Three Who Returned


Arthur G. Palmer III | Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and Associate Dean for Graduate Affairs

Each year, approximately 60 doctoral graduate students in the coordinated doctoral programs in biomedical sciences at Columbia University Medical Center defend their doctoral theses and then scatter to new positions around the world, most commonly for a period of further training as postdoctoral scientists before beginning their independent careers as leaders in various academic, governmental, and industrial institutions.

CUMC is fortunate that some of these exceptional graduates eventually return to their alma mater as faculty members training the next generation of scientists. Three such recently repatriated faculty—Ellen Ezratty, Lori Sussel, and Ai Yamamoto—describe their experiences as graduate students and faculty at CUMC. Strikingly, each of these scientists has established research programs pursuing different questions or directions from the research of their graduate or postdoctoral mentors, while acknowledging links back to their training as students at CUMC.

Dr. Ezratty was a graduate student in the laboratory of Gregg Gundersen, PhD, professor of pathology & cell biology. She received the doctorate in 2007, studying molecular mechanisms regulating microtubule-induced focal adhesion disassembly during cell migration. She was a postdoctoral scientist with Dr. Elaine Fuchs at Rockefeller University, where she studied epidermal morphogenesis. Dr. Ezratty returned to CUMC in the spring of 2014 as assistant professor of pathology & cell biology. Her research focuses on the mechanisms by which the primary cilia temporally and spatially regulate cell signaling and proliferation in tissue stem cells, with an emphasis on polycystic kidney disease and skin cancer.

Dr. Sussel was a graduate student in the laboratory of David Shore, PhD, in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology. She received the doctorate in 1993, studying molecular mechanisms underlying transcriptional repression in yeast. She was a postdoctoral scientist with Dr. John Rubenstein at the University of California, San Francisco, studying the transcriptional regulation of forebrain patterning and neuronal specification during mouse embryonic development. One of these transcriptional regulators also proved essential for specification of pancreatic insulin-producing beta cells, which led to her current research interests in transcriptional networks that regulate development, differentiation, and function of the pancreas. Dr. Sussel began her independent career as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and was promoted to associate professor in 2005. She returned to CUMC in 2007 as associate professor of genetics & development in the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center.

Dr. Yamamoto was a graduate student in the laboratory of Rene Hen, PhD, in the Department of Pharmacology. She received the doctorate in 2001, studying the role of constitutive expression of the huntingtin protein in the persistence of Huntington’s disease. Dr. Yamamoto was a postdoctoral scientist with Dr. James Rothman at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and CUMC and pursued interests in cell biology and biochemistry. She began her independent career in 2008 at Columbia as assistant professor of neurology and of pathology & cell biology. Her research uses cellular, biochemical, and genetic methods to investigate how proteins are targeted for degradation and endocytosis, with a focus on Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Familiarity with CUMC was a strong factor in inducing all three to return to Washington Heights as members of the faculty.

Dr. Ezratty: “Columbia gives me the best of both worlds—the ability to ask new questions as an early stage independent investigator, while being immersed in an environment that initially molded my interests in cell biology and still instructs my perspective on basic research.”

Dr. Yamamoto: “This was an ideal environment in which I could pursue how fundamental biochemical/cell biological events influence neural function. The fundamental neurobiology and translational work in movement disorders was undeniably hard to resist. I knew at Columbia I could find an expert in any field. When one aspect of our work moved unexpectedly into neurodevelopment, Wes Gruber and Carol Mason provided critical help and all I had to do was walk upstairs!”

Dr. Sussel: “I knew that I would have excellent colleagues in both developmental biology and diabetes research and that I would have the opportunity to have outstanding graduate students in my own laboratory.”

Of course, CUMC is part of Columbia University and situated in New York City, leading Dr. Yamamoto to note, “Location, location, location.”

Having been graduate students at CUMC, Drs. Ezratty, Sussel, and Yamamoto have unique perspectives and now as faculty members have distilled their experience into lessons for mentoring their own graduate students. Dr. Ezratty recalls being told as a student that the most difficult thing to teach is how to generate new knowledge. “I was well mentored by different faculty members and I look forward to contributing to the environment at Columbia by properly training and mentoring my own students.”

“I always tell my students that graduate school is an important time in your life, but a finite one,” says Dr. Yamamoto. “Take the time to sincerely think about why you are pursuing your PhD.”

Dr. Sussel advises students about life after graduate school. “Make sure you make the most of your postdoctoral experience. It is the one time in your research career where your main responsibilities are to your own research.”

Things change at CUMC, even if changes seem imperceptible for those who have not left and returned. Dr. Sussel notes the new research buildings on the east side of Broadway where her laboratory is located. Dr. Ezratty took note of the Starbucks on the corner. “If it was there when I was a student I would have written at least one more paper.”

Some things do stay the same, particularly the community of people that make up CUMC. “So many of the faculty and support staff are still here,” says Dr. Sussel, “even some of the same security guards are still here and they remember me!”

Outstanding mentors are essential for training outstanding graduate students. Drs. Ezratty, Sussel, and Yamamoto, as former graduate students and current faculty members, have closed the circle and bring new approaches and perspectives back to CUMC.