Postdoc Profile: Risa Burr, PhD

Celebrating National Postdoc Appreciation Week

Risa Burr, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Haber/Maheswaran laboratory at the Mass General Cancer Center’s Center for Cancer Research. She is focused on cell-to-cell communication between normal cells and cancer cells to learn more about how cancer is able to spread.

Risa Burr, PhD

In a person with cancer, the cancer cells are like a troublesome gang and the normal healthy cells are like law-abiding citizens.

Usually, these non-malignant citizens, consisting of police as well as civilians, should be able to keep the gang from running rampant throughout the community.

But as cancer develops that doesn’t happen. The cancerous cells continue to multiply prolifically, without concern for how they impact their neighbors.

For some reason, cancer cells can convince the normal cells to look the other way and ignore (or even support) the growth of the cancer.

Burr’s research uses micro-scale co-culture to “listen in” on the microscopic communications between cancer cells and normal cells to figure out what is being communicated that turns the normal cells away from their usual vigilance.

“If we can pinpoint the messages that are crucial for cancer cell communication, we may be able to disrupt the process, or even send our own messages, to reinvigorate the normal cells and reign in the cancer growth, treating the cancer from within.”

Risa Burr, PhD

What is the first experiment you ever conducted in the lab? How did it turn out?

My first internship project was to study the effect of mucin concentration on infectious bacteria growth to learn more about lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients.

I learned the basics of research in that lab, so I’m sure my first experiment was something extremely simple like a bacterial growth curve and I’m sure it failed.

That early on in a scientific career, it doesn’t really matter so much whether the experiments work. It’s more important that the student is learning some of the techniques of science and how to plan experiments and interpret the results, even when they’re negative.

What is your favorite book about science?

My favorite book about science is the Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a history of cancer, which as a scientist I found fascinating. But I also gave it to my dad, who is not a biologist, and he really loved it. I appreciate books that can effectively communicate science to both scientists and the public.

What is one thing that you wish more people understood about science?

I wish more people understood that science is not so much a complex, technical process as it is a methodical way of approaching a question and gathering information.

If you misplaced your keys in your apartment, the scientific way of finding them would be to divide the floor space up into small sections and methodically look for the keys in each section.

You could also use a tool (like a metal detector) to help with the search or you could have previously prepared for this “experiment” by attaching a tracking device to the keys.

Regardless of the method, the point is that after the experiment you will be confident that either (a) you found the keys or (b) the keys are not in your apartment within the detection capabilities of your method.

Now, this could mean that you chose a bad method, e.g. the keys are not a type of metal that a metal detector can sense (hopefully a careful scientist wouldn’t make that mistake).

This is why it’s helpful to pay attention to how the science was performed and how many different scientists have replicated this conclusion.

But the point of this example is that the scientific method can be used by anyone, and scientific findings are respected because the experiments are designed to reduce the chance that the scientists missed a vital piece of information.

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