Past the Bench: A dialog with Holly Stessman | Spectrum
Assistant Professor, Creighton University
When Holly Stessman, 35, comes home from a long day of PhD students, she has to look after a second herd: a pair of chickens of the classic British breed ‘Buff Orpington’. She got them as a day-old chick just before the pandemic started, an ecological tactic to rid her garden of the Japanese bugs they were consuming. They also provide them with organic free range eggs.
Stessman, a geneticist, is an assistant professor of pharmacology and neuroscience at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, studying how genetic variation leads to traits of autism. She’s always looking for ways to be friendly with both her lab members and the planet, whether by asking her students to name their chickens or renovating her basement to grow produce outside in the cold.
Spectrum spoke to Stessman about how cancer research led her to autism, hydroponic gardening, and childbirth as a “Trekkie”.
spectrum: What big question drives your research?
Holly Stessmann: I’m interested in molecular genetics related to autism, understanding how genetic variation is related to autism phenotypes, and what that variation actually does in terms of the whole person. We use animal models and cell lines to understand these relationships.
With a background in cancer biology, I’m also interested in subtypes of autism that may be at higher risk for cancer later in life. I got really interested in autism after reading the paper on the tumor suppressor PTEN. Seeing that PTEN mutations can also lead to atypical brain growth early in development got me into the autism field.
S: Do you have a mentor?
HS: One of the people who inspired me in the field of autism is Huda Zoghbi. She is a strong scientist who has achieved so much at a time when strong mentors were hard to find. I also very much respect her speaking and interacting with the trainees during the meetings.
Two geneticists I worked with as postdocs, Frank Kooy and Jozef Gecz, have won the respect and trust of patients and families and are excellent researchers and geneticists. Like her, I want to use my research to help people.
I have followed Thomas Südhof’s work since my doctorate. He jumped from working on a cholesterol receptor to neuroscience. It was inspiring for me to see someone completely change fields to follow their passion – don’t worry.
Südhof also uses new techniques and technologies, for example new cell culture systems such as organoids. I feel like there wasn’t a new technique that I wanted to use in my own work that Südhof hasn’t already used and published. I am really inspired by his creativity.
S: What is your typical day like?
HS: My morning routine usually involves waking my pets – I have two dogs and a cat – when they’re ready to get up and eat. I leave them outside while I have a coffee.
I usually get to work around 7:30 a.m. As soon as I get to my office, I check my email. I make it a point to wait until I get to work so that I have some separation between work and home. Then I usually contact the base with my lab. When I have experiments going on, which I do a lot, I do them in the morning and then I spend most of the afternoon reading, writing scholarships or papers, and attending various sessions.
I usually go home around 5:30 or 6:00 am. My husband and I tune out who’s making dinner.
In the evening, when it gets cooler, I garden. I am an avid gardener. I’ve converted almost all of my back yard into an edible plant and flower garden. I also have backyard chickens. My husband and I are very interested in permaculture and sustainable living in our home. We raise chickens for eggs in our back yard and let them roam our yard.
S: Can you tell me more about how you practice sustainable living?
HS: We are fortunate to be able to harvest from our garden with our climate and to be largely self-sufficient in the warmer months. Then we strive for a net-neutral CO2 footprint for food, at least when it comes to production. I’m also very interested in hydroponic gardening so I can garden even in winter. When we moved into our house, we had hookups for our washer and dryer upstairs so I could turn my entire basement space into a hydroponic garden and a sowing room.
I grow vegetables, peas, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables in winter. I start about 200 plants in this room annually to plant outdoors in our garden. My goal this year is to become a better seed saver and learn more about creating new varieties of plants through cross-pollination. We very much hope to be able to set up a greenhouse next year.
S: Do you hear anything while working?
HS: When I write, I listen to a lot of classical music and I love film music. I hear a lot from Hans Zimmer and things like that. If I’m doing data analysis, if I can hear words, then I’m a podcast person. I love Armchair Expert. I also listened to Some Place Under Neith, which is about missing and vulnerable women and children, mostly from indigenous peoples.
S: Do you have a favorite story from a research conference?
HS: My favorite conference is the American Society of Human Genetics annual meeting. Genetics is my passion, and at this meeting I meet many of my colleagues from the University of Washington, where I was a postdoc. In 2015 we were in Baltimore and someone in another lab found this hole in the wall where fresh crabs were being served. They did the big boil and dumped all the crabs on paper-covered tables. It was really fun to be in this relaxed atmosphere. We talked about science, ate crabs, and drank beer for a few hours.
S: What are you reading right now outside of work?
HS: I now get a lot of my inspirations for books from Armchair Expert. I heard George Saunders speak there. He is an American writer who lives in Chicago. I am currently reading his book “Pastoralia”.
I’m also very much into Steinbeck and American short story writers. I guess I belong to the minority of people who don’t like “Game of Thrones”. I don’t like really long tomes with lots of characters. I like something succinct and entertaining. So short stories are my jam.
S: On Twitter you have Describe yourself as a movie fan. What kind of movies do you like?
HS: I didn’t have cable TV growing up, so my dad and I would go to the movie store and buy movies all the time. I was a Star Trek fan. My maiden name – Feser – is actually pronounced “Phaser” so I always joke that I was born a Trekkie.
I love pretty much every type of movie except horror. If it’s zombies and vampires I’m fine, but I can’t do lifelike chainsaw massacre stuff anymore. I love dystopian films very much. One series I saw recently is “Utopia”. It’s about a rampant infection by a virus, so a really interesting parallel to our current situation.
S: Do you have a lab mascot?
HS: I try to have a really positive laboratory culture. I only bring people into the lab who I think will interact positively with this culture. My lab’s unofficial mascots are my chickens. In February 2020 when I had four chickens I did a survey in the lab to ask for names, so I had Amelia Egghart, Fat Amy Winehouse, and Eggatha. I named the fourth chicken after a relative – Maureen. Amy and Amelia turned out to be “mean girls” and were re-housed, so now it’s just Eggatha and Maureen.
Quote this article: https://doi.org/10.53053/NGNS3729