Five Questions for Mitch Guttman

Haley Bridger, December 20th, 2012

This week, Mitch Guttman — one of the Broad Institute’s first generation of “alumni” — was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30: Science and Healthcare" list of rising stars. This accolade comes on the heels of another prestigious honor for Guttman, who received an NIH Early Independence Award in the fall.

Guttman will join the California Institute of Technology as an assistant professor next year, but he “grew up” at the Broad Institute. In 2006, he completed a rotation in the Broad’s Cancer Program (with Jill Mesirov and Gaddy Getz) and went on to join Broad Institute Director Eric Lander’s lab, where Lander encouraged him to explore and play with new data. Those data would reveal that some elements beyond proteins were playing important organizing and regulating roles inside of cells. Dubbed lincRNAs – large, intergenic non-coding RNA – these elements would lead Guttman and others to make important discoveries, including discoveries about how and when a cell’s fate is decided (i.e., whether it will mature into a specialized kind of cell or stay in its immature state). Guttman’s lab at Caltech will continue to pursue lincRNAs, exploring their functionality and tackling critical questions about these remarkable elements.

Guttman answered five of our questions about his work, his recent honors, and his thoughts on life after the Broad.

Mitch Guttman

Photo by Maria Nemchuk,
Broad Communications

Q1. It’s been a banner year for you. What have been some of the highlights?

MG: It’s been a great year – actually, it’s been a great seven years. But this year in general has been amazing, between scientific discoveries and projects and cool results to getting my first job and my first grant. And I graduated in June. And now I’ve received this honor [being named to the Forbes “30 Under 30: Science and Healthcare” list]. I’m enormously grateful.

Q2. Can you tell me what it’s like to setup your lab at Caltech?

MG: This summer I’m moving out to Caltech and will be an assistant professor in the biology division. I’m setting up my lab out there, and I’ve learned a lot through the process. Being able to set up a lab that’s built and created for the kind of science that you do is spectacular. It reminds me in a sense of what it must have been like when the Broad was founded. A lot of times, you’re retrofitted into a lab that was designed for a different purpose or it’s cookie cutter. But the Broad model was designed to be an open, collaborative environment. And it’s worked out so well for the kind of science that we do. It’s amazing how physical space makes such a big difference in that respect.

Having been here and realized how important that is, I found myself making so many decisions along the way of glass versus walls and having white boards around and spaces where people can talk. Collaboration and collegiality are not just cultures that are promoted by people and ideas but also by physical space – by creating an environment where it’s really encouraged.

Q3. Let’s talk about lincRNAs. What kinds of questions have you been exploring?

MG: We’ve been trying to understand what makes lincRNAs so special, and how they control cell fate. We’ve been tackling several aspects of that and trying to understand the unique components of RNA and how RNA can bring together different actors in the cell at very unique and defined sites in the genome and regulate specific responses, controlling these much larger programs that influence disease and development.

If you had asked me back in 2008 where I would have seen this going, I wouldn’t have foreseen this. Which is actually really exciting. Very often in science, the next five steps are obvious because we know so much about a system, we know so much about certain actors and we know what the terrain will look like. To me, one of the most exciting things about lincRNAs has been how often we’ve been wrong about our assumptions of what things will look like. We were really in uncharted territory. A lot of our assumptions were based on how proteins or mRNAs behaved – but lincRNAs really broke the mold in a lot of ways.

Q4. Most scientists under 35 aren’t in a position to have a big impact on their field. But you are under 30 and have already made important discoveries and are on this path toward making more. What factors contribute to that kind of success?

MG: I can’t say there’s anything special about what I’ve done. When I started out, it was dumb luck…and the community helped me take it from dumb luck to something meaningful. That’s what makes this place special, that that can happen.

I owe a lot to this community. I’ve had an incredible community of colleagues and collaborators who have helped me learn so much, and phenomenal mentors – Eric and others. In my case, that’s the most important reason for my success.

Q5. What are your thoughts on becoming a Broad alumnus?

MG: It’s bittersweet in a lot of ways. I will certainly miss the Broad – I grew up here. And I grew up here before it was as big as it is. To me, it still feels like a small place, a small community. I’m going to miss this place, the spirit, the culture. And I’m going to miss the people.

But it’s exciting. I’m excited about Caltech – it shares much of the same collaborative spirit I’ve come to love about the Broad. But it’s different in a lot of ways that I think will be great for me going forward. I’ll always remember my genomics upbringing and computational background, but for the work I’ll be doing, having colleagues around with even more diverse interests can pay huge dividends. And I anticipate and expect to remain very involved at the Broad because I’m collaborating very closely with programs and platforms here, from RNAi and David Root, where we still have many active collaborations, to Proteomics. I know that will continue. But I’m excited to be expanding that world a lot.

There are a lot of reasons why I think Caltech and the Broad are kindred spirits. I’m hoping we can help build a bridge that expands into a lot of other areas here.

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