In September, you co-authored a study in Nature Genetics that identified a new gene that may heighten the risk of breast cancer. How unusual was it to get your name on a study like this as a first-year Ph.D. student?
KS: I’m currently working with Stephen Gruber [associate professor of epidemiology; associate professor of human genetics; H. Marvin Pollard Professor of Internal Medicine], who was also my mentor/advisor from my M.P.H. program here at Michigan. I was lucky enough to get a really great project right away. I would say it’s pretty unusual to get such a co-first-author paper. It was quite exciting.
What’s it like to identify a new gene? Was there a specific moment when you knew you had something?
KS: I think the nature of epidemiology requires you to be very cautious about interpreting your data. You go along trying not to analyze your data too quickly. Throughout this entire process, I don’t think it really hit me until the end, until all the data came together. And that’s when it seemed most real to me.
What was your role in the study?
KS: I was responsible for the genetic analyses of the subjects from the Israeli-population-based case-control study. I looked at specific regions of the HMMR gene, using DNA samples from the study subjects. The way this is done is to amplify very small DNA segments of interest and sequence them to look at the sequence variation among subjects. The results demonstrated a strong association between HMMR and the risk of breast cancer in the Israeli population.
The study generated a lot of buzz in the media. Did you handle calls from reporters?
KS: Steve [Gruber] was great about giving me experience. I did a Lansing Public Radio interview, which was pretty fun and really nerve-wracking. I answered some questions over the phone for a writer for Mamm, a magazine for women with breast and gynecological cancers. It was gratifying to see how excited other people in the community were about our research—not just other researchers, but people in the actual medical community.
Do you have any words of wisdom for undergrads interested in public health?
KS: Try to get as much hands-on experience as you can, as much exposure to the field. Find a professor you can develop a relationship with, who can give you experience you won’t get just sitting in classes. By far, that’s been the most influential thing—it really directed me the most.
Photo by Peter Smith.
Joe Varkle, a student in the University of Michigan Residential College, conducted this interview.
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Name: Kristen Stevens
Hometown: Novi, Michigan
SPH Degree Program: Ph.D., Epidemiology
Previous Degrees: M.P.H., Epidemiology,
University of Michigan School of Public Health;
B.S., Cellular and Molecular Biology, UM
Learn more about applying to the University of Michigan School of Public Health.