Metabolism, Dr. Heather Christofk says, plays a role in everything, from the normal development of cells to diseases like cancer and infection. Thus, understanding how metabolism is regulated can influence our understanding of normal health and disease. In the case of tumors, understanding how tumor metabolism contributes to cancer growth and spread in patients can lead the way to new therapies.
Dr. Christofk steps into the U Magazine spotlight
I’ve always been interested in nature. As a kid, we had horses and goats and chickens and ducks, along with cats and dogs. And each spring, we had ducklings and baby chicks and kittens, and I remember being very interested and always involved in the process. I entered college undeclared, but in my first year, I gravitated toward the sciences when I realized that in math and science, unlike in the social sciences, there are clear and true answers. That appealed to me. I like seeking truth.
When I am surrounded by nature. I love going on hikes with my dog and with my family and friends. And I love being in the snow.
Building my lab. I am very proud of the culture of the lab. Our lab is very inclusive and open-minded and creative. I am proud of the scientific discoveries we’ve made and are working on right now, and I’m hopeful that our best scientific discoveries are still ahead of us.
Open-mindedness. I always strive to listen to everybody and to be open to unexpected results and to pursue new directions if that’s where our results take us. I think that my open-mindedness has actually shaped my lab; we wound up studying metabolism in many different contexts, in cancer and in stem cells and in virus infection, largely because of our open-mindedness to how metabolism might be regulated differently and contribute in different ways in different systems.
I have so many, but one of my science heroes is my PhD mentor, Lew Cantley. He has an unending and contagious love of science and scientific discovery — a real joy for science and discovery.
If I had a motto, it would be, I have the choice to be where I’m at.
A great scientist is creative and objective and has perseverance, excellent communication skills and unending curiosity.
The sense of community. I have become friends with many of my colleagues through open sharing of ideas and willingness to collaborate on new ideas.
Perhaps my optimism. I am always an optimistic person. I choose to see the best in people and hope for the best in the future.
My terrible memory, unfortunately.
All of the women scientists who came before me. They often worked as scientists in a much more challenging environment than I have, and they did it because they loved science and loved scientific discovery and really paved the way for a better situation for female scientists today. I am very grateful to them.
In the mornings, I’m thinking about my children and getting them out the door for school, and in the evenings, when I’m with them again, I’m asking them about their day at school and what’s coming up. I don’t think about science at all in those moments. I also love reading about all sorts of things unrelated to science. I think taking a break from science enables me to bring my thoughts back to science with fresh eyes.
A venture capitalist, because I could still have a role in guiding the development of new medicines and new technologies to help people.
Time. I have limited time, being a working mom and having big aspirations for my research.
My biggest aha! moment came while sitting in terrible traffic on the 405, and I realized that our work on how viruses change metabolism can actually be really informative for our cancer research. Some of our knowledge of oncogenes and tumor-suppressor genes, the genes that, when mutated, cause cancer, came from early studies on viruses and how they coopt genes in cells to propagate themselves. And so I had this aha! moment on the 405 realizing that how viruses change metabolism is going to be very similar to how cancer cells change metabolism. It has turned out to be a very powerful approach for my lab.
Much of it comes from my curiosity about how things work and from my joy of scientific discovery and figuring things out. But another part of my inspiration comes from being exposed to tragedy through illness. When I was a kid, a friend of mine died of brain cancer when we were only 8 years old. It is meaningful for me to do cancer research in my lab now because of that experience.
Hugging my kids every morning is definitely the best moment of the day. Nothing feels better than hugging your kids.
Being with family and friends surrounded by nature.
Having a debilitating illness with no cure. My dad has ALS, and I’ve watched him struggle with it. While this has been difficult, it also has been a source of motivation for me, a reminder of how important our research is, along with the research of others.
I don’t listen to music while I work because I love music too much, and it’s distracting to me.