11/5/2013 11:38:01 AM
Bar Harbor, Maine -- Joel Graber, Ph.D., a physicist-turned-computational scientist at The Jackson Laboratory, has been promoted to associate professor.
Since arriving at The Jackson Laboratory in 2002, Dr. Graber's research has involved computational analysis of DNA and RNA, focusing specifically on how different versions, or isoforms, of a gene are selected. In collaboration with several other Laboratory researchers, Dr. Graber also helped establish the Center for Genome Dynamics, which seeks to better understand chromosome evolution, organization and function through a systems genetics approach.
"The focus of my research over the past 10 years has been computational approaches to understanding gene regulation and interaction," he says. "My lab's work enables investigation of the mechanisms and downstream consequences of changes in gene expression and processing."
According to Graber, the mammalian genome -- whether human or lab mouse -- comprises some tens of thousands of genes and an equal or greater number of regulatory elements that control when the genes are activated, where the gene products go, and how long they stay active. "As we improve our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of gene activation," he says, "we simultaneously improve our ability to understand how gene regulation can be disrupted, often resulting in either disease or developmental problems."
Recently Graber and other Jackson scientists, including cancer researcher Kevin Mills, Ph.D., discovered telltale variations in mRNA processing -- the cell's protein-building function -- that correspond to cancer. The team showed that they could distinguish among similar tumor subtypes with at least 74 percent accuracy; the current standard in molecular diagnostics is about 10 percent. The findings hold promise for significantly improving molecular cancer diagnostics in the clinic.
Away from the lab, the gregarious Graber enjoys spending time with his daughter Caroline, now a precocious age 9, and the small-town social life of Bar Harbor, which swells into a bustling resort in the summer. Many a winter Monday night finds him hunched in front of a hockey goal at an ice arena near Bangor, where he's a goaltender in a pickup league.
A native of Munising, Mich., Graber graduated from Munising High School in 1982, and earned dual bachelor's degrees in physics and computer science at Michigan Tech University and his doctorate in experimental accelerator physics from Cornell University in 1993. After postdoctoral training at Cornell and the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron in Hamburg, Germany, he went to Boston University's Center for Advanced Biotechnology.
It was at B.U. that his research interests shifted to computational biology. He worked under the tutorage of molecular geneticist Charles Cantor, a pioneer in genetic analysis who literally wrote the book on biophysical chemistry and authored the first textbook on genomics. He also worked collaboratively at B.U. with bioinformatics guru Temple Smith, one of the founders of that discipline.
"Temple is another 'refugee physicist', though he made the switch to biology immediately after he earned his doctorate," Graber says. "As a computational biology mentor, he was adamant that we were studying biology, and that computation just happened to be our tool of choice. He showed me that, to do computational biology well, you need to know both the computational techniques and the underlying biology. There are many interesting and powerful mathematical and computational techniques, but not all of them fit the biology of any specific problem equally well. The only way you can recognize that and get the right match is to know both very well."
Graber has served on grant review panels for National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and participated in several forms of educational outreach, invited lectures and presentations. He is a faculty affiliate at the University of Maine's Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology & Molecular Biology and an adjunct assistant professor in the bioinformatics program at B.U. Since joining The Jackson Laboratory, Graber has co-authored 19 papers in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature Methods and Cancer Research.
The Jackson Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution based in Bar Harbor, Maine, with a facility in Sacramento, Calif. Its mission is to discover the genetic basis for preventing, treating and curing human diseases, and to enable research and education for the global biomedical community.
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