Prof. Cassandra Hayne

by Jennifer Porat, Ph.D.

For Dr. Cassandra Hayne, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago (USA), life as a new professor can only be described as a rollercoaster, albeit an extremely exciting one. Building on her postdoctoral work solving the structure of the human tRNA splicing endonuclease (TSEN) complexed with a pre-tRNA, Dr. Hayne’s lab uses structural and biochemical approaches to understand the mechanism of RNA processing machines and how mutations to these proteins may lead to disease. Even though the lab is only in its first year, Dr. Hayne is excited about the potential impact of her science and the great people leading projects in her lab. “Having just started the lab, I would have to say I’m equally excited about all of the lab’s projects,” she shared.

Dr. Hayne’s reason for embarking on a biomedical research career came from having cancer when she was very young. “I wanted to do something to make a difference,” she recalled. But that was merely the beginning of her scientific career, which has spanned several research topics, including her PhD work in Saskia Neher’s lab at the University of North Carolina biochemically characterizing lipoprotein lipase, before making the jump to RNA biology for her postdoctoral work at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Durham, North Carolina, USA). She emphasized the importance of using your time as a trainee to explore different areas of research to figure out and hone your scientific interests. “As someone who broadly loves science and learning, I can get really interested and excited about a lot of different topics. A great example of this is that I came into graduate school wanting to do biochemistry research on cancer-related proteins. I rotated in some cancer-relevant biochemistry labs, but I joined my thesis lab because it was the right fit for me.” Ultimately, Dr. Hayne has her postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Robin Stanley, to thank for finally bringing her into the RNA world. “When I was looking for a postdoc, I had several things I was interested in, one of which was increasing my knowledge of structural biology. What sold me on Robin’s lab was her enthusiasm for science. I came from a non-RNA biology background and I’m SO happy I chose to join the RNA community and feel like I’ve found an amazing scientific home.”

“I’m SO happy I chose to join the RNA community and feel like I’ve found an amazing scientific home.”

Although Dr. Hayne readily acknowledges the excitement that comes with research (particularly RNA research), she is also aware of the difficulties scientists encounter doing research. “I think the hardest thing is always when experiments aren’t working and you don’t know why. Whenever things are tough in the lab, I remember the great advice from my graduate school advisor to go back to something that I know will work.” She also pointed out the importance of occasionally taking the time to step back from your work to recharge. “The other thing that helps me is having hobbies or people and things I care about outside of the lab.” More recently, Dr. Hayne has found a way to integrate her hobbies into her lab. “The latest project I worked on was using my craft machine to cut out iron-ons of the lab logo for lab sweatshirts,” she revealed. “My favorite feature of this is that the enzymes on the logo glow-in-the-dark!”

Lab sweatshirts aside, one of the core aspects of Dr. Hayne’s new lab is her dedication to mentorship and promoting personal and professional growth. Inspired by a series of “really wonderful role models [who have] strengthened and shaped my mindset and approach to mentoring,” Dr. Hayne is committed to paying this forward to ensure that her lab’s trainees can develop as scientists. “I’m very focused on supporting the goals of each of my trainees by offering extra opportunities to strengthen skillsets. She also advises students to prioritize finding a good mentor. “Early on, you’re learning to think about science, learning to set up properly controlled experiments, and learning [the skills that will form the foundation of your scientific career]. Being in the right environment for that is critical.” Having now had the chance to setup her lab, Dr. Hayne said that the first few months of setting up her growing lab have been “even more rewarding than expected. I’ve always liked training and mentoring people in the lab, and also getting to read and think about science. As a new PI, all this is multiplied by the number of people and projects in the lab.”

“I think the hardest thing is always when experiments aren’t working and you don’t know why. Whenever things are tough in the lab, I remember the great advice from my graduate school advisor to go back to something that I know will work.”

Dr. Hayne’s pursuit of new ideas to continue developing her lab’s research program requires constant inspiration and one of the best ways she finds inspiration is by going to conferences. “I always come home recharged with a long list of ideas about my own research,” she shared. Although the pandemic has prevented her from attending an in-person RNA Society meeting (still, she has high hopes of attending the 2024 meeting in Scotland!), she recalled being pleasantly surprised by the reach of the virtual meeting in 2020 and “learning how many people actually stopped by my virtual talk”. She also emphasized the importance of scientific conferences for building your network and meeting new people. “My first RNA meeting was one of the regional North Carolina RNA meetings. I saw a graduate student that I knew from my time [in graduate school] and she was giving a poster on a topic related to what I was studying as a postdoc.” That conversation turned into a collaboration that led to Dr. Hayne’s first postdoctoral paper reconstituting the human tRNA splicing endonuclease. “It’s easy to get caught up in your own work,” she said, “being able to share your work with others and connect is so important. Since then, I’ve attended a lot of RNA-related meetings (many of which are sponsored by the RNA Society) and that’s been a wonderful way to meet people.”

As her new lab has grown over the last year and more projects have taken off, Dr. Hayne also reflected on the transition from postdoc to PI and how her training influenced her own approach to mentoring and leading a team. “I think one of the most rewarding things is after you get someone trained and going in the lab, they bring their own new ideas about their project and I get to see how that’s going to shape and change my initial concept. Having diverse perspectives in the lab is both wonderful and important.” As far as her next steps as she approaches the end of her first year of running her new lab, Dr. Hayne is eager to see how her research continues to develop. “The lab has quickly expanded and I’m excited to see where science leads us.”

Dr. Hayne’s favorite RNA, of course, is tRNA, but “I know my love for other types of RNA will grow!” You can find her on Twitter @Cassandra_Hayne or @TheHayneLab or visit her lab website to find out more.