Featured Scientist: Christopher E. Mason, PhD (Part I)
25 Friday May 2012
Christopher E. Mason, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Physiology and Biophysics and an Assistant Professor in the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, one of the New York Genome Center’s Institutional Founding Members.
Chris Mason’s office, tucked into a corner on the 13th floor of a Weill Cornell building, is full of distractions for the wandering eye. Every inch of the whiteboard is covered in notes, the door plastered with printed quotes, and the cabinets serve as a display for photos of his research curiosities like tarsiers and lemurs, with a single picture of his family wedged in the middle. Wherever your eyes flicker in his office, he’ll notice.
“When I moved to this office, I said ‘Hmm, what genomes are we sequencing?’” he recalls, interrupting his story about his background to talk about the photos. “[At the time in 2009] the panda genome just got published and we were doing some other primate genomes, so I figured I might as well decorate with some crazy lemurs and other primates.”
These animals, according to Mason, are not his lab’s main focus, but are instead an offshoot of one of his scientific fascinations. “What makes us human is a question I think we all have,” he says. “It’s something that I’ve always been interested in in an evolutionary context. Studying different primates lets us ask the question of “‘what is a primate?’, ‘what is human?’, ‘human-specific?’, all those kinds of questions.”
As Mason tells his story, his long-lived, personal investment on genomics is unmistakable. He often detours from the topic at hand, his excitement never waning as he bounces from one subject to the next, and his speech rapid and packed with technical terminology that rolls off with particular ease. And he’s sporting a near-continuous smile on his face.
Now an Assistant Professor in both the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and in the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, Mason’s “academic pedigree” (as he refers to it) includes a dual biochemistry/genetics BS from the University of Wisconsin and a genetics PhD from Yale. His path was decided on from eighth grade, when the genetics and developmental biology he learned in science class fascinated him but the unanswered questions left him disappointed.
“They talked about embryogenesis and the fact that you start with one cell and become 60 trillion cells later on,” he says. “You start out with a single cell and all the instructions are there to become everything, the genesis of an entire organism are present, [but] we just don’t understand all of those instructions.”
Even though the Human Genome Project was underway at the time, its completion wouldn’t solve Mason’s frustration. “It would be like if you have an entire book in front of you and [couldn’t] read it. It was this sense of sadness that we don’t have genomic literacy,” he says. “I would say that was the singular moment, when I said, ‘well, I want to know what all those As, Cs, Gs, and Ts do.’”
In the present day, Mason’s work addresses that mission in a number of ways, summed up in the term “integrative functional genomics.” His lab seeks to identify various functional elements in the genome that guide neuro-development and cause diseases like cancer, as well as how changes in these elements manifest over time. The third line of research explores synthetic biology: “If we really understand the genome well enough in theory, we should be able to try and engineer it, first starting with simple organisms but eventually possibly the human genome as well,” Mason says.
To match his many interests, Mason utilizes next-generation sequencing for a variety of applications – all of them, he says, he would like the New York Genome Center to provide. “[There’s] probably 80 different things that I think you should be proficient at as a center,” he says, laughing. But it’s the Innovation Center that causes the most excitement for him. “As new technologies come—which they do quickly in this field—there’s a place that it will get tested and fleshed out and tweaked a little bit,” he says, “so that it will be something that we all have access to and play around with.”
This is Part one of a two-part series.
About the New York Genome Center
The New York Genome Center (NYGC) is an independent, non-profit organization that leverages the collaborative resources of leading academic medical centers, research universities, and commercial organizations. Its vision is to transform medical research and clinical care in New York and beyond through the creation of what will be one of the largest genomics and bioinformatics facilities in North America.