Candice Byers, GBS22

School: Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences 

Degree: Ph.D. in Genetics 

Track: Mammalian Genetics at the Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine 

What was the focus of your doctoral research?  

In an embryo, there are stem cells with the ability to give rise to any cell in the organism, such as a neuron or a heart cell. This ability is an attractive feature in the field of regenerative medicine. In practice, though, we find variable responses in stem cells’ ability to become certain cell types when cultured in a dish, limiting their use. If you took stem cells from me versus stem cells from you, there would be variability in how they develop in culture, so I wanted to better explain the genetic origin of this process.  

Here’s a scenario: If I had Parkinson's disease, in theory, we could take my skin cells and reprogram them in a dish to reverse to an embryonic state. We could then use genetic interventions to correct pathogenic genes and make healthy neurons. These healthy neurons programmed in a dish could then replenish the diseased population in the brain.  

Right now, we are very far away from that goal, because there’s too much variability in how cells from different people can be reprogrammed. That was a major focus of my work, and my research prioritizes specific genetic contributions underlying why our cells have those limits.  

What are you most thankful for during your time at Tufts? 

The support of the faculty and fellow students. I went into grad school 100 percent thinking I was going to be a clinical molecular geneticist discovering and understanding rare diseases that get less research and funding. Then, I thought I wanted to teach at a liberal arts college or community college, getting individuals excited about research and STEM. In grad school, I found a network of people who were happy to share the reasons for the path they took, and put me in touch with people who took other paths. I was able to take risks, and now I’m doing a post-doc, where I can pursue my own research ideas and keep my options open. 

What are you proud of outside of your research and classwork?  

I was fortunate to be involved with the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute, which works with young women across all counties in Maine. They’re identified in their first year of high school, and then we serve as their support system throughout the next three years, to help them reach their full potential. Through the curriculum, we help them figure out what motivates them, and how to make a voice for themselves and advocate for themselves. It’s been fascinating to see their growth—and my own.

For full Commencement 2022 coverage, please visit now.tufts.edu/commencement-2022.

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