Lab Spotlight: Elf Lab

 


Each month, Simply Blood spotlights a lab contributing to the fields of hematology, immunology, stem cell research, cell and gene therapies, and more. Get to know groups doing cutting edge research from around the world! This month, we are featuring the Elf Lab which is based out of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah (https://www.elflab.org/).


What does your lab study?
The primary focus of my lab is to understand the molecular mechanisms that govern myeloid blood cancers, with particular emphasis on MPNs. The long-term vision of my research program is to elucidate molecular dependencies specific to MPN stem cells (MPN-SCs) that can be targeted for therapeutic intervention with the ultimate goal of eradicating MPN-SCs, sparing normal HSCs, and curing the disease. When I first started my lab, we were particularly interested in how CALR mutations hijack ER stress response pathways to promote survival. Through these studies, we found that though type 1 and type 2 CALR mutations share the gain-of-function ability to bind to and activate the thrombopoietin receptor, they also display distinct losses-of-function that have a number of differential disease-driving effects. One of these differential effects is metabolic reprogramming, so we began to study the mechanisms that underlie this observation. We also found that type 1 and type 2 CALR cells differentially affect immune surveillance, so despite my protestations, we’ve now begun studying immunology in the lab. We’ve also expanded our studies beyond just CALR mutations, with the goal of understanding not just how the three MPN driver mutations differ in their oncogenic mechanisms, but also how secondary acquired mutations like ASXL1 contribute to these phenotypes. 

What do you think is important for someone to know when they start their own lab?
That it’s really hard! And really lonely in the beginning. And you’re going to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing every single day for while. But that all of that is ok and it will be ok! We are not provided PI training as postdocs, so it’s completely normal to feel out of your depth in the beginning – you are literally learning as you go. It is SO important to start your lab in a supportive environment, where junior faculty are given grace, mentorship, and attention, where people are collegial and collaborative, and where you have at least one go-to senior person who you know will be there to help and guide you. It’s really hard for all of us, but I was sure it was just me in the beginning because I was in such an isolated environment and didn’t know that what I was feeling was normal.

When did you move to the University of Utah/Huntsman Cancer Institute?
I moved to Utah on November 14, 2023 and started at HCI on November 16, 2023!

What has been the hardest part about moving a lab across the country?
For me, the HCI side of things was super smooth and easy. Everyone was really on top of what needed to be done and helped guide me. My former institution was not responsive or on top of what needed to be done, so just getting those details and getting people to communicate with me was very difficult. I think this is common for people who move labs – the institution they are moving from can choose not to be cooperative, and that makes the move very difficult. I also think there should be some sort of “Moving Your Lab for Dummies” guide online somewhere, because I had NO idea what was all involved or how to do anything (I didn’t know how to book movers for the move, how to transfer grants/data, etc).

What are the qualities you look for in your lab members?
The two most important qualities to me are honesty and communication. No matter what issues arise, honesty and communication make it possible to effectively problem solve. Beyond this, I also look for people who are positive, passionate, and dedicated. I’ve experienced firsthand how much one negative person can destroy an entire lab environment, so positivity is critical for me. I used to think hiring people who were experienced was key, but quickly learned that while I can train people to develop technical proficiency in everything we do in the lab, I can’t train people to bring a good attitude to the lab every day, care about the work they’re doing, or be passionate, curious and engaged. I think those are innate qualities that have to come naturally.

What is the best part of being a PI?
Mentoring. I love mentoring young scientists so much, and seeing them achieve goals they never thought possible when they first came to my lab. And don’t laugh at me, but I also really like writing grants. I really enjoy thinking about and writing about science and developing my ideas on paper. I’d love even more if all my grants got funded, but I do find the process of writing them really fun. I always end up so inspired and excited about the project when I finish a grant!

What is your favorite thing about Utah?
Ugh, everything. I love the people, I LOVE the mountains, I love that I can get in my car and drive to any number of national parks within a few hours and just have a weekend in nature, and I love that it is SO not what people think of when they think of Utah – in the best way possible!

What is one of your favorite science memories?
Probably getting the notification from Blood that my first first-author paper as a graduate student had been accepted. I was on my way to ASH for the first time, and I got that email on my way. I was so proud and felt so validated – I struggled with confidence a lot as a graduate student and having a paper accepted just felt like the hugest deal in the world. I will never forget that feeling! Also, just being in the dark room and getting a good western blot. 

What is something about yourself others would be surprised to know about you?
I am a classically trained singer and have been singing since high school!


Shannon Elf Ph.D.
Huntsman Cancer Institute/University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah USA


Twitter: @TheElfLab

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