“If you want to have any chance of discovering something new, flexibility and creativity are key!” says Janie. “We are doing science in a faculty/student-centric way simply because of the wide variety of projects faculty researchers and students bring to us; we really need to be flexible to adapt and help them all. My team members have different professional experiences, and that fuels our collective creativity. One of the great parts of our work is that not only is it creative, it is testable and quantifiable; those who come to us can put their innovative ideas in the crucible, so to speak.” Then she adds, “Personally, I would love to do more work with ecological or environmental benefits, so it was a real treat to work with Jon.”
While the Center primarily serves the needs of researchers within the university, it is also open to outside researchers from other academic institutions or industry, and the nature and scope of those projects is just as extensive as Yale’s own: One project involved the investigation of potential synergistic effects when combining two drugs to fight multiple cancers, and found encouraging results for the treatment of resistant melanomas. Another recent project found a molecule that has the potential to be used to diagnose a form of kidney tumors, which happen to be easily treatable, but currently difficult to detect until they are highly advanced. A third group made some great progress in developing a molecule that can be used to treat clotting disorders. Altogether in 2012, the Center was involved in a total of 87 different research projects—an impressive variety to be flourishing in one single facility—and Janie considers herself fortunate to be in the middle of this hotspot of scientific discovery.
- Janie says her job is so exciting because she is always working with new ideas and new discoveries.
“Part of what makes my work so enjoyable is the fact it’s always fresh and exciting—new ideas and new discoveries,” she says. She is also realistic about her work: “It is a long path between finding a molecule and treatment for a disease,” she acknowledges. Or discovering an enzyme that can reduce the mass in our landfills? “Exactly. In the case of working on a new drug, there’s typically a high level of involvement and commitment with pharmaceutical companies eventually; this is where testing drugs already available for ‘repurposing,’ such as those in our libraries, can really kick start a project, because a wealth of data regarding safety, side effects, and so on already exists; a faculty member can take a project further quickly, with higher likelihood and success in engaging a pharmaceutical partner. I’m glad we can build upon existing knowledge.”
Since working with Janie, Jon Russell, his classmates, and their fungus have received some good press: Popular Science held it up as another argument for protecting rainforest biodiversity, and Russell et al had a paper about their discovery accepted by the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology . . . but you won’t find Dr. Janie Merkel’s name in the credits. “The continued research has moved elsewhere,” Janie says. “The way we work with the researchers taps into so much valuable knowledge, promotes engagement, and serves a critical role in the education of our fellows and students—we are often the starting point and we provide the opportunity to gain hands-on experience. Then our researchers move on.”
Janie pauses and then says: “It strikes me, as the mother of two young girls, that there is an ever increasing pressure to specialize and master skills early. But how do you know that what you are specializing in is something you like or are good at unless you have some decent comparators? I see this frequently in lab research; breakthroughs occur when people think more broadly, jump in, learn from what others are doing, and then improve it. It will be truly exciting when a chemical we found and modified or found and out-licensed really impacts the Earth or human health. I don’t know how close we are to that time, but it will happen.” And when it does, you can be sure Dr. Merkel was there to lend a hand. ••
Dr. Stephanie Moeckel-Cole is a scientific researcher studying the effects of chemotherapy on the bone density of breast cancer patients. In addition to her research, Dr. Moeckel-Cole teaches Introductory Biology at Holyoke (MA) Community College and anatomy and physiology at UMass-Amherst. She lives in Deerfield with her husband and two children.