dedicated to particular facets of gene study, one in particular being gene therapy. This is all thanks to technology that simply did not exist five years ago, allowing scientists to now study diseases that were previously un-targetable.
“I love that the field is transforming so rapidly,” Cousins states. “For instance, I study the retina, and there are several hereditary retinopathies, previously considered irreversible, now in clinical trials with new gene-editing techniques.”
With the ability to now target new stems of disease with basic genetic technology such as artificial regulatory networks, base-pair level corrections, and complex post-transcriptional modifications in ways never done before, Cousins has his goals set high on a revolution of gene therapy research.
“Basically, I want to broaden the range of diseases, and the number of patients, that we can address with genetic technologies. Those in medical professions must take notice of the trends in basic research on this front. As a physician-scientist, I hope to help design how such therapies will work.”
As for those in the STEM field, Cousins stands firmly by seeking out connections and immersing yourself fully in your interest.
“Get some idea of what you’re interested in and talk to people within that area. Find a project that you like and work on contributing to that project – as a student, working with the team gets better results than working for yourself. If you’re lucky enough to find a field that might be a good fit, immerse yourself in it and find out for real.