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Transcript of the Interview with stem cell researcher Dr. Peggy Goodell

October 25, 2007

Introduction: This Findings Podcast is brought to you by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. The Findings Podcast series features the NIGMS-funded scientists profiled in each issue of the Findings magazine.

Carlson: Hi, I'm Emily Carlson from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. I'm here with molecular biologist Peggy Goodell, who studies stem cells at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Her work on a particular type of stem cell is advancing our knowledge of stem cell biology and may ultimately improve bone marrow transplants. Peggy, let's start with some of the things you're working on. Can you tell me about HSC cells?

Goodell: So hematopoietic stem cells are the cells that reside in the bone marrow that give rise to all the cells of the blood. And all of those cells are continuously dying and needing to be replenished and they are all manufactured from the bone marrow stem cell that we call the hematopoietic stem cell, or HSC for short.

Carlson: Why are these of therapeutic interest?

Goodell: When a patient gets a bone marrow transplant the most important cells that get transferred are the stem cells because then those hone to the bone marrow of the recipient and then start generating normal blood cells. So they're used frequently in therapy of a wide variety of different blood cancers.

Carlson: What's your scientific interest in them?

Goodell: We want to use them as a paradigm to understand how all stem cells work or at least to get some insight into how other kinds of stem cells work. But we'd also like to improve their use ultimately in bone marrow transplantation. If we could learn how to grow stem cells outside of the body, then a bone marrow donor could maybe just have local anesthesia, give a teaspoon full of bone marrow, and then we would take that and treat them outside the body so that we could grow more stem cells.

Carlson: How close is science to be able to make that happen?

Goodell: You never really know with science. We have ideas about how to do that; we can purify the stem cells now but we still don't have a good way to grow them.

Carlson: How are you using embryonic stem cells to advance your understanding of the adult bone marrow stem cells?

Goodell: What we're trying to do is make blood stem cells from the embryonic stem cells, partly because you could see it as an alternative source for cells for bone marrow transplantation.

Carlson: Has it been challenging working with embryonic stem cells?

Goodell: It is challenging because human embryonic stem cells grow very slowly. We still don't really understand well how to manipulate them, how to modify them, how to make them do what we want. Because it's a very young field we still have a long way to go, but it's fun because it's new and I think it's really important, so were committed to continuing to work with them.

Carlson: Your Web site features videos by some of your grad students.

Goodell: Right, the videos are presented at these retreats. The first year that these were offered I volunteered to basically put the process together. I had done my Ph.D. in England and the place that I was had a history of putting on these skits. The British have a very kind of unique sense of humor and it's almost mean sometimes, but people usually take it in a good way and really enjoy it as an opportunity in fact to sort of make fun of all the silly things that are in everybody's workplace. So I just thought it was a really great thing that people did in England so that's why I was willing to shepherd this and encourage people to poke a little fun at things.

Carlson: Your lab has participated for 3 years? Is that right?

Goodell: Yeah, maybe even 4 years. One year, so for example, we had an administrator here who was really paranoid about things getting stolen and so everything on the laboratory floor got locked up. So one of the labs put together a hysterical skit that had this thief coming around basically stealing everything, including the water from the water cooler.

Carlson: Where are you from?

Goodell: I grew up in a small town in Ohio, in the northwest corner, but I moved around quite a lot.

Carlson: Where else have you lived?

Goodell: Oh, I lived in a couple of different places in Ohio in different cities, towns in Ohio and then I lived in Connecticut for a while and I was actually born in Maryland. And of course I did part of my undergraduate and graduate work in England in London, at Cambridge.

Carlson: And why did you go overseas for that?

Goodell: I really just wanted to do a year abroad. I thought it would be a good experience to study somewhere else, you know see a different part of the world for an extended period of time. So I really had planned to go just for a semester abroad and that turned into a year abroad and that turned into 2 years and then that turned into later a Ph.D. program as well. So, it was not all intentioned.

Carlson: Where is your favorite place to be?

Goodell: My mother grew up in New Orleans and her parents initially rented and eventually owned a house, a small cottage in the middle of Michigan on a lake, and I grew up going there every summer for some period of time. Really, it's come to mean to me the ultimate sort of relaxation, being away from things; it is really quite primitive. It smells musty-you know always dusty-and it's just a dirt road that goes around this lake.

Carlson: What do you do up there? Do you fish?

Goodell: No, swim, walk around the lake, sweep the floor outside the cottage. It's just a simple life. It has a little primitive kitchen and you can't even do any fancy cooking or anything.

Carlson: What would you say are your personal challenges?

Goodell: Um, so starting your own lab is definitely an incredible challenge for a lot of reasons. You're put into a position, which you're really not trained to do. You've done a Ph.D., you've done a post doc, all that is really bench work. And you might have great scientific ideas, but it's completely different when you have to now lead people you have to hire people, you don't really know how to hire them, you don't know how to fire them if you don't really like them, ultimately if they don't work out. And now you have to write an animal protocol to get permission to use animals. You have to write a grant and all these skills that you really have not been trained in, all of a sudden you have to do. You have to start all these things at once so that hopefully within a year you actually have a functioning lab. And so it's like you never been taught to juggle and someone hands you 10 balls and says you have to get them all up in the air and keep them in the air and not drop any of them or else you're gonna fail. For the entire first year I felt like I barely was, you know able to get all these things going. But then at the end of the year, you know you look around and it's like, wow, things are going, and they're going fine; I've learned how to write grants and I got my first grant and all those kinds of things. So in the middle of all that my youngest sister, who is an M.D., she was doing her residency and she decided to do a rotation in Africa actually in Tanzania. And so it was really close to Mt. Kilimanjaro and so she wanted me to go and visit her there and to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Carlson: Are you into hiking?

Goodell: No, not really. Obviously, it was a big challenge and it was a great opportunity to be with my sister.

Carlson: How long did it take?

Goodell: Basically, like 3-1/2 days to get up there, and you take a day and a half down. The final night is the toughest because you're already at the highest altitude, then you have to go up the last leg and they wake you up at essentially at midnight. The very last part of the climb is blocked by these boulders, kind of climbing up this pretty steep slope, but then you get to this part where there's literally these huge giant rocks you have to clamber over and you're already totally exhausted mentally and physically, and everything, but you know that this is just the last leg. And there were points in that where I really want to quit but I thought, "I can do this; you know, it's only another half an hour of this or whatever and I can stand this for half an hour." And there was certainly times in my career when things have gotten really tough or I've felt like you know, I'm not really very good at this or I can't go on or I should go do something else, but I have certainly thought back to that on multiple occasions, that if I could just, you know, get over these boulders that it would be a great view from the top. It's been a great metaphor for life.

Carlson: That's a great story, Peggy. Thank you so much for taking time today to talk to me about your research and some of the things that you do in your personal life.

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