Science Board Member Spotlight: Mona Batish, PhD

September 11, 2019 -- The Science Advisory Board is pleased to bring you a new series that focuses on the most essential part of the scientific process: you!

Shared on a monthly basis, our member spotlights will highlight the newest research occurring in the life sciences. The series will provide members with a platform to share their passion for improving the world and participating in science! If you are interested in being a featured member, please contact our editor!

It is our privilege to introduce one of valued members, Mona Batish. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

Coming from a family of teachers, I guess I was born with an inherent desire to learn and to teach. I was always curious to know why and I figured the best way to satisfy this desire is to have a career in research.

What excites you most about science or your field?

My favorite aspect of research in general is the unexpected nature of research. The "not knowing' and being able to find something novel, not known before really excites me. Working in a research lab is like playing except here we get paid to do that.

What are you currently researching or working on?

I am working on understanding the role of different RNAs in pediatric cancers.

What do you want to achieve with your research?

I want to be able to translate my research findings for clinical applications. My goal is to develop non-invasive early detection methods for cancer diagnosis.

What is your favorite aspect of your research?

The ability to ask fundamental questions about everything and be amazed by the beauty of science around you is my favorite part. The fact that most of our genome gets transcribed but only about 2-3% of it actually codes for proteins really intrigue me to explore the role of the vast repertoire of non-coding RNAs.

What is the most interesting concept you work on?

I have been working on RNA biology since graduate school. Moving my focus of research on cancer biology was a turning point. I developed a method called FUSION FISH, for visualizing gene fusion transcripts at single-molecule resolution and most recently identified the role of regulatory RNAs in sarcomas. Imaging different kinds of RNAs and modifying our imaging methods and analysis to understand the function of these RNA molecules is the most interesting concept of my work.

Why is your research important? What are the possible real-world applications?

DNA is blueprint of life but the readout gene expression is RNA. RNA is less structured and more abundant than DNA and has a shorter half-life than proteins, hence it is an ideal candidate for early diagnosis. Different types of regulatory RNAs also hold potential as therapeutic targets.

I have been fortunate to work under the guidance of highly innovative scientists. I have been working on RNA biology since graduate school. My doctoral lab has invented probes that enable us to visualize RNAs at single molecule resolution. I have contributed myself, by developing Fusion FISH and applying these technologies in cancer research. I feel strongly that our research on the role of RNA in various cancers has the potential to significantly improve the sensitivity of cancer diagnosis and could provide new targets for therapy.

Are your methods generally accepted? Are they unusual or new?

The methods developed during my graduate work and now in my independent laboratory are widely accepted and highly sought after due to their high specificity, sensitivity and ease of use. The basic method has been out since 2008 and is used worldwide for a variety of applications in different biological contexts.

What scientific tools and/or skills are essential to your methods and work?

A basic understanding of cell biology and a desire to learn is all we need to carry out our research. Our methods rely on the use of microscopy, so a nice fluorescence microscope is also required.

What tools/methods would you change to improve how science in your field is done?

Develop better fluorophores and microscope filters so that multiplex capability of fluorescence microscopy can be enhanced.

What's next?

We are always on the look out for developing new applications and tools. Also, expanding the use of the imaging method in biological systems where it has not been used yet. For example, we recently are starting to explore sea urchin embryos and flowering plants to study RNAs involved in their development. As I said before, not knowing what's next is the most fun part of what I do. One thing is sure, there are too many unanswered questions that we need to tackle next and the journey will continue...

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