May 24, 2019
Embracing the unknown
Assistant Professor Becky Lamason's relentless determination led her from odd jobs to professorship
J. Carota | CSB Gradaute Office
Becky Lamason is fearless.
Growing up in a military family, Lamason lived all over the United States, changing schools several times before the family settled in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. After her parents divorce when she was just eight, Lamason and her younger siblings were raised solely by her mother. The family’s finances were fixed, and Lamason as a teen quickly took advantage of the opportunity to work part time, first picking berries and then working at a fast-food chain. Through pure determination, Lamason was able to balance work, family obligations, homework, and extra-curricular activities.
In high school, Lamason was fascinated by cell biology and anatomy and physiology, but as editor-in-chief of the school paper, she considered pursuing journalism after high school. It wasn’t until a school trip to Millersville University to tour the science program that her direction clarified. After that trip, when she envisioned her future and career, she knew she wanted to be a scientist.
“I just always knew I liked science I wanted to do science and I kind of very naively was aware of what a PhD could be. But it wasn’t something in my family, nor did I know anybody that had done it. So, I dove right into this idea that I wanted to be a scientist and run a lab and do all the things you could do with a PhD without having any idea about what I was getting myself into.”
As a young adult, Lamason worked two jobs and babysat in order to pay for classes at her local community college. This experience really sharpened her time management skills--skills she would need later in her career. After finishing her first two years at community college, she transferred to Millersville University, and it was there that she developed a clearer view of what doing academic research was like.
At Millersville, she worked in the lab of James Mone´ studying the Chlorellavirus. A virus that was easily collected from a pond outside their lab building, Lamason credits Mone with teaching her how to really think about science. “Many of the things I learned as an undergraduate are still things that I use now and teach to other people,” explains Lamason.
The work in the Mone´ lab was a good foray into the molecular biology of viruses. It piqued Lamason’s interest in microbes as well as in the immune system.
Lamason then worked for two years as a technician in the lab of Keith Cheng at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine. The Cheng lab uses zebrafish as their model to study cancer genetics. Lamason really appreciates her experience there: “I got in there and he let me do risky side projects. I got to practice and hone my skills at reading the literature and designing experiments,” she says. “The biggest lesson I learned was from my PI. I remember Keith would always say, ‘What is the question you are trying to answer?’’ Lamason still drills that question into her students today. Beyond just Dr.Cheng, Lamason also acknowledges the postdocs in the lab who mentored her and taught her how to actually do the experiments.
Despite having never taken an immunology class, Lamason felt compelled by the subject and applied to and was offered a place in the Johns Hopkins Immunology graduate training program. Lamason’s fascination with the immune system grew from her undergraduate work in molecular biology; the intricacy of all the moving parts in the immune system really interested her. Also compelling to her was the fact that it was unfamiliar. She explains, “In my career trajectory, I tend to gravitate towards fields I have yet to research. I thought that studying immunology would really push the boundaries of my knowledge.”
The transition from technician to graduate student was a smooth one for Lamason. She needed to get back into the routine of taking classes, but her prior lab experience helped her not only navigate a new lab, but prepared her to work hard and to expect some failures along the way.
At Johns Hopkins, Lamason joined the lab of Joel Pomerantz as his second graduate student. The Pomerantz lab studies the fundamental understanding of how the immune system works and generally how cells function; this focus appealed to Lamason. She studied how signaling proteins in T-cells help tune the cell’s response to antigens to mount an appropriate immune response. Lamason studied a specific protein, CARD11, and how a motor protein regulated its interactions with other proteins. She also investigated how hyperactive mutants of CARD11 could lead to devastating diseases like Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma.
But once she started to think about pathogens and how they manipulate their hosts so that they can survive, her research interests shifted. This interest led her to the lab of Matthew Welch at UC Berkeley for her postdoc. The Welch lab studies the actin cytoskeleton in two ways: They first focus on locating factors in the host that regulate the actin cytoskeleton. Second, they investigate how pathogens (like bacteria and viruses) hijack the actin cytoskeleton to promote motility.
Once again, Lamason dove headfirst into an understudied topic. Lamason was very curious about how bacterial pathogens move through our tissues. One of the ways this is done is through a process called cell-to-cell spread, where some bacteria basically ram themselves into cell-cell junctions and then are engulfed by the neighboring cell.
They have to manipulate the cell-cell junction in order for this to happen. Lamason thought there might be more to this process than the standard theory. She was right – comparing two pathogens proved that they perform this task in completely different ways.
Now an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at MIT, Lamason is studying the human pathogens Rickettsia parkeri and Listeria monocytogenes. Stemming from her postdoc work, she seeks to understand how these two different pathogens move through tissues, what the bacterial and host factors are that regulate this activity, and how bacteria accomplish cell-to-cell spread without destroying cell integrity. It turns out every pathogen solves this problem differently—this is something that her lab is trying to understand.
Lamason’s ultimate goal is to learn all the ways pathogens interact with the host in hopes that we might understand all the different ways cells perform regulation. “Pathogens are the best cell biologists because they have been evolving next to cells this whole time—we are just along for the ride to figure out what they already know.”
In her role as Assistant Professor, Lamason also spends time mentoring undergraduate students and graduate trainees. She participates in the MIT Quantitative Methods Workshop and talks to the invited students about her career path. She offers guidance about applying to graduate school, and encourages students concerned about the amount of research in their background to consider a technician position or any kind of applicable research. Not only will it strengthen your candidacy for graduate school, she says, but it will help you figure out how serious you are about research. “It will help you refine what you are interested in and shows you what a career in research can really look like before you dive right into grad school, which can be hard and mentally taxing.”
Lamason also encourages students to be flexible and willing to learn how different people do science. “I have always found value in whatever I have done and I think as long as you think that way, you will be fine in whatever you do.”
Photo Credits: B. Lamason