Brenton Graveley, PhD, runs the The Graveley Lab in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences at the University of Connecticut Health Center. He is also Associate Director at the UConn Institute for Systems Genomics and the John and Donna Krenicki Professor of Genomics and Personalized Healthcare and Interim Chair of the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences.
Brenton and Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price recently chatted about the meaning of innovation and the ways in which Connecticut’s scientific endeavors contribute to economic growth in the region.
NAN PRICE: Tell us about the relationship between science and innovation and what it means to you.
BRENTON GRAVELEY: In scientific research, I think you have to be innovative to be successful.
And the definition of scientific research success is getting grant money and publishing papers. Because if you don’t have any money, you can’t do research. And if you don’t publish papers, you’re not going to be able to get money. So it’s a cycle.
When you submit a grant, your peers review it. If it’s not cutting-edge and innovative, it’s not going to be favorably reviewed, and you’re not going to get funding. So you have constantly innovate.
With regard to innovation, I think in science—like in business—innovation is not just having a “eureka moment” where you come up with a completely new thing nobody’s ever thought of before. It’s more that you take lots of different preexisting things and put them together in new ways.
NAN: Tell us about the work you do at the Graveley Lab in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences.
BRENTON: We do many things! We basically study how life works. That’s my main interest. I’m not so much interested in a specific disease. I’m more interested in how things work.
And the reason that’s important is because you don’t have any clue what’s going wrong in a disease if you don’t know how things work in the first place. And you can’t ever hope to cure a disease if you don’t know how things work because you don’t even know what to try to fix.
So we use an approach to science called “genome wide.” Many years ago, people used to focus on only one gene at a time and sort of pick it apart.
In every cell type we are studying all the genes at once. What’s innovative about our approach is we use a whole suite of approaches including computer science, imaging, biochemistry and cell biology, which uses microscopy to study cells and how they look.
The main thing we do is DNA sequencing, where we sequence all the DNA or RNA in cells and then use super computers to analyze all of it.
NAN: The work you do involves a lot of different types of people. Are you working with UConn graduates and interns? How are you building your team?
BRENTON: That’s a good question. Here at UConn, I employ research scientists. I have a couple people who have been working for me for 15 or more years. They are like staff scientists who do the day-to-day running of the lab.
I also have graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, they are like interns. There is a transition after they get their PhD before they get their first “real” job. Those people’s tasks range from doing experimental work in the lab—such as working with the cells—to people who strictly write computer code and analyze data.
And then I’m also involved with a big collaboration with a team with people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal (IRCM) in Montreal, Canada; and the University of California San Diego, CA. We’re working on one particular aspect of this overall project but it’s also an international project so there are about 500 people involved in all.
NAN: Tell us a little bit about your growth. How did this interest for you evolve?
BRENTON: I never intended to become a scientist. I kind of became a scientist by signing up for a molecular biology class by accident. I just fell in love with it. By the end of my first semester in college I was working in the lab as an undergrad. By then, I had already decided I wanted to get a PhD and have my own lab.
NAN: That is entrepreneurial. That kind of wanting to have your own thing.
BRENTON: Most people in this field either become a professor at an academic institution or work for a biotech company doing research.
A lot of the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) people are more interested in launching their own startups.
I’m more academically inclined than business inclined. I get to study how life works every day.
I was hired here 18 years ago. And it’s just kind of evolved. So, yes. It is entrepreneurial, but you know, it’s different. I raise a lot of money. But it’s not by selling anything to customers per se; it’s all by getting grants.
NAN: That goes back to the beginning of our conversation. There’s definitely a business side to what you do. How have you taught yourself those skills?
BRENTON: By the seat of my pants!
There’s definitely a business side. I would say there’s a marketing aspect. I go to meetings and I give talks. If you give good talks people will ask you to come back to the meetings.
The way you present yourself and the way you present your research has a big impact as you’re talking to an audience at a conference. Those people are going end up reviewing your grants and reviewing your papers for journals.
There is a lot of PR. And you have to have very positive PR. The writing part—putting it altogether and presenting everything—even though that has nothing to do with science, it has huge importance. I’ve had to sort of create the PR side of the lab.
NAN: And how have you done that?
BRENTON: I think it’s important to have a presence with your website and on social media. If you have a really outdated lab website, people aren’t going to visit it. Your website needs to be eye-catching and innovative.
With social media, we don’t use Facebook so much, but Twitter is key. I find out more about science on Twitter than actually reading papers. And there’s a whole community of people.
NAN: Did anything come as a surprise to you as far as being a scientist but knowing you need to be focusing on the business side of things?
BRENTON: The interesting thing about this career is you don’t get trained. You get trained in the science and how to do experiments. But you don’t get trained for anything you actually do when you get hired as a professor.
For example, you never get any training in human resources or budgets. My lab has a budget of almost $2 million a year. I have to keep track of everything and make sure we don’t run out of money to pay for experiments. There’s no training for that. You’re just expected to know how to do it.
NAN: Have you had mentors to guide you along the way?
BRENTON: Yes. But it’s more by osmosis and observation. I’ve learned from professors I worked with at grad school—you observe the ones who are successful and you learn what works well. And you also learn from the bad ones about what types of things to try to avoid.
And there are always people around who you can bounce ideas off of. So it’s not necessarily total sink or swim! Still, there’s a lot you have to learn to figure out how to do on your own.
NAN: How does the work you do create job growth for graduates and get them involved in the workforce once they’re done studying?
BRENTON: There are a few ways. The most direct way the work I do creates jobs is if I get a grant it supports people in my lab. Right now I have about 10 people in the lab. The grant money I bring in pays for their employment and benefits.
Then there are graduate students who get their PhD with me. They go on and get jobs elsewhere. Some work at research institutions. Some have gone on to be professors at colleges. One is doing patent law now. One of them is a medical writer.
And the post doctorates who have been in my lab have gone on to different things. One runs a research lab in India. One runs a research lab in China. One is a professor at Carnegie Mellon.
It kind of a propagates. So that’s the goal. It’s a kind of weird thing, because you have to hire people for your lab and get them trained and right when they become really good they move to the next thing. So, with the exception of the staff scientist, who are more permanent, there is this constant turnover. But the turnover is success!
NAN: Do you find that most people end up leaving and doing their own thing, or do some people want to be in this area?
BRENTON: In academics, it’s very common for people to move around a lot just to get different experiences. But there are some people who want to stay here in Connecticut. The three staff scientists working for me have lived in Connecticut for at least 20 years.
Typically, scientists who have labs want to have their labs near other scientists with whom they can collaborate and interact. So I think if you have a successful research lab that has a national or international reputation other scientists want to move to that area to work with you.
For instance, there are a couple people in our department we have recruited over the last few years. The fact that I work in the area of RNA genomics made it important for them to move here—not so much because of me, but it’s more about the expertise we have to help them.
And then there’s the proximity to the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine (JAX-GM). Their decision move across the street here in Farmington was between the state and JAX-GM. The type of science I do is very integrated with the type of science the JAX-GM does, so I collaborate with them all the time. I’ve been really involved in recruiting a lot of the JAX-GM faculty.