By Stephanie Moeckel-Cole
Photographs by Brent M. Hale
A couple of years ago three Yale undergrads and their classmates abandoned chilly New Haven in favor of a more tropical climate for spring break. Their destination had it all: lots of lush foliage, sandy beaches, warm waters, and at least 40,000 plant species . . . not your typical hot spot, but then again, these students weren’t typical spring breakers, and neither was their destination.
The trio was part of Dr. Scott Strobel’s “Rain Forest Expedition and Laboratory” course, and their mission was to collect indigenous branches, twigs, and microbes in the Amazon. Summer break would then be spent classifying their finds and identifying new bioactive compounds—exciting enough work for any bio prospector—but what the team of Anand, Huang, and Russell found was the equivalent of an old-time prospector’s gold nugget . . . they just needed Dr. Janie Merkel ’91 to help them make it pan out.
Not too many years ago Janie was a student herself, and part of what she fondly refers to as “Varsity Biology” at Deerfield, led by Andy Harcourt. In fact, the class was “Advanced Placement Biology,” and it was not for the faint of heart. “We had a particularly amazing class,” Janie says. “The rapport we built was so different than in other classes I’d had, in part because of the hands-on work we did together, but it was also just the dynamic of the group.” And perhaps the fact that Mr. Harcourt’s students bonded over the amount of work involved in covering a chapter a day in their textbook—no small feat, even for bio enthusiasts. Although Janie credits both Mr. Harcourt and her AP classmates for inspiring her, she does admit to wanting to be a scientist even before she came to Deerfield. “I once told my dad that I liked how science ‘told you all about the future,’ which made him chuckle because he never felt that kind of connection at all.”
- Dr. Janie Merkel ’91 is the director of the Biological Division of Yale’s Center for Molecular Discovery.
After Deerfield Janie majored in Biophysical Chemistry with a minor in biology at Dartmouth, then headed directly to Yale for graduate school, followed by post-doctoral work at a non-profit research organization that focused on whole genome sequencing. “That was where I made my segue into technology and large datasets,” Janie says, “which prepared me to come back to New Haven for a Yale ‘spinoff’ that had developed a technology to figure out which genes were being expressed in organisms whose genomes were being sequenced, kind of before the fact. Then I moved to another Yale spinoff that had been acquired by a large biotech, founded on a technology that looked at interactions between proteins en masse.”