Working to Understand Nature's Patterns Gone Awry
Dr. Kenro Kusumi
June 2001 - As a child Kenro Kusumi, Ph.D., one of Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Hitchings-Elion fellows, had a small telescope and a microscope. The telescope, in particular, fascinated him as he searched the night sky for stars, galaxies, and planets. Today the microscope, which was neglected for so many years, has become Dr. Kusumi’s tool of choice as he studies the intricate details of developing organisms.
In junior high school, science attracted Dr. Kusumi’s attention, which he attributes to his seventh grade biology teacher, Pat Ashton, at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina. With the help of Ashton and her husband, who was a curator at the N.C. Natural History Museum, he joined the junior curator program.
Through this program, Dr. Kusumi was able to embark on adventures into the world of biology. He hunted around eastern North Carolina for whale and shark fossils and looked at carnivorous plants in the pine barrens. He traveled to Andros Island, the Bahamas, and to the Great Smoky Mountains for field research.
“I think it was during these years of doing field work that I came to appreciate the diversity and beauty of patterns and form in nature, which remains my current interest,” he explains.
Dr. Kusumi’s fascination with patterns in biology began to form his career choice during his first year in college at Harvard. After taking an embryology class, he became interested in body patterns and shape, and how they evolved.
In graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he worked in the lab of Dr. Eric Lander, exploring his interests in genetics and development.
“In Eric’s lab, I was able to combine training in genetics and genomics, to be applied to questions of development,” he says. “At that time, I chose several mouse mutants to study and clone the genes for.”
Dr. Kusumi began his current track of research by seeking out the best laboratory to understand the brain. “I used my Hitchings-Elion fellowship to travel to England and work with Robb Krumlauf, an expert on brain development. I wanted to work in what is known as one the world’s centers for developmental biology. It’s a unique experience to have independent funding.”
“As I worked in England, it became clear that I could identify a gene involved in the human disease, spondylocostal dystosis, also known as Jarcho-Levin syndrome,” he says. “Sometimes thesethings just fall into your lap. This is the creativity that the Hitchings-Elion fellowship fosters because it allows you to choose how you explore your findings.”
Like many Hitchings-Elion fellows, Dr. Kusumi places a high value on the international contacts he was able to make through his time as a fellow.
Perhaps the greatest benefit that Dr. Kusumi derived from the BWF funding was the opportunity it presented when he was ready to obtain a faculty position.
“The funding offered by BWF is helpful in finding a job, in that you already have the vote of confidence of an institution that schools respect. Schools realize that working on topics of interest to funding agencies is a big deal,” he says.
Today as assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dr. Kusumi works to uncover the origin of birth defects at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researching mainly defects of the brain and spine.
“I am looking at things that are medically oriented with a basic science approach, and I am also curious what happens during development,” he says. “What has to take place for successful development? There are common genes involved in the patterning of the brain and the backbone, and they both get laid down early in development.”
The backbone is made from repeated embryonic parts called somites, in which there are subtle differences. The same is true of the brain; the hindbrain is organized of repeating units, although made in a different way, he explains.
Dr. Kusumi looks specifically at the NOTCH pathway, which is named for a mutant in the fruit fly Drosophila. When this mutation occurs in fruit flies, the flies develop a notch in their wings, which is considered a difference from normal body patterning, but there are also things wrong with the flies’ brains.
Currently Dr. Kusumi is working to set up a congenital vertebral malformation group at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to identify the genes involved in a number of spinal disorders.
Looking toward the future, Dr. Kusumi predicts that “within five years, we expect to have identified a number of other genes involved in vertebral malformation syndromes.
Questions for Dr. Kenro Kusumi:
Name: Kenro Kusumi, Ph.D.
Title: Assistant Professor
Recipient: Hitchings-Elion Fellowship
Affiliation: University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
What is the best thing about your job?
Although I have only been at my job since February, the best thing about my job is the “startup” aspect of it. In other words, it is exciting to be able to take your own ideas and set up new collaborations and research consortia in an academic environment that wants to see you succeed. This type of academic opportunity has been greatly enhanced by the prestige and support of an award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
What is your philosophy with respect to your research?
Given the complexity of modern biology and the near impossibility of having all skills, I think that this is the era of collaboration. If someone is smart enough to be your competitor, they could probably be an even better collaborator. The philosophy that I live by is to collaborate whenever possible. However, it is a tricky balance to collaborate and do completely independent work, since the academic promotion system still favors the latter more than the former.
What kind of advice would you give a scientist just entering academic research?
I would suggest that the person really think about what they want to do, learn how they should go about doing it, and be absolutely sure that they enjoy doing it. There definitely seem to be too many people in academic science without a good plan of action, and who are not enjoying their efforts.
What area of science is in most need of new researchers?
Although I am biased, I think that developmental and functional genetics are in need of new researchers. While the human and others genomes have been sequenced, we are still struggling to figure out what the genes do.
If you had unlimited resources, what one big scientific question would you pursue?
With unlimited resources, I would develop genetic model systems amongst every major important phylogenetic branch of a key feature, and work to sequence their genomes to give researchers the tools to study these questions. This could help us to answer how we and other organisms evolved the structures and functions that we have, and which genes were conserved or not conserved for these processes.
What do you feel is your greatest failure? Why?
It is a shame that things didn’t work out for me to finish M.D.-Ph.D. training at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and MIT, but I don’t regret it. Given the lengthening time of training for both M.D. and Ph.D. training, and the severe time pressures on M.D.s nowadays, you end up having overwhelmed 40-year-olds just hitting the job market as M.D.-Ph.D.s.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment? Why?
I hope that my greatest accomplishments are still ahead. Please ask me this question in the year 2031.
Who do you admire? Why?
I admire people who enjoy what they do, and are able to lucidly articulate their ideas to a number of audiences. I think Eric Lander is brilliant at doing this and making genetics understandable and exciting to everyone. Shirley Tilghman has been thoughtful and outspoken on issues important to scientists. This list could go on and should definitely include teachers like Pat Ashton in my youth whose audience was 7th grade, to communicators like Carl Sagan, whose audience was a nation of television viewers.
What do you do for fun?
I love hiking, birdwatching, and being in natural places, traveling to different places around the world, going to music concerts and opera, eating good food, and reading good books. My sister is an opera singer, so I have been trying to learn more about opera and music.
What do you plan to do when you retire?
Actually, I hope that I don’t retire. It would be fun to be puttering about at an old age (around the year 2030 and beyond).
What is your favorite book?
I’m not sure if I have a favorite book, since my pick would change month to month. Books that I have enjoyed recently include “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” by Amy Tan, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris, and “Changing Places” by David Lodge.
-- This story was written by Susanna Smith, Communications Intern