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Proteomics in Focus: Insights from Dr. Nicole Tignor

The following is the third entry in a new Q&A series highlighting selected Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium (CPTAC) researchers and their work. Join us as we discuss multiple facets of proteomics research with Nicole Tignor, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Transcript is edited for clarity.

Q: Could you provide a brief overview of your academic/professional journey?

NT: My name is Nicole Tignor. I am an Assistant Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. I have a BA in physics. I briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing a career in architecture but ultimately decided to return to the sciences and obtain a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Since leaving graduate school, I have worked most closely with professional statisticians in genetics and genomics.

Q: Please describe your current work at ISMMS. What do you find most compelling about this work?

NT: I continue to work on brain cancer proteomics as part of CPTAC. Now we are looking at High-grade Glioma (HGG) in adolescents and young adults. This study cohort bridges the gap between previous CPTAC studies on glioma in pediatric (PBT) and adult (GBM) populations, allowing us to study tumor biology over the full span of human development. Age is one of the most prognostic variables, so understanding the molecular underpinnings of that signal could bring further insight. Overall, this is really a pretty novel way of looking at tumor biology and it is compelling for that reason.

Also, at Mount Sinai, I work in digital health, a novel and promising area of research. With mobile apps and increased digitization of the medical records we can create very informative longitudinal datasets, often quite economically, with real world data types, such as step count, that could not be easily collected en masse before. These can provide information about individuals’ health outcomes that can be used to predict and prevent disease.

Q: As someone at the cutting-edge of proteomics research, what are some key innovations that have shaped the way you do your work today?  

NT: When I started my education, the idea of working in proteomics or digital health was not on my radar at all. The Human Genome Project and its offshoots, of which CPTAC might be considered one, have been a great boon to biology and given rise to host of new research opportunities around which many have built their scientific careers. Digital health is an area that has only recently come into existence because of tech innovation. The data revolution has led to important developments in multidimensional data analysis and statistical/machine learning that are a key part of my scientific toolkit today.

Technological innovations have certainly affected the way I work, including very recent developments like ChatGPT. During the pandemic we have seen wide adoption of data sharing platforms, collaborative work platforms, and video conferencing, all of which have facilitated engagement and collaboration with my colleagues, eliminated barriers, and enhanced productivity.

Q: Are there any specific achievements or projects you’d like to highlight? 

NT: The Cell paper is no doubt the biggest project I have been involved in to-date. It was also a challenging experience for me as I knew very little about cancer biology to begin with and had not been involved in any collaborations of that scale before I started the project. I learned so much about CPTAC and really honed my data analysis skills just trying to keep up with the incredible work of my colleagues and collaborators. I do feel quite proud that I can point to several important contributions based on my work on that project; for example, we identified a cluster of craniopharyngioma tumors that clustered with a subset of LGG tumors with BRAF v600E mutation for which MEK inhibitors are an effective treatment. It turned out the players downstream of MEKi in both the LGG V600 E and Craniopharyngioma tumors showed similar expression patterns suggesting that MEKi could be effective in CP also. There are efforts underway to further test that hypothesis. I regard my time working on that project as a leap forward in my development as a scientist.  I also in large part conceived and created the visual abstract for that paper, which was a highlight for me.

Q: What barriers to progress do you see in the field of proteomics today? How do you anticipate these challenges being overcome? 

NT: The postdoc period was very challenging for me and could easily have been the end of my scientific career. Postdocs are often poorly paid and have little job security. For me, I was just beginning my family.  I felt there was stigma, discomfort, and judgement in expressing difficulties in navigating a scientific career as a new mother.  Since there is a big reliance on postdocs, especially among early faculty, if someone in a postdoctoral position brings attention to some factor of their life that is seen as a weakness that person may be viewed as a liability. I can understand if this is a leaky period of the pipeline for women in particular. On the one hand, childcare, parental support, and better pay could make motherhood less of a real career obstacle, but I think if institutions provide incentives for better social practices that could also be effective. There are scientific environments and practices that are more supportive of mothers, and investigators who are more successful in training female scientists, not all of whom are mothers, of course. They should be learned from and celebrated.

Q: For aspiring individuals interested in proteomics, what career advice would you offer, considering your own journey and experiences?

NT: In the scientific community people value data visualization skills. They are essential both for scientific communication and research, so I would encourage students to develop these skills. What I love most about scientific research is that you can draw on all your resources to advance knowledge. These could be your social skills, your technical skills, or your artistic skills. Very often the experiences I draw on most were not provided to me by my technical training. For example, it has been surprising to me how useful my brief time in architecture school continues to be. I picked up some very useful skills in visualization and design, but I was also given time and  structure to cultivate my imagination. I guess my advice to students is that it is hard to predict what may be of greatest value to your career, especially in these fast-moving times; maybe the best opportunities in your future don’t even exist yet. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to take the time to cultivate your imagination. It is always valuable. Also, pay attention in linear algebra class!