The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
When Devin Burrill started her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2007, she was enthralled by a group of graduate students who convinced her that she absolutely needed to meet Pam Silver and join her lab. There, she focused on building yeast and mammalian genetic circuits that respond to environmental signals such as DNA damage. Having an interest in drug development, Devin then went on to do a protein engineering postdoc with Jim Collins at the Wyss. Afterwards, she moved into industry and consulting, working for startups and universities from Cambridge to North Carolina to Chicago. Devin returned to Pam’s lab in the Harvard Medical School Systems Biology Department and the Wyss in August 2020 as a Lab Director. Why? Find out in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What is your role at the Wyss?
I am the Lab Director for Pam Silver’s lab in the Systems Biology Department at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Wyss Institute. It’s a unique position that I think is going to evolve and become more common in academia over the next decade, due to on-going changes in the way academia functions, funding, and how we do science. My job is a cross between a scientist, lab manager, and a Principal Investigator. I’m not specifically in any of these roles, but I perform many of their functions.
What does your job entail?
I am responsible for making sure our lab continues to be a stable, safe environment in which everyone can push their current science forward and explore new ideas. We want to stay as creative as possible. This is largely done by scientific mentoring, assisting with grant-writing and paper-writing, as well as hiring and training. I also encourage community-building amongst lab members, which I think has helped us successfully navigate the last two years.
I started in my current position at an unusual time – August 2020 – when I moved back to Boston from Chicago. Because of the pandemic, my job has been essential to helping facilitate research and making sure all lab members have the resources, scientific guidance, mentorship, and support needed to continue their science. The Silver lab has managed to navigate it well due to an awesome team of staff, students, and postdocs at both the Wyss and HMS.
What is some of the most exciting work being done in the Silver Lab right now?
There are a few areas of focus in the Silver Lab. One is mammalian and bacterial cell programming using genetic circuits. A genetic circuit is a group of DNA sequences encoding RNA or protein that allows cells to respond and interact with each other to perform certain functions. We can apply this to fine tune cell properties, sense a cell’s physiological state, and deliver therapeutics on-demand.
A second area is therapeutic design. We are making protein-based biologics to treat a variety of diseases. The goal here is to develop complex therapeutic proteins that are engineered to mimic a natural protein and avoid undesirable off-target effects. A lot of what goes into this work is computational and protein structural analysis. Some of our current healthcare targets include pancreatitis, pain, ALS, anemia, and lactation. We have solidified drug development pathways for all these molecules to get them into the clinic as soon as possible.
A third area of focus is sustainability. The Silver Lab has always been interested in projects that promote protection of our planet, animals, and humans, and we have some very exciting projects coming up in the next year.
What inspired you to get into this field?
I entered the HMS Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) Program thinking I was going to join a hardcore cancer biology lab to pursue my Ph.D., because I was coming from a breast cancer biology lab at the University of Chicago and loved my research. However, two weeks into grad school, I went to the annual BBS retreat in Provincetown. At this retreat, a group of graduate students and postdocs from Pam’s lab approached me and said I should immediately join the lab. I didn’t know what Pam Silver worked on at that time, but she had clearly gathered an awesome, brilliant, creative group of students, and I was excited by their energy.
Once I met with Pam for the first time, I found out that she worked on synthetic biology and bioengineering. I was fascinated and saw the potential to apply my cancer biology background to this field of research, which is what I largely ended up doing. When I first visited the lab, I also saw firsthand the incredible research environment she created, and I hope I am helping to continue this kind of community-based lab.
After my first meeting with Pam, I called my father and told him I had found the lab I wanted to join and briefly explained what I would be doing. My father is not a scientist, but he said he believed he had recently read something about synthetic biology in a newspaper. He did a bit more research and called me back to tell me I absolutely had to join Pam’s lab. So, I decided to just go for it. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Explain your journey with the Wyss.
I always knew I wanted to go into industry after my postdoc. After completing my Ph.D. with Pam Silver, I looked for a space where I could learn about protein engineering, drug development, and business development. The Wyss Institute was absolutely the perfect places to accomplish my goals. Jim Collins was kind enough to let me join his group for my Postdoctoral Fellowship, working primarily with Jeffrey Way, a Wyss senior staff scientist at the time.
My postdoctoral time at the Wyss was awesome. I was here for about three and a half years. I worked on developing a protein production pipeline for engineering erythropoietin (EPO)-based therapeutics. There were not many Wyss staff working on the same type of research, but I felt tremendously supported. The Wyss scientists and staff provided me with essential knowledge, reagents, facilities, and more. One of the huge benefits of the Wyss is that there is an entire team of staff members who come from industry – the Advanced Technology Team (ATTs). That’s incredibly unique for an academic environment. The ATTs were so helpful, as were the veterinary staff. I would not have been able to do my postdoc without all of these people.
In my postdoc, we completed a whole project from design through animal experiments, and the technology is now in the process of being commercialized. Many related therapeutic projects have subsequently built upon that work and are still ongoing.
After I left the Wyss, I became the second employee at a biotech company in Cambridge where I was in a similar role to the one I have now. After that, I moved to another company in North Carolina. Both companies work on CAR T technology. I oversaw the design of DNA constructs and helped engineer cell lines. I then returned home to Chicago, where I consulted for the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
The offer to work for Pam’s lab came at a challenging time in the world, and I decided to go for it. My decision to return speaks a lot to the amazing environment and wonderful facilities and resources that exist at Harvard and the Wyss Institute, and especially speaks to the unique space that Pam has created in her lab. Being part of a welcoming, multidisciplinary community is very important to me, and the Wyss and Systems Biology Departments at HMS are awesome in that respect. Scientists are able to work with so many different academic institutions in Boston, which opens up many exciting scientific avenues and access to resources that we otherwise would not have.
What is unique about the Wyss? How has that impacted your work?
The Wyss resources were especially helpful during my postdoc when I was making protein-based biologic drugs. Not many academic scientists have the kind of assistance and guidance that I received. My postdoc simply would not have been possible without the Wyss. Today the Wyss continues to similarly provide the tools needed to get our work done, supporting us with new projects, grants, and funding. And I would really like to point out that the veterinary team is impeccable – we are truly lucky to have them.
The Wyss is also unique in that it is very accepting of people who have a non-academic career trajectory. In fact, the Wyss embraces that and provides a lot of support, entrepreneurial resources, and exposure to different events and people. You meet people who have joined industry, founded startups, transitioned to more business-focused roles, studied patent law, attended medical school, and more. You truly see that there is a world of opportunities out there for Ph.D. scientists. This aligns with the vision Pam has for her lab, which is to bring together a multidisciplinary group of people who are passionate about exploring what is scientifically possible.
How does your current position ensure research projects can become technologies that will have real-world impact?
While Pam’s roots are in basic biology and biochemistry, she has always had a much larger vision of using her work to help people and the planet. Looking back at her early work, you can see how it was inevitable that it would lead to her pioneering research in synthetic biology and bioengineering, ultimately leading to the creation of impactful technologies and numerous companies. It has been an important overarching theme during her time at HMS and the Wyss.
So, how does my position ensure she reaches this goal? First and foremost, it is through the facilitation of getting the work funded and executed, patented, and published. An important part of this is making connections with the local medical community and members of other labs, which is an area where the Wyss has been extremely helpful.
Another way I enable this type of work is by bringing people into the lab who have the same goal of conducting impactful research. I assist with most interviews, and I look for people who have a larger vision, including those who do not want to enter academia. They may want to go into business or law, which are critical areas that can affect whether a technology gets to a patient. Pam has always believed that you can contribute to a technology’s journey from bench to bedside without being a professor. I believe the Wyss and the Silver Lab are a community of diverse people who come from extremely different areas of study, and we are pushed to develop impactful technologies while being in a supportive environment. It’s important to me to help continue the community that welcomed me into the Wyss and the Silver Lab from the very beginning.
What continues to motivate you?
The people I am surrounded by are 100% of my motivation. I have always chosen places to work where I have a strong feeling I’ll be surrounded by a community that is driven and focused on creating products or technologies that are going to help society.
How have your previous work and personal experiences shaped your approach to your work today?
My scientific mentors have been some of the hardest working people I have ever known. My parents are also extremely hard workers. Work ethic is something I really admire, and I have taken that with me throughout my career. My scientific mentors and parents are also thoughtful people and generously give attention to others in the workplace, which I greatly admire and try to incorporate into my own work.
Exposure to hospitalized patients, in both my professional and personal life, has truly shaped my work. My mother was a surgical intensive care nurse for over 46 years. I often went to work with her. It inspired me as a child to go into science and help patients through research.
During my undergraduate career, I worked in a cancer biology lab where we collaborated closely with the affiliated breast cancer clinic, because my advisor, Olufunmilayo Olopade, oversaw both. I went on rounds with her, seeing what it was like to interact with patients. I was really able to understand how what I was doing in the lab could translate to the bedside. That was an impactful, world-changing experience for me. It has influenced how I choose what projects to work on to this day. I like to do work that can potentially help people.
When you’re not at work, and you’re not social distancing, how do you like to spend your time?
I like to go running, play the piano, and write music.
What’s something unique or fun about you that someone wouldn’t know from your résumé?
I did rhythmic gymnastics and ballet for thirteen years. I love the outdoors – I have been to almost every national park in the United States and have done many 20-mile hikes.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
A musician or a poet, but science has always been my first love, and I think it’s the perfect fit for me.
What does it feel like to be working to support cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
It’s amazing! I feel extremely privileged to have my job and be able to do what I do. I always know there’s a potential for significant impact from our research. Knowing that even the smallest discovery could impact a person’s life makes me feel so fortunate. The interesting thing is that you don’t know when that impact will be felt. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen twenty years from now, it could happen fifty years from now. My hope is that our work will continue to help patients and the planet. It is truly incredible to have this kind of job.