Photo Credit: L. Boyer
A Message of Perseverance
Biology Professor Laurie Boyer's determination and supportive relationships brought her to where she is today.
Hailing from the blue-collar, western suburb of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Laurie Boyer was a curious child. She sought to find out how things worked and why. She asked for a microscope and a chemistry set as birthday gifts, but the request wasn’t taken seriously. In high school, Laurie excelled in biology and thought she would eventually be in a medical related field, but felt she was steered more towards gender-specific coursework. Boyer describes feeling frustrated, “I felt like I was put into a box. At that time, I don’t think anyone was encouraging girls to get into science. Rather, I was more encouraged to take typing lessons.” Without a mentor encouraging her to pursue science, she felt uncertain about her future as high school graduation neared.
She weighed her options: stay in East Longmeadow to work, or go to college? It was an easy decision: she chose the latter, becoming the first in her family to attend college. Because of a lack of guidance from her high school, she only applied to one college, and was admitted to Framingham State University.
When she entered college, Boyer admits “I really lacked confidence at that time in my life, certainly I didn’t take myself seriously as a student, even though I was always in the highest-level classes. Framingham State helped me build that confidence because I was allowed to explore my potential.” She mastered her biology, chemistry and organic chemistry course work and felt further motivated to pursue more opportunities. The experience “opened my eyes to how education can be so empowering,” Boyer recalls. “And I met some of the best friends anyone could ever hope for – they really believed in me.”
Boyer thought that after college she would obtain a job in industry, biotech, or a hospital. She didn’t have any formal mentors to introduce her to the possibility of graduate school, so Laurie worked as a research technician at Boston University School of Medicine in the Center for Human Genetics. Her work there focused on prenatal diagnostics, and she started to explore topics in disease mutations and inheritance. But it wasn’t until she joined Genzyme that her true potential was appreciated. Boyer’s natural curiosity and work ethic impressed her supervisor Barbara Handelin and the topic of graduate school was discussed. “She was the first person who opened my eyes and made me feel like I had a gift for science.” Dr. Handelin had trained with MIT Biology Professor David Housman, and suggested that Boyer take his course on “Molecular Basis of Genetic Disease” at Harvard Medical School. The course was twice a week and Boyer was expected to fully participate alongside Harvard Medical students. While attending the class she commuted into Cambridge, worked full time, and held a waitressing job. Though challenging, the class opened up so many possibilities for her and gave her the confidence to consider graduate school.
Having never done basic research in an academic lab, she sought advice from Dr. Housman. Without hesitation, he connected Laurie with Jane Fountain, a postdoc in his lab studying the genetics of melanoma. “From the first moment I stepped into the lab, that feeling of excitement that I had been searching for was there. The lab was buzzing with people running around doing experiments, discussing studies and their results – I was hooked.” The Housman lab was very supportive, and Boyer credits them with giving her the confidence to apply to graduate school.
Boyer worked for four years before applying to graduate school, and advises students not to worry if they haven’t jumped right from undergrad to graduate school. “I think you have to follow your own timeline in life. For me it was a matter of being in a position where I felt confident in myself.”
Once she found that confidence, there was no stopping her. Laurie applied and was accepted into the Biochemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Boyer entered graduate school with passion and a strong work ethic and was drawn to the lab of Craig Peterson for his clear enthusiasm and passion for his work. “I was really interested in gene regulation and how faulty genes can cause disease, and the Peterson lab was a new lab working on chromatin remodeling and gene regulation. So, I decided to join his lab and it was a really great experience. You couldn’t keep me out of the lab!” The Peterson lab was an intellectually stimulating environment and UMASS was full of opportunities to learn and grow as a scientist.
As she settled into her second year of graduate school, she began to feel unwell. Laurie consulted with her doctor and he ordered a series of tests that ultimately revealed a cancer diagnosis. Boyer began treatment but continued her studies and went to lab. She was determined to not let this diagnosis get in the way of pursuing her dream. “I just tried the best I could to go through treatment and continue my work. Looking back, I definitely feel like I put a lot on myself, but it was an opportunity that I did not want to lose and I loved the work.”
The Peterson lab was supportive through her treatment as she endured multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. “I just did as much as I could and I was in lab most of the time. I was incredibly focused on my project.” After three years of treatment and a recurrence she finally received the good news that her cancer had gone into remission and she resumed her graduate research full time with the Peterson lab.
Boyer met and married her husband before graduate school and now that she was healthy they decided to start a family. She had her firstson Luke in 1998 and worked very hard to give her all to both her family and work. During her last year of graduate school, Boyer began to contemplate her next move after graduation. “I really didn’t know what the future would hold, but I wanted to have all of my options on the table and I definitely dreamed of staying in academia. So, I decided to seek a postdoc position.”
After receiving her PhD, Boyer started a postdoc at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (which is affiliated with MIT) in 2002 in the lab of Rudolf Jaenisch, where they were working on stems cells and epigenetics. Jaenish was very well known for working on DNA methylation and how it affects many different processes including gene expression, development, and cancer. The Jaenisch Lab was also attractive to her because her graduate research focused mostly on protein biochemistry, and the Jaenisch Lab worked in mammalian systems and studied implications for disease. “After being at the Whitehead/MIT for a short time, I soon realized that there was no limit to what I could do. It was such a wonderfully collaborative environment. I became aware of the technology that was being developed in Rick Young’s Lab also at the Whitehead Institute and how we could leverage it to ask some really important questions to understand stem cells.”
Working between the two labs, she was able to develop the technology to map where critical transcription factors bind through the genome of an embryonic stem cell. “We didn’t know very much about how these transcription factors controlled the gene regulatory networks in stem cells so our work was the first to open up the field of stem cell genomics.“ Their work located how three transcription factors determine a stem cell’s progression into a mature cell and opened the door to the possibility of reprograming adult cells. This achievement landed both Boyer and Rick Young on the 2006 Scientific American 50, a list to honor 50 individuals, teams, companies, and organizations for their contributions to a brighter technological future that also included Vice President Al Gore and MIT Biology Professor Susan Lindquist.
Somehow while all this excitement was happening, Boyer had her second son Jared and continued her long commute into lab every day. The recognition she received proved to be a major turning point in her career, and she found herself heavily recruited for faculty positions by universities across the country, including MIT.
The decision to come to MIT was not an easy one and she questioned whether she should stay, in part because of the added challenge of distinguishing her new lab’s research from that of her postdoc advisors. Luckily, MIT Biology Professor Susan Lindquist offered her mentorship. “Susan Lindquist played a big role in my decision. She was a huge support and encouraged and inspired me to pursue this opportunity.” Prof. Lindquist also proved that if Boyer wanted to she could raise her two children and have a successful career. “That was really important to me. I’m always a mom first.”
Sadly, in 2016 Prof. Lindquist succumbed to cancer and the MIT and scientific community lost a widely respected researcher, leader, mentor, and friend. “She was an incredible mentor and I miss her,” reflects Boyer.
Laurie joined the MIT Biology faculty in 2007. In addition to maintaining a broad interest in chromatin biology and stem cells, the Boyer lab also set out to understand the gene regulatory networks of heart development and disease using new tools that they felt could be brought to bear on this field. “It is a fascinating process and, in a sense, the most difficult. The heart is the first organ to develop and it requires the precise regulation of thousands of genes at the right times and places. Even subtle perturbations in gene expression can lead to congenital heart defects which is the leading cause of infant morbidity and mortality, “explains Boyer.
An early project focused on the role of the histone variant H2A.Z, an alternative histone that can be incorporated in to the genome outside of DNA replication. The Boyer lab showed that in embryonic stem cells, H2A.Z was specifically enriched at the start signals of genes required for development. They proposed that H2A.Z is required for stem cells to turn into specialized cells and the way that it does this is by acting like a gatekeeper at developmental genes. Without H2A.Z, developmental genes are not properly activated.
The Boyer lab then took their research into more unknown territory to investigate other mechanisms that drive cell fate decision and this led them to long non-coding RNA (lncRNA).“There are thousands of transcripts throughout the genome that do not code for proteins and emerging data suggested that they might have roles in gene regulation. By combining bioinformatic and experimental approaches, we discovered Braveheart (Bvht)”, one of the first long non-coding RNAs that showed a developmental function. With the discovery of Bvht, the lab also discovered a conserved protein that interacts with a novel structural motif in Bvht. They are now investigating how this protein-RNA interface functions to regulate specific genes and whether this type of interaction can be extrapolated to other lncRNAs. Through this work they became interested in how cells fully specialize.
With lessons learned from their early developmental studies the Boyer lab is now studying how metabolic signals impact specialization of cardiac muscle cells including sarcomere structure, hoping that this work could ultimately facilitate a better understanding of disease and methods for cardiac regeneration in patients. They are also leveraging this information to engineer physiologically relevant cardiac tissue. Not only would this provide a better system to study human cardiac development but they could revolutionize how diseases are modeled and graft tissue onto a heart.
Boyer enjoys mentoring undergraduates. She finds it rewarding to see these talented students making discoveries of their own and building the tools to succeed in graduate school, medical school, or a career of their choice. “I learn so much from my undergraduates, probably more so than they learn from me. Their energy and intelligence makes it such a pleasant and joyful experience to work with undergraduates at MIT.”
Over the years, she has also had the pleasure to serve as a faculty mentor for DynaMIT, a summer STEM outreach program for Boston area middle school students.
And just recently Boyer became involved with a new MIT Initiative geared toward postdoc mentoring. She mentors a small group of postdocs from multiple departments across campus and helps them address issues they face and prepare for next steps.
With years of mentorship under her belt, she offers advice to students considering graduate school. She encourages prospective graduate students to immerse themselves in research to get a sense of whether this is the path right for them. “Graduate school is an amazing opportunity to interact with a diverse group of people. It’s a unique opportunity to learn about yourself and fundamentally challenge who you want to be as a person. My advice is to always pick yourself up when faced with challenges or when things aren’t going well and keep moving forward because it’s about the journey. There is no such thing as failure – I like to think it provides an opportunity to reevaluate your path. Perseverance is a major part of success in science. Finding a supportive community that welcomes you and where you feel you can be your best is also very important,” explains Boyer. “I absolutely love chasing a question and the intellectual challenge of science. I can’t imagine a better career.”
In addition to pioneering new ways to fix a broken heart, Laurie enjoys spending time with her children and their Soft-coated Wheaton Terrier Payton. Luke is now 21 and is a computer science and mathematics double major at Northeastern University and Jared will join MIT as a Freshman this Fall. “I consider raising my two sons my biggest success and greatest achievement! We love to spend time outdoors no matter the season and we work hard to support each other in all we do.”