Emily Wood was destined to attend Wayne State University.
A second-year doctoral candidate in the WSU School of Medicine’s Molecular Biology and Genetics Graduate Program, Wood was born in Detroit’s historic Woodbridge neighborhood, on the western edge of WSU’s campus. She grew up on the city’s east side. Her mother, Mary Jane Heeg, Ph.D., is a crystallographer who retired from WSU’s Department of Chemistry in 2010, and Wood spent her childhood visiting her mother on campus.
“I was born on campus, and I’ve been here ever since,” she joked.
Wood’s first job after high school graduation in 1999 was with WSU. She worked full time as an administrative assistant, using the school’s employee tuition reimbursement program to take one class a semester, mostly at night. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology with departmental and university honors in 2007 – eight years after her first college class.
Anthropology sparked an interest in evolution, and more specifically, the genetics behind it all. “I really wanted to know about human evolution and the relevance of genes,” in human behavior, she said.
Yet when she began independently researching genetics, “I realized I couldn’t read the papers. I just didn’t have the skills set,” she said.
She went back to school, at WSU of course, taking master’s degree courses before joining the doctoral program in 2010, with a computational concentration.
Only two years in, Wood has already received international attention for her computational work on long non-coding ribonucleic acids in the lab of her mentor, Leonard Lipovich, Ph.D., assistant professor of Molecular Medicine and Genetics, and Neurology.
Dr. Lipovich’s determination to prove genetic matter once deemed “junk” has a place in clinical medicine is bringing the School of Medicine to the forefront of a burgeoning niche field of genome enthusiasts in the United States, Asia and Europe. The work could lead to new therapeutics for cancer and other diseases.
“For a second-year Ph.D. student, Emily's activity and meaningful contributions to our international collaborations are absolutely stunning,” Dr. Lipovich said.
LncRNA genes comprise half of human genes. Results from Dr. Lipovich’s lab suggest they play a critical role in regulating the conserved part of the genome. “It’s really on the edge of what’s known,” Wood said.
She has earned membership in the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Consortium Analysis Working Group, one of two international research consortiums that succeeded the completion of 2001’s Human Genome Project. Wood implemented both manual and newly-learned automated approaches to analyzing genome-scale LncRNA experimental data from ENCODE Analysis Working Group and another international research consortium called Functional Annotation of the Mammalian Genome, also known as FANTOM5, Dr. Lipovich said.
She regularly presented her results during ENCODE Web conferences, results that earned her the second authorship on a paper in the current September issue of Genome Research titled “Long non-coding RNAs are rarely translated in two human cell lines.”
Even before the publication, Wood’s role in the lab has pushed her into a spotlight beyond her hometown.
“Emily developed and optimized manual annotation protocols to check whether a Gencode transcript was a long non-coding RNA or not; to map specific peptides from mass spectrometry experiments to Gencode lncRNAs; and to analyze the evolutionary conservation and the biological common sense context of the peptide hits. She also did much of the annotation herself,” Dr. Lipovich said. “(Half of the) main figures in the paper directly show Emily's annotation results, an impressive contribution that earned her a prestigious sole second authorship on the paper.”
In less than two years, she has received three scholarships to present her work, and travels at least every other month to talk or present. She was competitively chosen by FANTOM for an expenses-paid trip to the FANTOM5 meeting at the RIKENomics Science Center in Yokohama, Japan, last October. She was one of only 10 students in the world invited to give a 30-minute presentation, and her audience was internationally-renowned geneticists, including Nobel Laureates.
“It was really exciting and it was really scary,” she said.
Dr. Lipovich still gets calls from international scientists “who ask specifically for Emily to analyze their data, mentioning that they cannot forget her October 2011 Yokohama talk,” he said.
Emily began to develop her own dissertation ideas last year. She presented a poster on the presence and genomic structure of LncRNAs at a Cell Symposium in Chicago in 2011, and earlier this year received a prestigious Keystone Symposia Travel Grant to present posters in Snowbird, Utah, 11 years after her mentor received the same honor. She made the same presentation at the 17th Annual Meeting of the RNA Society in Ann Arbor, Mich., this year.
“Emily's enthusiasm, hard work, attention to detail and willingness to learn outside of the comfort zone are unparalleled,” Dr. Lipovich said.
She was appointed to the reviewing editorial board of the journal Frontiers in Non-Coding RNA in 2011.
Wood credits her determination and work ethic to her mother, who raised Emily and her sister Mae on her own. “She’s a world-renowned scientist in her own right,” Wood said.
Dr. Heeg earned an excellent reputation in the science world for pioneering several new methodologies for determining the structure of inorganic compounds, including difficult crystal arrangements. Wood said it was her mother’s positive example that made her realize a career in science was possible.
“I feel really blessed that I found something I really enjoyed,” she said.