Congratulations to Kathy Niakan ’96, CWA Alum of the Year! This award is presented to a graduate of Charles Wright Academy and recognizes the individual’s accomplishments and/or service to community. Read our profile of Kathy from the winter 2016 issue of Ties below; click here for our full Q&A with her.
Dr. Kathy Niakan ’96 is fascinated by fertilization. Studying how human embryonic cells progress in their earliest stages, Kathy explores the process by which cells specialize to make up any number of anatomical structures necessary for healthy development. She does this in hopes of better understanding how birth defects, miscarriages, and even diseases arise so as to eventually decrease their occurrence and, in turn, increase healthy and happy outcomes.
“I’m really interested in understanding the factors human embryos need to develop successfully,” Kathy says. “Our work is all about what controls this first essential specialization process in humans. For instance, how do some cells get set aside to make a baby while others are destined to make the placenta?”
A group leader at the Francis Crick Institute in London, Kathy’s work made international headlines in January—including in the BBC, Science magazine, and the Guardian, among other publications—thanks to her team’s latest achievements in the advancement of gene editing, a process that disables certain genes from developing in early embryos. Using state-of-the-art approaches to understand the way genetic material is expressed differently in one cell type versus another, Kathy and her team of researchers pay particular attention to transcription factors, which are “special proteins that are involved in the process of expressing information encoded in the DNA.” In the earliest stages of development, cells “exist in a unique state where they can become any of the cell types that make up the human body—this property is known as ‘pluripotency,’” Kathy says. “We are very interested in what factors the pluripotent cells need to multiply in the laboratory as stem cells.”
Kathy’s inquisitiveness and drive were evident even during her time at CWA. “I can picture Kathy, bright eyed and determined—she was one of those students that seemed to be on a mission just for the mission’s sake,” says Upper School science teacher David Kangas. “I love to see such a kind-hearted soul doing such important work in the sciences.” After graduating from CWA, Kathy moved on to the University of Washington, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in cell and molecular biology as well as a Bachelor of Arts in English literature. (“Steve Matson was an extremely dedicated teacher, and I continue to use the journalism skills he taught,” she recalls of her Upper School days and her varied academic interests. “He instilled a love of reading and had us memorize Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English, which my brother Cyrus ’97 and I still recite for a laugh—we’re such nerds!”)
While at UW, Kathy “identified the gene responsible for an inherited blood disorder,” she describes. “I was thrilled by the possibility that by understanding what is causing a disease it may lead to new approaches for treatment.” She then went on to earn a Ph.D. in human genetics from UCLA before working as a fellow at both Harvard and Cambridge. Now conducting groundbreaking research at Crick, Kathy hopes that her work will eventually lead to treatments for debilitating or fatal diseases. While the subject of stem cells has been complicated and contentious, “studying stem cells helps us understand how embryo cells become more specialized, which provides insight into the causes of miscarriage or birth defects,” she explains. “As stem cells and other quick-growing cells are similar, studying these cells could also tell us lots about what regulates the growth of cancers. Ultimately, we think these pluripotent stem cells could be used to generate tissues to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s or diabetes, or to discover and test new drugs. The stage of embryo development that we study has tremendous benefits for stem cell research, which will have much broader benefits in many different fields of medicine.”
Kathy’s career within several of the most prestigious academic institutions has allowed her to channel her curiosity and hone her work ethic. She advises young Tarriers who want to go into the field of scientific research “to keep on going and not give up; you need to have a fighting spirit. Many times you’ll face results that are confusing, and you may feel that you’ve failed; but if you’re passionate about your research then you’ll work through those challenges and keep seeking answers. In hindsight, often these seeming failures are not as big of a deal as they seem, and in some cases they even lead you to serendipitous discoveries. The continual striving for answers and passion for your work are attributes you see in many successful scientists. A great thing about science is that there are diverse ways to approach it and be creative. It’s a very refreshing and fabulous work environment—I recommend it.” //
by Kim Banti