Adrianne Gladden-Young hopes to make a difference in the fight against infectious disease
Adrianne Gladden-Young is a senior research associate in Pardis Sabeti’s lab at the Broad Institute and Harvard University. There, the Tufts University and University of Maryland graduate helps execute genomic studies of infectious diseases, with the goal of sequencing and tracking the viruses responsible for some of the world’s most severe and deadly outbreaks. Ebola and Zika are some of the viruses the group has investigated since Gladden-Young joined the Broad in 2013.
Gladden-Young spoke with us for a #WhyIScience Q&A, where she described life as a research associate and the inspiration for her work.
Q: Can you describe what you do in the Sabeti lab?
A: We study viral genomics. Specifically, we sequence the genomes of viruses to better understand their activity, which can be important for diagnosis, containment, and surveillance during and after viral outbreaks. If you can understand how the genomes of these viruses are changing or evolving over the course of an outbreak, you stand a chance of finding a vulnerability that you could target with drugs, and you may be able to predict how the virus might evade available treatments. You can also learn how and where the outbreak started and maybe figure out ways to prevent it from spreading.
Q: And, as a research associate, what is your role in these studies?
A: “Research associate” can mean different things at different places but, in general, research associates are professional bench scientists who are involved in the hands-on work done in the lab. That could mean preparing samples, running assays, analyzing data, or anything else that needs to be done to run a scientific experiment—and your responsibilities can change depending on the study. Since research associates are some of the people closest to the experiment and are aware of how the methods and processes are working, they can provide important insights about the challenges the lab faces, or improvements that can be made to help the experiment run more smoothly.
Q: What made you decide to study science?
A: When I was 6 years old, my best friend’s uncle, who was also a neighbor of mine, died of complications due to AIDS. We shared the same birthday, so I was sort of his “favorite” among the neighborhood kids. We were close so his death was devastating to me. To console me, my dad always told me that I could find a cure one day.
Q: Who else has influenced you along the way?
A: One person who influenced me was Cesar Oniangue-Ndza. He was my mentor when I worked as a lab technician at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, which was my first position after undergrad. He taught me that, to be a good scientist, you can’t merely follow the individual steps of the experimental method. You have to understand the science behind everything that you are doing in the lab. He told me to work harder, and to start reading scientific articles every single day. He promised to teach me everything that he knew, and that he would help me become a scientist. And he did.
Q: What challenges have you faced in your career, and what have you learned from them?
A: As an African-American woman, it can sometimes feel like I don’t have a voice in the scientific community—that my ideas are ignored or that I'm not always taken seriously as a scientist. I think that’s a challenge many scientists face when they’re from groups that are typically underrepresented in the field: finding their place when they don’t fit into the mold. Over the years, I’ve learned that your authentic and unique experiences will allow you to contribute far more to science than you realize because they allow you to come at a problem from a different perspective… so be true to yourself!