Professor Sandra Wolin

Written by Dr. Luiz Passalacqua

Sandy Wolin needs no introduction – she is the current president of the RNA Society. Outside of the RNA Society, she is Chief of the RNA Biology Laboratory, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Fredrick, Maryland, USA. In addition, she heads the NCI RNA Biology Initiative and is Professor Emeritus of Cell Biology at Yale University. She has received multiple distinguished awards throughout her career, including being elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences earlier this year. Dr. Wolin’s research focuses on how noncoding RNAs function, how cells recognize and degrade defective RNAs, and how failure to degrade these RNAs affects cell function and contributes to human disease. Of major interest to Dr. Wolin’s research are non-coding RNAs called Y RNAs. These RNAs function as regulators that inhibit or allow the interactions of Ro60 (a ring-shaped RNA-binding protein) with other proteins and RNAs.

Dr. Wolin grew up in central New Jersey and became interested in research as an undergraduate at Princeton University when she took a molecular biology class that asked her to propose experiments to answer scientific questions. She also began working in a research laboratory, carrying out an independent project during her undergraduate studies. Dr. Wolin recalls, “I loved the idea that you could learn how nature worked by coming up with experiments and examining the resulting data.” After finishing her undergraduate studies, she moved to Yale University to join an M.D./Ph.D. program, where she was mentored by one of the pillars in RNA research, Dr. Joan Steitz. Following Yale, she became a Postdoctoral Fellow at University of California at San Francisco under the supervision of Dr. Peter Walter. Upon finishing her postdoctoral studies, Dr. Wolin started her independent career at Yale University, where she remained for over 25 years. In 2017, she left Yale to lead the NCI’s newly-formed RNA Biology Laboratory, similar to a department at a university, devoted to the study of our favorite molecule.

“I loved the idea that you could learn how nature worked by coming up with experiments and examining the resulting data.”

Inspiration in science means a great deal for every scientist, and it’s not different for Dr. Wolin. She says she has been lucky to be mentored by some truly inspiring scientists, including her Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Joan Steitz, and her postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Peter Walter. She was inspired by Dr. Steitz’s excitement about science and her ability to run a top research laboratory while supporting trainees and empowering them to do their best science. She adds that by watching Dr. Walter successfully initiate projects in E. coli and yeast, despite having no prior experience with these organisms, she learned to be unafraid to try new approaches and to work with unfamiliar organisms. Dr. Wolin also talks about the “unofficial mentors” that have been sources of inspiration, including Dr. Joseph Gall, a member of her Ph.D. thesis committee who has stayed in touch over the years, and Dr. Christine Guthrie, who befriended and supported her while she was a postdoc at UCSF. Dr. Gall, she says, “is often called a ‘scientist’s scientist’, because he exemplifies what it means to do science for all the right reasons: to learn how nature works, to mentor the next generation, and to work with the highest integrity and without thoughts of personal gain.” From Dr. Guthrie, she learned the power of genetics to reveal clean answers to otherwise enigmatic problems. Dr. Wolin shares that all these mentors (and others) have influenced the way that she approaches the science in her own laboratory.

When asked about the greatest challenge encountered in her career, Dr. Wolin states, “Becoming a scientist, building a career in science and my current life as a Laboratory Chief have been a series of what sometimes feels like never-ending challenges.” To overcome the challenges, she states that the important thing is to try to stay focused on the science, to recover quickly from disappointment, to come up with ways to go around or over the many brick walls, and to build resilience.

Dr. Wolin is also involved in scientific and professional development activities. At the NCI, she is the head of the RNA Biology Initiative, whose mission is to support RNA science and medicine across the NCI and to increase interactions between the NCI and the larger RNA community. The NCI RNA Biology Initiative holds symposia and workshops featuring important topics in RNA Biology and invites speakers who showcase the many ways in which RNA biology impacts medicine.

“I always advise early-stage graduate students to be open-minded as to the problems that they want to study.”

When asked about advice to starting graduate students, she says, “I always advise early-stage graduate students to be open-minded as to the problems that they want to study.” Dr. Wolin says this because in the United States and many other countries, graduate students take a year of coursework and laboratory rotations before settling into a thesis laboratory.  During this time, they will likely learn about entire new fields that they did not know even existed when they entered graduate school. Finally, Dr. Wolin also states, “I also strongly advise choosing a laboratory with a supportive mentor and choosing a thesis project that you believe is worth doing.”

Dr. Wolin states that she has always appreciated RNA Society meetings for their inclusive spirit and comments, “It is wonderful to be around so many people who are broadly interested in RNA. It is also a fantastic opportunity for graduate students and postdocs to present their work, get feedback and to meet people at all career stages in their field.” When asked about her favorite RNA, Dr. Wolin’s answer was straightforward, “That’s easy: Y RNAs.” You can find Dr. Wolin on Twitter @NCISandraWolin.