Scientist of the month: John Rinn

John Rinn from Harvard University tells us about research in his lab on long non-coding RNAs, and the link between skateboarding and science.

Brief biography

John Rinn, PhD

John Rinn received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, followed by a PhD in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University. Following this, he completed postdoctoral research at Stanford University Department of Dermatology as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fellow.

John is currently the Alvin and Esta Star Associate Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University and Senior Associate Member of the Broad Institute. His research focuses on long non-coding RNAs, including their role in cancer and embryonic stem cell pluripotency.

What sparked your passion for science?

Athletics. I have to admit that I didn't have a science kit as a kid or even take a physical science course until college. My original career goals were focused on skateboarding and snowboarding. Yet, as injuries mounted, I found a similar drive in the most unusual places: chemistry.

I loved how powerful chemical reactions could still be broken down into simple steps. Ironically similar to how skateboard and snowboarding maneuvers manifest. In short, in was Chemistry 101 at the University of Minnesota that sparked my interest in science.

What made you focus on RNA research?

This one is clear: my summer research fellowship in the laboratory of Loren Williams at Georgia Institute of Technology. My project was to engineer RNA. I was awe struck at how malleable and adaptable RMA was for nearly any biological function.

The simple goal of engineering transfer RNA molecules for new properties made me realize the amazing potential of RNA, if we could learn and harness the rules of RNA biology. This led to my deep passion to attend graduate school at Yale Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry to train as an RNA structural biologist.

The road also diverged with the sequencing of the human genome. The seemingly simple similarity of at the time emerging genomic tools such as microarrays (dots with intensities) and crystallography (dots with intensities) made me realize the vast real estate of finding new RNA genes in unexpected places of the human genome. I haven't changed focus since.

What exciting research projects are occurring in your lab?

The most exciting project in the lab is the lab itself; I am so lucky to be surrounded by an amazing group of lab members whose passion is the only thing that out matches their smarts. I never know what new direction or idea may arise on a given day with this crew. Thus, my enthusiasm for science is now drawn from the community of lab members, their diverse expertise and personal goals.

Specifically, I am driven by seeing their team work tackle an incredibly hard biological question: what functional regulatory elements might we have missed in the part of out genome that doesn't encode proteins.

Ok, if I have to admit a favorite pet project is a new technology we are just getting off the ground called CRISPR-Display. Essentially, it's an RNA drone that can be multiplexed, loaded with large RNA cargos and delivered precisely across the genome to perform specific programmable functions. Sounds abstract, but the applications for cell engineering will hopefully soon become obvious.

Where do you see things going? What do you think will be the next big breakthrough in epigenetics and non-coding RNA research?

I think we need to stop and reflect about the potential of thousands of long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) genes that have been identified by us and others. It is clear that either most of these are mistakes, or bi-products of transcriptional regulation. However, a few have been demonstrated to have powerful biological roles. Thus, we are essentially at the same point as the 1970s when the first protein coding genes were identified and cloned. Similarly, we have a host of identified transcripts but don't know what they do.

If history serves, the next big breakthrough will be the ability to predict RNA function by specific domains or properties, much the same as we know for protein coding genes today. We are focused on identifying RNA domains that are indicative of specific functional roles (e.g. subcellular localization) that have camplimentary protein coding functions (e.g. subcellular localization by established protein nuclear localization domains).

Simply put, we need to get lncRNA functional and predictive annotation up to the speed of predictive understanding of protein coding genes.

Any words of wisdom for young researchers just starting?

I think bringing together multiple expertise in a lab is becoming more and more critical for newly starting labs. I was fortunate to be at the forefront of bridging computational and experimental sciences together. Nowadays, it's a requirement in starting a lab.

Also, teaching computational students basic experimental principles and experimental scientists basic statistic and computational fundamentals.

What would you be working on if you weren't a scientist?

I have always dreamed of developing science camps for skateboarders and snowboarders. I envision a place where these athletes converge to develop a scientific understanding of the physics behind their sport and how to leverage these principles to advance to the next level. Of course with an amazing park of skateboard and snowboard features.

I feel I have a lot to give back to these activities, communities and athletes that brought me to science, and who knows maybe inspire transitions from physical athleticism to intellectual gymnastics (that doesn't hurt as bad when you fall).

One thing you couldn't live without?

Hockey or running. I have played hockey and never stopped since I was two years old, I still play at least once a week. The amazing speed, grace and strategy of this sport fills me with excitement and drive for the week. There is nothing better than how quickly hockey puts you in the moment and makes you realize the critical importance of teamwork to score.

Running has been my lifelong therapist. Whether varsity running at the University of Minnesota, coaching/training at Yale or more recently a sunset jog, running has given me the gist and discipline behind the old phrase "plan your work and work your plan". The brotherhood developed during these incredibly powerful training programs is identical to that of myself and my lab. Something I couldn't live without.