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Joan Wilson

Joan Wilson, Senior Scientist
Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research (MIIR)
Marshall University

College of William and Mary, bachelor’s degree in biology
Stanford University, doctorate in biological sciences
Stanford University, post-doctorate
Harvard University, Broad Institute, second post-doctorate

Field of Study:
Biotechnology is the way we use our understanding of the natural world and biological processes to improve our lives. The word biotechnology is new, but in the broad view, some of the first biotechnologists were those people who domesticated plants and animals. Today we do not die from small pox or suffer disabling polio because of the vaccines biotechnology has given us. Our lives are impacted and improved by biotechnology every day.

The genomics efforts of the last several decades have given us the complete sequences of several genomes, including humans. We found that the actual protein coding genes in the human genome comprise only two percent of the genome. There is a lot of interest in studying what is in the remaining 98 percent. The molecules I work in are one of the components of this remaining mysterious part of our genomes.

Exciting developments:
Mine is a brand new field. I study a class of molecules called the noncoding RNAs (Ribonucleic Acid). They are sometimes referred to as the “dark matter of the genome.” We didn’t even know these classes of genes existed until recently.

We have since found there are thousands of these small noncoding RNAs, which I refer to as microRNAs. They have been shown to regulate every known cellular pathway we have looked at so far. These molecules represent potential new markers and potential new therapeutics for treatment of a number of diseases and developmental disorders. It is like coming to work in Jurassic Park every day. I am working in a brand new field with lots of exciting surprises all the time.

My life outside the lab:
If I’m not in my lab, I’m taking my dog for a walk or I’m cycling. I took a couple of years out of my science career to race my bicycle. I was a member of the United States National Cycling Team for three years and competed nationally and internationally, including such events as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. I no longer compete but I do like to ride my bike to stay fit. Beech Fork State Park has some spectacular roads for cycling.

West Virginia’s best kept secret is . . .
The most encouraging surprise I have found since I got here is the talented young people we work with.