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A discussion with SaraH Zanders, PhD

09 March 2022

By Samantha Costa

Oftentimes scientists will share a groundbreaking experience or a specific moment in time that led to their love of science. For Assistant Investigator and Vice Dean of the Graduate School SaraH Zanders, it was simply her first undergraduate genetics course at the University of Iowa. “Genetics just makes sense to me. At the core are very simple rules that govern everything. But at the same time, there are some complex mechanisms required to transmit DNA between generations,” explains Zanders. “I have always loved learning about those mechanisms.”

And just like that, a passion was ignited that has continued to radiate throughout her career and all that she does at the Stowers Institute. This fascination with what’s passed on from one generation to the next continues to drive her lab’s research.

After graduating with a BS in biology, this Midwesterner moved from one coast of the US to the other as she pursued her PhD at Cornell in New York and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Washington state. However, an opportunity at Stowers to build her own lab with generous and stable funding while having the freedom to further pursue her interest in parasitic genes and their role in the evolution of genomes was all it took to re-root Zanders back in the Midwest.

Since joining the Institute in 2016, Zanders has been busy expanding upon the work she started during her fellowship. Together with her colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Zanders discovered meiotic drive genes and identified the parasitic selfish gene S. kambucha wtf4, which acts as both a poison and an antidote to eliminate its genetic competition and ensure its transmission into the next generation. Zanders’ work in these areas earned her widespread recognition in 2018, as she received three highly competitive and sought-after scientific awards. And in 2020, Science News magazine named Zanders one of the SN10 Scientists to Watch. This award recognizes early- to middle-career researchers who have already made big contributions in their fields.

Undoubtedly, since accepting the role of the vice dean of the Graduate School of the Stowers Institute in 2019, Zanders has become busier, but she prioritizes the time she spends mentoring young researchers. Crediting her own mentors for teaching her how to “do science,” she strives to instill the same critical thinking, communication, and research skills that she learned from them. And someday, if not Zanders herself, perhaps one of her mentees will build upon her work to uncover the strategies used by selfish genes to affect genome evolution.

You are currently studying genetic parasites and how they cause infertility. Can you share any new or recent projects?

We mostly focus on genetic parasites, but we also study other aspects of biology beyond that, like how meiosis works and how it evolves. We identify new factors that are required for meiosis—the cell division process giving rise to reproductive cells like sperm and eggs—and that are independent of the parasites. The pathways of those projects will likely intersect again in the future. In addition, we are now studying centromeres, which are specialized regions of chromosomes important for proper segregation during cell division, in collaboration with Jennifer Gerton’s lab here at Stowers. We work on a broad range of things, but what we’ve published so far is focused on those parasites.

What is something about you that perhaps your colleagues or peers don't know?

I’m interested in gardening. I grow all sorts of stuff, including vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers. I got into composting during the pandemic. It’s kind of my zen place now—to go and watch the progress of it. I think it’s a very fascinating process watching all of the microbes and insects do their thing and basically turn food and plant scraps into compost.

What puts you in the right state of mind to come into the lab and be productive? Do you have a playlist or podcast you listen to?

I used to listen to music while I worked but I don’t really do that anymore. It’s not a hard transition for me. Just physically being in my lab puts me into scientist mode.

How have you elevated your passion for teaching in your time at Stowers?

Prior to coming here, I was a postdoc, so I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to formally teach. I would mentor interns and new technicians in the lab. I still get to do that but also get to teach in the genetics modules of the Grad School here, which I very much enjoy. I get to mentor other students outside of my lab, being part of their thesis committees and things like that.

Can you tell me more about your interest in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion?

I see it as an extension of our research in a way. It’s the same kind of thinking. Our research looks at what our parasites do, and how they get an unfair transmission advantage into the next generation. They basically cheat the process that is supposed to be fair and supposed to be a merit-based process or natural selection. I feel like society with systemic racism is very similar. We have a system of advancement that’s supposed to be fair and merit-based but it’s really not. As part of this society, we aren’t doing the best science we can, and we should try to fix that.

What are some of your goals?

An overarching goal of mine is to try to talk about science in the simplest terms possible to broaden accessibility. Sometimes, science is discussed in very highfalutin terms, and I feel like it is exclusionary. I try to reject fancy words whenever possible. I am very informal.

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