Polly Fordyce, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, will be joining Stanford as assistant professor of genetics, bringing a background in physics, biology and biochemistry to her studies of how proteins interact with DNA and how diseases arise when those interactions go awry.
This discipline-bridging career is part of what makes Fordyce such a good fit at Stanford, says Chaitan Khosla, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering. Khosla is also director of Stanford ChEM-H, which brings together faculty from chemistry, engineering and medicine with the goal of improving human health.
“Polly is the quintessential physical scientist who has embraced life science with extraordinary depth and breadth. We are extremely fortunate to have recruited her,” said Khosla, who is also Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin professor in the school of engineering. “If a field is defined by its practitioners, then the future of ChEM-H is in excellent hands.”
Fordyce said Stanford’s porous disciplinary boundaries are what drew her back, along with the lure of working with ChEM-H faculty. “I think for me one of the things that is really unique at Stanford is that it has this amazing package of strong engineering as well as strong basic science in the biology side. At the same time it has a medical school physically located on campus,” she said. “It is an incredible opportunity to do truly interdisciplinary work and that was a huge pull for me.”
Michael Snyder, professor and chair of the genetics department, said Fordyce’ academically diverse background made her stand out. “Polly is a dynamic scientist working at the interface of biological chemistry and genetics and will forge ties between the School of Medicine and other schools in the university,” he said.
Fordyce originally came to Stanford for her PhD hoping to combine her undergraduate degrees in biology and physics. She joined the lab of Steven Block, professor of applied physics and biology, after hearing him give a talk. “He spoke about using lasers to manipulate individual molecular motors and learn how they turn chemical energy into motion,” she said. “The idea of applying tools from physics to solve fundamental mysteries in biology really appealed to me.”
For her postdoctoral work Fordyce was hoping to apply this same way of thinking towards understanding interactions at the genome-wide scale. She joined the lab of Joseph DeRisi, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco (DeRisi earned his PhD working with Patrick O. Brown, professor of biochemistry at Stanford). “He’s a master of creating cutting edge technology that allows you to ask biological questions that nobody else could ask,” Fordyce said.
Fordyce is specifically interested in the vast uncharted territory of our DNA that sits between the genes. For many years after the human genome project, these seemingly unused swaths of our chromosomes were known as “junk DNA”. The genes themselves hold the code that tells our cells how to make proteins like hair, cellular structures or enzymes. As for the rest, who knew?
“Over time people began to realize the picture was much more complex,” Fordyce said. Those empty expanses appeared to contain information that told cells when, where and how to use the protein coding regions. “We know now that those regions are regulatory and we know that mutations in those regions can cause disease,” she said. “But we don’t know how.”
It’s the how that Fordyce wants to examine in more detail. At UCSF she has been trying to understand how proteins interact with the DNA in those regulatory regions to better understand how they turn genes on and off, and how mutations in those regions lead to disease. She’s been working in yeast, which is a commonly studied in labs as a way of understanding the inner workings of cells.
“Being part of ChEM-H will help me push my work toward a focus on disease,” she said. “I like the idea of trying to bring people from chemistry, engineering and medicine together with the broad goal of improving human health. Everyone talks about blurring departmental boundaries but an institute like this really allows it to happen.”