Winter 2019

5 Questions with a Cell Biologist

A conversation with Marcia Haigis

Artificial Intelligence Issue

  • by Ekaterina Pesheva
  • 3 minute read

Why do you study the function, and malfunction, of mitochondria?

full portrait of Marcia Haigis
Marcia Haigis, professor, Department of Cell Biology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS

We have long known that mitochondria are the engines of the cell, but I love thinking about the role of mitochondria beyond the classical ATP-producing powerhouse. They have so many functions: cell growth and cell proliferation, cellular detoxification, oxidative-stress damage control, and intracellular alert to stress, damage, or fuel and energy excess. Mitochondria are true rheostat sensors.

Our lab is particularly interested in the molecular machinery that allows mitochondria to help cells deal with stress; we want to understand how the enzymes that enable this function are regulated. Understanding how these regulatory pathways contribute to mitochondrial function and dysfunction will have profound implications for understanding conditions ranging from diabetes and obesity to cancer and aging.

Who inspires you?

My lab team inspires me. Every day. My students, my postdocs, they have so much energy and creativity. I am inspired when they come to me with out-of-the-box questions. I find it especially inspiring when we work as a team. We are stronger when we feed off each other’s ideas, enthusiasm, and creativity to arrive at new solutions. I’m also inspired when I see trainees arrive at their own eureka moments and build their own power and confidence.

What is your road not taken?

I was always curious about biology. Growing up, I was taught that if you like science, you go to medical school. So that’s what I prepared for. As a freshman, I worked as an EMT in the ambulance corps. To fulfill my hours, I took overnight shifts. One morning, I was walking back to my dorm, bleary-eyed, and took a shortcut through the biochemistry building at the University of New Hampshire. On the walls were tons of scientific posters by students and postdocs. At that early morning hour, there was only one open door and only one person in the office: biochemist Richard Cote. I asked him if he could tell me a little bit about the posters. My question turned into a two-hour conversation—and a job offer. I ended up working in his lab for three years and, as an undergrad, publishing my first first-author paper.

What has been your greatest a-ha moment as a scientist?

That shortcut through the biochemistry building. Learning about basic research that morning was one of my more memorable such moments—the realization that you could actually make a career out of solving puzzles, out of curiosity, out of exploration and fun. That first summer, I realized that answering questions and solving scientific puzzles just felt right.

What do you see as the single biggest challenge or greatest opportunity scientists face today?

Today, scientists have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to be advocates for science, education, and mentorship; for health care and science communication; and for diversity. We should really do what we can to feed the discovery pipeline but also communicate with members of the public, so they can understand the importance of science and appreciate the effect it has on their lives.

Image: John Soares