Scientist of the month: Sharon Dent

Sharon Dent from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas tells us her thoughts on epigenetics research and what we can expect from our upcoming Cancer Epigenetics: Environmental Influences and Molecular Mechanisms conference. 

Brief biography

Sharon Dent, PhD

Sharon Dent completed her undergraduate studies in Biochemistry at North Texas State University. In 1986, she went on to gain a PhD, also in biochemistry, at Rice University in Houston.

Sharon is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular Carcinogenesis and Director of the the Center for Cancer Epigenetics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Her team uses genetic, molecular and biochemical approaches to investigate the functions of histone modifying enzymes in vivo and understand whether protein post-translational modifications are cross-regulated.

Q. What sparked your passion for science?

My parents had a love of nature that they passed on to us. Trips to the museums of natural history, aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens all triggered a curiosity about how living things worked. That curiosity together with some great science teachers in high school, followed by a chance to work in a biochemistry lab as an undergraduate, helped me find my calling as a scientist.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your background. What exciting research projects have been going on in your lab?

My lab has a long standing interest in defining the functions of histone modifying enzymes in vivo. Our genetic studies in both yeast and mice keep turning up new, unexpected functions for these enzymes not only in the regulation of transcription, but also in mitosis, in telomere maintenance and in genome integrity.

Q. What do you think the next big breakthrough in epigenetics research will be?

I think we are beginning to understand how epigenetic pathways integrate with signal transduction, particularly through post-translational modifications on kinases or through changes in histone 'reader' affinities. I think we have only seen the tip of this iceberg so far.

Q. Do you have any advice to those starting their careers in research?

Don't turn away from unexpected results. Embrace them as they often lead to the biggest insights and to new discoveries.

Q. You are co-chairing our Cancer Epigenetics: Environmental Influences and Molecular Mechanisms meeting in Houston later this month. What do you believe attendees will achieve at this meeting?

The field is discovering more and more connections between environmental and epigenetic pathways. This meeting will provide attendees a better understanding not only of basic epigenetic mechanisms, but also how epigenetic factors respond to environmental, metabolic and disease stimuli.

Q. What do you think makes the meeting stand apart from other related meetings? Why should someone from outside Houston consider attending this meeting?

This meeting is a bit different to other epigenetics meetings, as it will bring together a unique combination of leaders in epigenetics and leaders in the study of environmental factors that affect disease risk and progression. 

Q. Can you highlight some of the speakers you are most interested to hear from?

Dr. Jerry Workman will provide our keynote lecture on "Chromatin Modifications in Signaling and Metabolism". Dr. Workman is a long standing leader in the chromatin and transcription fields, and his research always addresses the most important and timely topics.