AIBN graduate reaches for the sky at Harvard


The University of Queensland Honours graduate James Briggs will soon be walking the halls of one of the world’s most famous universities, having been accepted as a PhD student at Harvard Medical School.

Mr Briggs completed his Honours degree under the supervision of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) Group Leader Associate Professor Ernst Wolvetang, and Professor John Mattick and Dr Guy Barry of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB).

Having started at the AIBN as a summer research intern in 2009, the 22-year-old from Brisbane has now earned a prestigious Herchel Smith Fellowship grant with full tuition fees and a generous living stipend after his work in Associate Professor Wolvetang’s lab.

After spending much of the last four years researching Down Syndrome induced pluripotent stem cells, he will turn his sights towards RNA genes and their roles in shaping the epigenome – which comprises chemical modifications that affect the functional properties of DNA.

“I will explore how this controls higher-order chromatin structure and nuclear architecture to regulate gene expression,” Mr Briggs said.

“It is my hope that this work will provide transformative insights into genome biology that overcome some of the serious limitations embedded in contemporary linear abstractions used to understand genetic information,” he said.

“Such understanding will be essential to dissecting genetic disease, and engineering effective genetic modifications.”

Mr Briggs will rotate through several labs within Harvard Medical School, but will likely end up in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Among the calibre of researchers he will join is Assistant Professor John Rinn, who was one of the first biologists to discover functional RNA genes transcribed from ‘junk DNA’ – genetic sequences originally thought to have no cellular function.

Mr Briggs liaised with Assistant Professor Rinn over the course of the last year and during his interview process.

“The standard of work expected is very high, but this is why you sign up for such a program,” he said.

“Possibly the biggest challenge will be moving away from all of my family and friends, who have provided essential support for all of my work to date.”

Harvard’s vast resources and reputation will enable Mr Briggs to explore some of the most fundamental and challenging problems in contemporary biology.

However, he already feels comfortable in a field where discovery beckons.

Since his time as a summer intern, he rapidly progressed towards work that assisted in the identification of hundreds of new genes involved in human brain function, one of which he showed is likely to be involved in Schizophrenia pathogenesis.

The AIBN enabled him to explore the frontiers of science from a young age, and provided him with a platform to grow.

“Without the early exposure to research, I certainly wouldn’t have developed the attributes of an independent scientific investigator necessary to gain admittance into a school such as Harvard University.

“For this opportunity I am indebted to the AIBN, and in particular to Ernst Wolvetang.”

Source: AIBN Quarterly

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