Dr. Susan Carpenter

By Dr. Nik Tsotakos

Dr. Susan Carpenter is an Associate Professor of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). She received her B.A. and Ph.D. from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland where she worked with Prof. Luke O’Neill. Following her Ph.D. work, Dr. Carpenter continued her training with two postdoctoral experiences under the mentorship of Prof. Kate Fitzgerald at University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical School, and Prof. Michael McManus at the University of California, San Francisco.  Prof. Carpenter’s current research focuses on the role of long non-coding RNAs in inflammatory signaling.

Prof. Carpenter’s long-standing interest in non-coding RNAs began as an undergraduate, when she could not accept the possibility that the non-coding genome was mostly “junk”. She recalled, “it just never made sense to me.” Throughout her training Dr. Carpenter followed her curiosity, and adopted emerging tools to study non-coding transcripts. “When I started my postdoc with Kate and RNA-seq was becoming the new cool technology, [and] I was excited to jump on it and give it a try. It was actually discussions with Dr. Daniel Caffrey, a bioinformatician at UMass, that brought me into the lncRNA world. He was examining our RNA-seq data and I remember him saying that these transcripts could be really interesting as they were following similar patterns of induction and down-regulation as proteins. There were just a couple of papers coming out about lncRNAs at the time and so I was intrigued to pursue them in the immune system. I was also fortunate that I had a Marie Curie fellowship from Europe and Kate gave me the freedom to follow this interesting lead into the unknown world of lncRNAs!”  Dr. Carpenter is very excited about her lab’s current work “performing high throughput CRISPR screens to identify lncRNAs involved in macrophage biology and function. We have performed the screens and are at the fun part now of going through the hits and figuring out the molecular mechanisms of our top candidates.”

“Choose your mentors wisely and find an area of research that excites you”

Despite being very successful, imposter syndrome remains a challenge for Prof. Carpenter. She explained, “I am not sure if it ever fully goes away, but experience helps to lessen the feeling. I remember as a postdoc my mentor Kate announced one day that she had signed me up to present at the UMass RNA club. I was sick with worry at the idea of presenting my work to some of the biggest names in the field of RNA research at UMass. It ended up being the most exhilarating experience. I was so intimidated going in and when I was finished, I ended up forming a fantastic and highly productive collaboration with Dr. Melissa Moore’s group. To this day, I still get a bit nervous when I ask a question at a conference in case it is considered a silly question. This is particularly ironic as I spend much of my time telling my students that there is no such thing as a silly question. I need to practice what I preach!” Consistent with this message, Prof. Carpenter shared that “the best advice I have been given over and over again by my mentors is to put yourself out there. So much of science is about communication and forming meaningful connections. I am very thankful now for all the awkward positions my mentors put me in over the years! Looking back, I now know that they were pushing me out of my comfort zone so that I could grow and become an independent scientist.”

Her advice to young scientists is pretty straightforward: “Choose your mentors wisely and find an area of research that excites you. I have always been lucky to have mentors that have given me some freedom in the topics I pursued. We all work hard and so finding a lab environment that is welcoming and fun can make your journey a lot more enjoyable!” Prof. Carpenter is also a strong advocate for women in science, stating that “I love that the spotlight series has showcased so many great up and coming female scientists. I am deeply passionate about promoting women in STEM. I’ve been very lucky to have an amazing female mentor in Kate Fitzgerald (who was elected recently to the National Academy of Sciences!). Seeing Kate as a fantastic scientist, teacher and mentor as well as a young mother was very inspiring to me. Throughout my career I have been in very welcoming environments where my lab really was like an extended family during my PhD and postdoc training years. I now try to provide that same type of nurturing environment for my students and trainees.”

Prof. Carpenter only recently became member of the RNA Society, and expressed how she immediately felt welcomed by the RNA community.  She said,“I always thought of myself as an immunologist who studies RNA and its role in impacting the immune system. It is only since I started my own lab at UCSC that I started thinking that I can be both an RNA biologist and an immunologist. The RNA community is a very welcoming group and it has been great getting better acquainted with members through the RNA Society.” She continued about the role of the Society, “The RNA society is huge and therefore it is an excellent place for scientists to make connections with those in their field. As I mentioned earlier it is a very welcoming community and I have found it great for brainstorming ideas and getting help with difficult RNA biochemical experiments.”

Dr. Carpenter’s favorite RNA is XIST. “It is the mother of all lncRNAs and it only works in females (the feminist in me loves this!). It is a fascinating RNA!” One of her favorite articles in RNA is by Dr. Alisha Jones, then of the Varani Lab, on the conserved structure within the lncRNA Cyrano (here). “The molecular mechanisms of action and structural features within lncRNAs that drive them remain unkown. It was exciting to see this work on Cryano and getting to understand those highly conserved regions and showing how they relate to structure and function. We now are trying to take similar approaches with some of the lncRNAs we work on in collaboration with Dr. Michael Stone’s lab at UCSC.” You can contact Dr. Carpenter via Twitter, @LabCarpenter, or visit her lab webpage at https://sites.google.com/a/ucsc.edu/carpenter-lab/.