Meet Aidan Burn, GBS23

School: Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

Degree: Ph.D. in Genetics

Home: I’m from New Jersey, but I think of Boston as my home now.

What’s been your area of focus in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences?

I work in Professor John Coffin’s lab, where we study HIV and other retroviruses. My focus has been on paleovirology, and, in particular, on human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). Those are viruses that infected the ancestors of humans and apes thousands of millions of years ago. Through infection and the replication cycle of retroviruses, some genetic material can be passed down from generation to generation when infecting the right cell type; over time, humans have ended up with a significant portion of our genome—seven to eight percent—made up of ancient viral sequences.

I wrote my thesis on HERVs. Studying them gives us a better understanding of how viruses evolve and enables us to understand what ancient retroviruses are doing in our bodies today. There’s a growing amount of data to suggest they’re not just junk; they could be very important for a number of different processes in the body.

What surprised you the most about yourself during your time at Tufts?

I entered grad school with a very different focus in mind. I thought I’d conduct research on neurology. But when I did rotations in virology-focused labs, I was hooked. I loved what I was studying in those labs.

I’ve also been surprised by the places Tufts has taken me. It’s given me great opportunities to go to conferences and interact with interesting people. I’ve even gotten to present work to Nobel laureates. At a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the discovery of reverse transcriptase—the enzyme that retroviruses use (which, when it was discovered, changed the world of microbiology)—I had a real moment while sitting in the crowd watching all of these famous scientists present on their pivotal discoveries over the course of the past 50 years. It felt so surreal!

What’s one adjective that describes you?

Curious. My friends and my girlfriend make fun of me because I have a constant habit of googling things I want to learn more about.

Complete the following sentence: “In ten years, I will be…”

Doing science that I enjoy. I don’t yet know what path that’s going to take, but right now, I’m looking for an industry position that will allow me to practice science that I enjoy and that will make an impact.

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