Graduate student spotlight: Studying the genetic code in search of ways to prevent illness

Leena Kariapper

Throughout the year, we highlight Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month, we’re featuring Leena Kariapper, a Ph.D. student in the lab of Dr. Evan Worden.

Leena studies how ancient parts of our genetic code, which replicate by a copy-paste mechanism, are kept silent. By understanding this intricate process, she hopes to help find ways to maintain health and stave off disease.

How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?

Umma (what I call my grandma), did you know that over 45% of our DNA sequence originally came from viruses?! Despite that, we don’t get sick that often. This is because our cells have an enzyme called SETdb1 that works in a team with other proteins in a controlled yet mysterious manner to keep these viral sequences in our DNA silent so that they don’t cause illness.

In fact, dysregulated SETdb1 has been found in cancer, autoimmune diseases and neurological diseases. In my research, I study the structure of SETdb1 and how it interacts with its protein partners to keep the viral sequences in our DNA quiet.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

After completing my master’s degree in cancer at University College London, I worked as an adjunct lecturer at the Alfasial University in Riyadh for a year. I taught an introduction to biochemistry course to pre-medical and pre-pharmacy students, and I started my Ph.D. program the following year.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

My previous coursework and research experiences span the areas of genetics, molecular biology, stem cell biology and cancer. My Ph.D. research is in an entirely different field from what I have worked in previously. I now work on a structural biology project that focuses on understanding the epigenetic mechanisms by which virus-derived sequences in our DNA (endogenous retrotransposons) are kept silent.

Even with such varied experiences, I have found that my skills developed over the years, including how to ask questions to find out what I need to learn in order to answer bigger questions and how to grow my experimental knowledge on the fundamentals of biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology. This has been very useful for pursuing my current research project.\

Do you think there is value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?

Yes! Through networking, you can find and connect with like-minded individuals, practice communicating confidently, get to know others that might have specific technical knowledge you are seeking, offer suggestions and ideas based on your background and expertise, feel a sense of belonging in the grad school student body, become part of a close-knit scientific community, make yourself known outside of your area of research and scout for people you would like to collaborate with in the near or far future.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?

I want to use my problem-solving, research and people skills that I am currently developing through my Ph.D. training to become an adept educator and trusted researcher in the eyes of the public.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school, or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

As a child, I was encouraged to be curious, to read and to ask questions when I had them. These traits have helped me develop and sustain my enthusiasm for science over the years. I also had the opportunity to meet and learn from many good teachers and work with like-minded passionate scientists who shared their knowledge with me and allowed me to gain valuable research experience in their labs. The mindset and rigor I developed in these experiences have helped me prepare for graduate school. The problem-based learning system and the supportive environment at Van Andel Institute Graduate School has further leveraged my ability to conduct good science.

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

I lift weights, try new recipes, paint and color, feed my friends, explore bike trails, karaoke in my living room, and get competitive during game nights. Not all at the same time, but perhaps that would be fun too! Essentially, I always have something totally different from my research that I enjoy and dedicate time to on a regular basis.

Are you involved in other community activities, and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?

A few months ago, I was invited to be a guest speaker by the Calvin Interfaith Alliance to participate in a panel discussion and share my perspectives as a Muslim scientist. It was an enlightening experience, and I got to have meaningful conversations with the other panelists of different religious backgrounds and the audience. The discussion helped us initiate dialogue on how to create a bridge between science and religion — two things I care about deeply. The experience has broadened my perspectives on how certain subjects are viewed by non-scientists with different religious affiliations. I have also learned that effective communication that is kind, honest and inclusive is key to closing the gap between the public and the scientific community. I want to focus on honing this skill.

Why did you choose Van Andel Institute Graduate School?

I chose the Graduate School because of its smaller class sizes, problem-based learning system and its faculty that are leading experts in their respective research fields.

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?

Yes. When I first began and immersed myself into the problem-based learning system that guided the design of the first-year courses, I didn’t really know ‘how’ to learn. I came into the program thinking I was about to learn about a system that could guide my problem-based learning. While that was partially true, I soon realized that the learning model at VAI goes beyond that. It is meant to push you to think about how you think. In doing so, you learn to identify your own biases and truly make sense of something you are trying to understand. This unique aspect of our Ph.D. program pushes students out of their comfort zone and supports a type of learning that happens at the subconscious level.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about your doctoral education experience?

Graduate school is tough. I was told that before I started, and I have found that to be true in my own experience. But I have learned so much during my transition from graduate student to Ph.D. candidate, and I’m continuing to learn and unlearn so many things. That’s what makes this arduous journey rewarding for me.

Interested in Van Andel Institute Graduate School? Learn more at vaigs.vai.org and read previous student spotlights here.