Working Backwards: Digna Velez Edwards
Digna Velez Edwards, PhD, can’t remember never doing science. Whether through research initiatives or attending science programs as a child, she always sought to feed her love of nature and observational science. After working in a zebrafish lab as an undergraduate student, she hoped to find an area of study that was more translational, which led her to a human genetics graduate school program. Her research eventually took her to the study of uterine leiomyomata, or fibroids, which are the most common female [noncancerous] pelvic tumor and, as she notes in a recent Human Genetics article, have prevalence rates of up to 77%, especially in women near menopause.
Fibroids are very heritable, she notes, but also are extremely understudied. With her recently funded R01 devoted to determining the genetics behind fibroid development, Dr. Velez Edwards aims to change that. She describes her methods as “agnostic”—i.e., she doesn’t start with a belief, or hypothesis, and then chase down a candidate gene or pathway; instead, she scans the genome by way of genotyping or sequencing to identify the strongest associated risk factor. Then she looks in pathways related to that gene and digs into what that says about the biology. Because of this approach, “Anything I find may be potentially interesting,” she says. “That’s the thing with human genetics research: You kind of are in the hypothesis-generating step in the experimental phases. In animal models, you have a target. In human genetics, you’re looking for targets. So you kind of work backwards.”
In this backwards science, Dr. Velez Edwards appreciates the collaborative aspect of human genetics research, which allows her to interact with people from all over the world and across disciplines. “Biostatisticians, epidemiologists, basic scientists are all part of the team.” And meeting with these international team members has allowed her to do a lot of traveling in Africa and Europe, including one of her favorite locations, Italy. Visiting a collaborator in Rome affords her the opportunity to work with Italian researchers in the field of human genetics.
In writing her R01, Dr. Velez Edwards took the advice of those who’d gone before her. “You’ve got to keep writing grants,” she says, quoting her own mentor. “The only way to learn to write grants is to write more grants.” She tries to write a new grant every cycle, in fact. She also notes that even when fellow colleagues don’t have the time to give input on an entire grant, even just getting the polished aims page out there for feedback is a step in the right direction. “Don’t assume ‘my idea is brilliant,’” she says. “Get input.”
Other ways she got input were through VICTR Studios, the Edge Review mock study sections, and weekly work in progress meetings held by the K12 she was on, Building Interdisciplinary Careers in Women’s Health Research (BIRCWH).
Finally, she says, “Don’t wait till the last minute to write grants.” Referencing her mentor Dr. Katherine Hartmann’s personal pet peeve about work-life balance, Velez Edwards suggests making the NIH grant timeline your own. “Write a grant at your own pace…your life might not always stick to the NIH’s timeline. If you can write a grant that is due in October in July, write it in July.”
Not so backwards advice from the woman working backwards for new discoveries.