Interview with Dr Stacey Finley, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California and co-editor of SMB newsletter
What is your current role and how long have you been there?
I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC), where I direct the Computational Systems Biology Laboratory. My research group works to quantitatively predict the dynamics of key signaling and metabolic networks in cancer, providing detailed insight needed to understand the effects of existing therapies and help identify new targets. I have been a faculty member at USC for almost five years; I started in the fall of 2013.
What do you like best about your role?
I really enjoy mathematical modelling and computational analyses. Although, I do not have the chance to do much of the research myself, I do get to train and mentor graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and even undergraduates. I enjoy establishing the vision for my research group, identifying interesting questions to study, and mentoring and advising students as they answer those research questions. Last spring, I was selected to receive a mentoring award that my students nominated me for. It was a truly humbling honor.
Why did you choose your current career path?
I majored in chemical engineering as an undergraduate student at Florida A&M University. As part of my scholarship, I had three summer internships in the manufacturing division of Procter & Gamble. Although I enjoyed the chance to apply the chemical engineering concepts I was learning to industrial problems, I was much more excited about research. I did an honors thesis project on modelling biochemical reactions and diffusion in skeletal muscle and knew I wanted to pursue research in graduate school. After finishing my Ph.D., also in chemical engineering, I wanted to work on more medically-focused research questions, so I sought a postdoctoral position in biomedical engineering (BME). I applied to several departments for a faculty position, and ultimately selected the BME department here at USC.
What is one project you currently work on and what does it involve?
My group is just finalizing a revised manuscript that presents a mathematical model to quantify the kinetics of individual tyrosine phosphorylation on a variety of chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These are engineered receptors that have recently been approved for the treatment of hematological malignancies; however, a lack of understanding of the basic mechanisms that activate these proteins has made it difficult to optimize and control CAR-based therapies. Traditional CARs consist of intracellular signaling domains derived from CD3ζ, the main activating domain in the endogenous T cell receptor, and an additional protein that provides co-stimulatory signals such as CD28. We constructed a computational model that predicts activation of CARs containing CD3ζ with and without the CD28 co-stimulatory protein domain. Our computational model identifies that the kinase LCK phosphorylates the sites on the CAR with distinct kinetics, through a mechanism of competitive inhibition. We also show that the CD28 co-stimulatory domain increases LCK-mediated phosphorylation of the CAR. By better understanding how these chimeric proteins are phosphorylated, we can identify ways to tune them to create more optimal CAR-based therapies. We are now building on this work to predict the dynamics of signaling pathways induced by the activated CAR.
Where is the best place you have travelled for work? And why?
I have really enjoyed attending smaller research conferences, where early career faculty and trainees have the opportunity to interact closely with established researchers. Last year, I attended a small conference in Crete, Greece – the 12th International Conference on Pathways, Networks, and Systems Medicine. It was an amazing meeting with renowned researchers working in systems biology. Everyone had a unique perspective and I left with new ideas about how to enrich my research program.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
One piece of advice that has really helped me is “be comfortable being different”. As a kid, I wanted to fit in with my friends and do what everyone else was doing. But, I liked chemistry and math, and I did a “sport” called the academic decathlon (basically, just more schoolwork!). There were not many friends who did those things with me. I enjoyed those activities, so I got used to being different. Now, it is important to do novel research that is distinctively my own. I try to make my research program stand out, while also doing impactful work. Also, being a woman and minority in biomedical engineering is different – there are not many people who look like me or come from the same cultural background as me. In all of these aspects, I am getting more comfortable being different and using my unique perspective to impact science and to be a role model to students.
Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues wouldn’t know.
I ran marathons in grad school and as a postdoc. I started running in college and gradually built up to my first marathon in 2005. I have run a total of 7 marathons, in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Washington, DC. My love of running even surprised me, because before starting college, I hated to sweat! I still enjoy running, but do not have the time to properly train for a marathon, so I stick to weight training these days.