Molly Hammell accepting the 2019 WiSE faculty mentor award from WSBS student Kat O’Neill at the CSHL In-House

This WiSE Wednesday we honor the 2019 WiSE faculty mentor awardee, computational biologist and Associate Professor Dr. Molly Gale Hammell who studies transposable elements (the so-called “jumping genes” that CSHL legend Barbara McClintock is famous for discovering). McClintock studied their role in corn color patterns, but Hammell instead looks at their role in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s disease). And female (and male) colleagues and trainees (including me) look to her for guidance and support.

Hammell (rightly so!) has earned a number of awards for her scientific accomplishments, including, in 2014, the Rita Allen Foundation’s highest honor, a Milton E. Cassel Scholarship. While these science achievement awards are important, we at WiSE believe it’s also important to recognize achievements in mentorship – especially when it comes to mentoring women, who face additional challenges in academia. Scientists are often judged by their number of papers, citations, or scientific awards but many of our greatest minds have also served the field as influential mentors to junior colleagues. For women, obtaining a strong mentor is a crucial part of advancing their careers in a male-dominated field. To highlight the invaluable colleagues who support and inspire us, in 2017 we created the WiSE Mentorship Awards to honor women and men who have served as personal or professional mentors to women here at CSHL, and we were thrilled to present the 2019 award in the faculty category to Dr. Hammell.

Hammell’s background is a bit unconventional for a biologist – she earned a B.S. in physics from the College of William and Mary followed by a PhD in physics and astronomy from Dartmouth College in 2003. She then took a postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth Medical School and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where she developed algorithms for statistical analysis of regulatory RNA pathways.

She joined CSHL in 2010 and much of her current work focuses on transposable elements (TEs) – “parasitic” segments of DNA that can “jump” around in our genome. First discovered by another female scientist at CSHL, Barbara McClintock, TEs can cause problems if they jump into important places. Hammell’s lab uses computational and experimental techniques to study how our cells protect us from these TEs and what happens when these protections fail. In particular, she studies how TEs play a role in some cases of neurodegenerative diseases including ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

Hammell received multiple nominations, and her award was presented by one of her nominees, a grad student in her lab (and one of my classmates) Kat O’Neill, whose speech was beautiful. I definitely can’t outdo her (not that I’m trying to!) but I also wanted to share some heartfelt thoughts about why I too nominated Dr. Hammell.

“Molly Hammell has been a trustable source I can go to to discuss my interests and concerns as I try to figure out my career goals and has provided invaluable career guidance and support. As my thesis research has progressed, I have found myself drawn more and more towards the chemistry side of biochemistry, but I have a general biology undergrad degree and am doing research in a biological sciences program so I didn’t know if it would be possible to pick up more chemical biology skills later in my career. I knew that Molly Hammell had made a dramatic field-switch (astrophysics to genomics!) so I asked if she might be willing to meet with me. She was – and she provided great advice.

The other thing I wanted to discuss with her is my desire to teach at a small, primarily undergraduate institution. I was worried to tell people this because I feared that, since this isn’t the traditional academia “R1 research route” it would disappoint people and/or they’d try to discourage me.

I was especially afraid to tell my PI, Leemor Joshua-Tor, these things because I didn’t want her to see training me as a waste of time if I didn’t go on to be super successful in the traditional sense like she is. Dr. Hammell was incredibly supportive and even offered to put me in touch with some contacts she has. Talking to her helped me work up the courage to talk to Leemor and fortunately Leemor has been nothing but supportive – as has my academic advisor, Hiro Furukawa, and I am so grateful for all of them!

In addition to helping me personally, Dr. Hammell has been a strong advocate for women’s rights – even starting her James In-House talk with a slide about #MeTooSTEM. And she graciously accepted a position on the WiSE Faculty Advisor Board.”

Thank you Dr. Hammell for helping make CSHL a great place for women to work!

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