Class of 2021: Interdisciplinary teamwork in the lab leads Ph.D. student to job with biotech giant

Alissa Guarnaccia, Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology, School of Medicine Basic Sciences (Vanderbilt University)

Alissa Guarnaccia is jumping into a highly sought-after research career to help find treatments for cancer at the cellular level. But lately she’s taking time to write lots of thank-you letters, even to some of her old high school teachers.

“Without the people who believed in me and without their encouragement, I would not be able to start this new research job in San Francisco in the middle of a pandemic,” Guarnaccia said. “There are teachers and mentors and family and friends who believed in me and helped me find my path to earning a Ph.D., and I want them to know that I’m excited to make a difference in the world.”

After graduating with a doctorate in cell and developmental biology from the Vanderbilt School of Medicine Basic Sciences, the New Jersey native will begin a rare postdoctoral research position with health care biotechnology giant Genentech.

Cancer research

The lab Guarnaccia will be working in studies cancer signaling and transcription, the process through which DNA gets made into RNA. She’ll also learn research techniques with a mass spectrometer, a device that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions to identify and quantify molecules.

“Gaining that mass spectrometry skill set will enable me to potentially contribute to advancing other areas of cancer and disease research,” she said.

An added bonus, Guarnaccia said, is that the lab is led by two female principal investigators.

“A mentorship with two female peers is really exciting and a unique and motivating environment to be in,” she said. “In this lab and throughout Genentech, the articulated goal is very much about bringing new therapies to market so that we can improve human health.”

At Vanderbilt, Guarnaccia was part of Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology Bill Tansey’s highly collaborative lab, which focuses on translational cancer research.

Alissa Guarnaccia (far left) and her lab partners with Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology Bill Tansey (center) during the 2017 solar eclipse. (Submitted photo)

“My research in the Tansey lab centered on WDR5, a protein that is frequently overexpressed in cancer and is particularly amenable for small molecule inhibition. I studied how inhibitors of WDR5 act at the molecular level, aiming to better understand the potential for WDR5 inhibitors as cancer therapy,” she explained.

Under Tansey’s mentorship, Guarnaccia said she learned to follow the data, “stripping away preconceived notions about a question to just follow the science.” Using cutting-edge techniques such as proteomics, CRISPR/Cas9 genome engineering, and RNA-sequence analysis, she made protein discoveries that could lead to a better understanding about how some cancers form and progress.

Guarnaccia received both a competitive predoctoral fellowship from the National Cancer Institute and the Vanderbilt Prize Student Scholar Award but is quick to point out that research isn’t about independent acclaim. It’s about teams of people around the world, she said, contributing “drops in a bucket” to finding life-changing solutions.

Interdisciplinary teamwork

“I’m just so proud of us as a class that we are now all over the world doing research in industry, in academia, in scientific communication and policy, and these are people I’ll be able to collaborate with my entire career.”

Teamwork is one of the aspects that first drew her to Vanderbilt’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences—a leading integrative biomedical graduate program in the basic sciences designed to foster diverse creative and analytical thinkers in the quickly evolving world of research and technology.

“I’m just so proud of us as a class that we are now all over the world doing research in industry, in academia, in scientific communication and policy, and these are people I’ll be able to collaborate with my entire career,” she said.

Guarnaccia is confident the lab is where she can make the biggest difference.

“I fell in love with being in the lab, distilling big questions down to very specific biochemical components that could be teased apart,” she said. “And ultimately, I am excited to be on a path where my skills can have the most impact on improving human health.”

Written by Aaron Conley and Amy Wolf 

This profile is part of a series of stories and videos highlighting undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2021.