Meet Our Postdoctoral Fellows

Olivia Dong

Funding supported by T32 Grant

  1. Hometown
    San Jose, CA
  2. Current Research
    My current research involves conducting health economic analyses of pharmacogenetic testing for patients within the Veterans Affairs (VA) health system. One project I will be conducting these health economic analyses for is the PHarmacogenomics Action for cancer SuRvivorship (PHASeR), a new precision health initiative that is providing preemptive pharmacogenetic testing to veterans at various sites across the US. In addition, I will be developing predictive models that identifies patients who would likely benefit from pharmacogenetic testing. By doing these analyses, the VA health system will be better positioned to understand the potential impact pharmacogenetic testing can have on improving patient care and the associated costs to the VA system.   
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    One of my mentors, Dr. Martin Kohlmeier, was influential in sparking my initial interest in the precision medicine field. I was working as an intern for his Nutrition in Medicine Medical School Curriculum Program while I was completing my MPH at UNC, and we had many discussions about the impact that genetic variations can have on the effectiveness of clinical interventions. I started to get involved with some of his precision medicine research projects and enjoyed it so much that I decided to go on and pursue a PhD in the pharmacogenetics field.
  4. What excites you about your work?
    It is exciting to me to be able to find efficient ways of delivering health care services that are individualized to account for important genetic variations that are present in the population. I enjoy being able to utilize my scientific training to uncover areas of clinical care that can be improved for patients. I also find it inspiring to work with talented researchers from diverse backgrounds because they each bring a unique perspective to patient care.
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 
    In the future I would like to be an independent researcher with expertise in the application of precision medicine interventions within health systems. Within the precision medicine field, I want to specialize in the application of genetics to optimize nutritional and pharmacological interventions for patients with preventable chronic conditions. I would like to provide health systems with evidence-based decisions that allows for efficient and optimal delivery of genetic interventions to patients.

Melody Shi

Funding supported by T32 Grant

  1. Hometown
    Bethesda, MD
  2. Current research
    Vitamin D is a key player in calcium homeostasis and its synthesis and breakdown is tightly regulated by cytochrome P450 enzymes. One gene in particular, CYP24A1, encodes the enzyme 24-hydroxylase, which degrades active vitamin D into inactive metabolites thereby attenuating its effects on calcium absorption. This gene has been shown to be both upregulated and downregulated in a variety of human disease states and has been a target for pharmacologic intervention in the treatment of disorders like metabolic bone disease, certain types of cancer and rheumatologic conditions. However, our understanding of 24-hydroxylase in calcium and vitamin D metabolism, specifically its primary tissue site of action, is limited by lack of a suitable mouse model of CYP24A1 deficiency. To address this gap in knowledge, our lab has created transgenic inducible mouse models of CYP24A1 deficiency which will allow us to delineate the role of CYP24A1 in mineral homeostasis. As a clinical correlate, I will also identify infants with history of vitamin D toxicity and sequence them for CYP24A1 mutations. Recent studies have shown that mutations in CYP24A1 are more common than we think and might change the way we approach universal vitamin D supplementation in infants.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    Through my clinical training as a pediatric resident and now endocrinology fellow, I have witnessed first-hand the multitude of bone disorders for which management remains a challenge despite advances in the pathogenesis of skeletal disorders. I became aware of the consequences of disordered bone growth and metabolism, with skeletal deformities, pathologic fractures, and deterioration of motor development often leading to profound disability. The desire to understand and treat these bone diseases pushes me to pursue research in this particular field.
  4. What excites you about your work?
    I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside such esteemed scientists who are truly experts in their field. Duke fosters a collaborative training environment and with my current fellowship in pediatric endocrinology, research lab in adult nephrology and additional training program in genomic medicine, I feel robustly supported in my clinical and research endeavors. 
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    My career goal is to become an established academic physician-scientist in pediatric endocrinology, performing translational research in vitamin D metabolism for the development of targeted therapies to improve patient outcomes. I hope to specialize in pediatric bone disorders and bring what I discover in the lab directly to my patients and families.

Marie Mooney

Funding supported by T32 Grant

  1. Hometown
    Grand Rapids, MI
  2. Current research
    I work with a talented team of scientists in the Center for Human Disease Modeling who use sequencing to identify variants in the genome of individuals with developmental disorders. I use computational and mathematical modeling to identify potential interactions between variants that influence the expression and severity of the disease. We verify that these predictions are valid in disease models ranging from cultured cells to genetically modified zebrafish or mice, and then we do another round of prediction to identify potential therapeutic interventions, which we can evaluate in the same disease models. Every time we make a prediction, we rely on a lot of assumptions about which biological signals will give us a meaningful result. We know that current approaches are not sufficient to capture all of the biology because sequencing and prediction only identifies disease-driving variation in a subset of patients, or poorly defines the set of phenotypes we observe. Part of our goal is to better understand the functional implications of alterations in individual genomic architectures so that we can make better prediction models.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    One of my strengths as a scientist is a natural tendency to collect things, and even as a child I collected pictures, writings, and communications in shoeboxes and binders. In my collection, I especially cherish a recommendation from my middle school science teacher that encouraged me to join the Science Olympiad team. As I adopted an identity as a scientist through Science Olympiad, I started paying more attention to research activities in society. When the president celebrated the draft sequence of the human genome at the turn of the century, I watched the news at home and started jabbering on and on about how cool genomes were. My mother caught on to my interest and fed me articles on the topic, one of which described how bioinformatics accelerated project completion by several decades. Even though I had zero exposure to computer programming, I felt like I had to learn this skill to do next generation biology, and so I enrolled in a programming class at the community college before heading to Michigan Tech to major in bioinformatics.

    Looking back, it surprises me that I never thought too much about illness and disease until I joined a cancer institute, where we used a combination of genomic profiling and animal disease avatars to screen tumors for drug response. My first meeting with a family, who lost their daughter to an aggressive brain stem tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), impressed on me the importance of bringing basic research closer to the clinic and involving families in the process. Her parents identified critical obstacles to integrating clinical care and basic research and drove change in processes like biopsy collection and research funding in the hope that someday no family would have to lose a child to DIPG. In my work at Duke, I have the privilege to pursue that mission more broadly: no family should have to lose a child to any disease.

  4. What excites you about your work?
    In the past century, we have shattered barriers to long life and health, especially by combating infectious diseases with vaccines and antibiotics, or with surgical interventions like organ transplantation. Now, genetic disorders are on the table. The combination of genomic sequencing, gene-editing, and rapid drug development technology puts curative therapy for genetic disorders firmly within reach. Exciting!
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    I see myself running a research laboratory focused broadly on childhood genetic diseases. I look forward to establishing a cross-training environment where young scientists learn to apply both computational and laboratory skills to their research, and where they are encouraged to ground their approaches with practical limitations imposed by clinical practice and how potential solutions would impact patient care. I intend to build a training environment that will support highly creative solutions and a “fail-fast” mentality similar to that espoused in entrepreneurial endeavors.  

Bill Hankey

Funding supported by T32 Grant

  1. Hometown
    Andover, MA
  2. Current research
    I'm currently working on research designed to identify how normal prostate and prostate cancer cells respond to drugs such as sildenafil (Viagra) and predicting how these drugs might impact patients who are undergoing treatment for prostate cancer or are at risk for developing prostate cancer.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    This field of study stood out to me because it offered the opportunity to learn more about the genetic basis of cancer in a lab that is at the cutting edge of genomic technologies. These technologies allow researchers to look at thousands of genetic differences between healthy cells and diseased cells and to rapidly identify genetic characteristics that protect patients as well as characteristics that increase their risk. This process provides clues about where to look for the next breakthroughs to improve patient care.
  4. What excites you about your work?
    The most exciting part of the project is collaborating with pathologists and other medical experts who can help us examine the genetic characteristics of prostate cancer samples from real patients, allowing us to test ideas that we have developed in the research lab.
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    I hope to be collaborating with clinicians and other researchers on the next generation of cancer genomics studies, but in the capacity of an independent researcher who generates new ideas and projects and helps teach up-and-coming scientists.

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