Stirling Churchman

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Faces of HMS

We regularly feature an HMS community member on the main landing page for @HMS.  Below are members of our HMS family who have been featured in the past.  Get to know them by reading their story or watching their video. 

The Physicist Who Researches Genetics

Image: Kevin Harlen

Sitting in her office on the third floor of the NRB, Stirling Churchman is setting up her lab as one of the newest members of the Department of Genetics. Below, Churchman talks about researching genetics with a PhD in physics, cooking and why the most valuable piece of advice sometimes is to not listen to advice.

@HMS: Tell us about your position.

SC: I’m an assistant professor. I participate in teaching a graduate level biochemistry course that is team-taught. I spend my time providing help to research projects that are going on in the lab, writing grants, presenting my research outside of HMS and also within the Boston area.

@HMS: What is your research interest?

SC: Overall, we study transcription regulation, which is the way that the information in your DNA is read out by the cell. Your heart cells and brain cells might have the same packet of DNA, the same packet of instructions, but they’re completely different cells. There’s different pieces of information being read out and that’s all regulated through transcription regulation. We’re interested really broadly in how transcription is regulated because of the clear importance of all areas of biology really. There’s a lot of disease relevance, too.

@HMS: Is there a particular research project you are working on?

SC: Part of my lab is dedicated to working on the mitochondrial genome [all of an organism’s genetic material] and how that genome is regulated. Every cell in our body has both the nuclear genome and mitochondrial genome. Mitochondrial genome is much smaller and it hasn’t been studied as much as the nuclear genome so there’s a lot we can learn there. So that’s something new for us and something we’re excited about.

@HMS: How much smaller is the mitochondrial genome than the nuclear genome?

SC: The human nuclear genome encodes 20,000 protein-coding genes and the mitochondrial genome encodes just 13 protein-coding genes. It’s very small, very compact. It seems feasible that one could potentially understand the entire mitochondrial genome and how it’s regulated. That’s attractive to me.

@HMS: How did you know you wanted to go into science?

SC: I didn’t have a chemistry set or a toy microscope growing up. I would say what really got me excited about science is when I took physics in high school. I just really enjoyed the simplicity of physics and how much it explained about the world around us. The elegant formulas that you see in physics were very exciting to me. That’s what really motivated me to go into science. That somehow led me to genetics.

@HMS: How did you transition from physics to genetics?

SC: I was a physics major in college and then a physics PhD student. I did physics for a very long time. I still like to think I do physics, but just with biological materials, complicated biological materials. [Laughs] I think sometime in college, I realized that biology was filled with really exciting, fascinating questions. It really captured my imagination and excitement. 

@HMS: Were you always in Boston?

SC: I grew up outside of Philadelphia and then I went to Cornell for college. Then I moved out to the Bay Area [in California] for 11 years for my Ph.D. and postdoc. I’ve been here for 2 years since that move.

@HMS: What do you enjoy about working here at HMS?

SC: I think HMS has a very vibrant scientific community. The diversity of science that is happening in this really concentrated area is exciting, motivating, stimulating. There’s just no lack of good ideas all around us.

@HMS: What is a typical workday for you?

SC: I definitely like to save my mornings for reading and thinking because that’s definitely when I do that best. I usually come in, have some coffee and try to protect that time for reading papers, thinking about projects or writing. Then I usually start meeting with people in my lab and checking in on things. I try to put meetings in the afternoon. I go to talks when there are seminars.

@HMS: What’s it like starting a new lab?

SC: Starting a lab basically means they give you keys to a completely empty lab. You have to get everything setup. What’s nice is that you get to design it exactly how you want. The first year is really just setting up the lab, buying everything, the equipment, making sure you have all the glassware and the different things you need to go through one experimental protocol. It’s a really different challenge than anything I’ve done before where I’m just focused on science and the research. It’s fun to start the lab and the challenge. Of course, you hire people and you want to make a good lab community. That’s a very different challenge and a fun challenge. Then you have to write a lot of grants.

@HMS: How is the grant writing process for you?

SC: Writing grants can be painful, especially because a good fraction of them won’t get funded, but that’s just the way it goes. I definitely learn a lot. It requires that maybe you read a lot more than you may have read before. When you have to write out your idea, you realize that maybe this doesn’t make sense. Then you read some more. It can be a really great learning experience.

@HMS: When you leave HMS and go back home, what do you do to transition out of work mode?

SC: If it’s a weekend, I might make a cocktail. And there’s nothing like watching a TV show that lets your mind turn off.  Often I’ll read “The New Yorker” if I want something that is a little more intellectually stimulating.

@HMS: What types of things do you like to do when you’re not at HMS?

SC: This one is always hard to answer because starting a lab is a lot of work - a lot of fun work - but you do spend a lot of time working. But otherwise I like to spend time with friends, obviously, have dinner with them, cook them dinner. One way I relax is trying a new recipe that appeals to me, that looks doable, nothing too hard. I like to travel, too. The good thing about my job is that it lets me travel and work. I usually spend an extra day wherever I get to go to see the city.

@HMS: What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve received?

SC: Well, you get a lot of advice. And it can be very conflicting advice. There’s some advice that panned out for me and some advice that didn’t. I think at some point, someone told me, “Don’t listen to advice.” I think that might be the most valuable piece of advice I’ve received. When people give advice, they’re usually thinking about the particular path that they took. There isn’t just one way to do things and become successful. I think you have to be careful about listening to a lot of advice. Make sure you use the pieces of advice that actually resonate with you and make sense for you.

@HMS

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