When NIH researchers talk about genome-wide association studies (GWAS), they’re often talking about research that compares DNA markers across the genome in people with a disease to people without the disease. In the case of NHLBI’s Dr. Susan Harbison, she’s most likely talking about the DNA and genome of Drosophilia, aka, the common fruit fly.
Dr. Harbison, an Earl Stadtman Investigator in the NHLBI’s Laboratory of Systems Genetics, spends her days observing the sleep patterns of Drosophilia and analyzing genes and phenotypes. Her primary research interest is in complex traits, and sleep provides a perfect example. Many genes and multiple environmental factors influence sleep. She’s chosen to focus on the Drosophilia because of the powerful genetic tools that have been developed to study this model organism.
Her most recent research helped identify SNPs in novel loci – many of which have human homologues– that may be associated with natural variation in sleep. The research is particularly intriguing when you realize that she was observing a variation in sleep in flies of identical genotypes, which showed that flies’ sleep patterns were affected by changes in the environment. Dr. Harbison’s research also has importantly observed the differences in sleep patterns between male and female flies and in how sleep deprivation biologically affects each gender differently.
Dr. Harbison’s non-traditional career path is as intriguing as her research efforts. She launched her career as an aerospace engineer before going back to school to receive her PhD in genetics. Her computational and mathematical background – and her aptitude for compiling and synthesizing data – led her to venture into quantitative genetics.
There’s no question that Dr. Harbison is a rising star in the scientific world. Recognition of this extends beyond the NHLBI. Dr. Harbison recently received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which is the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon outstanding researchers beginning their independent careers. She was recognized for her work into how environmental changes – such as drug exposures – alter sleep in fruit flies. By systematically exposing Drosophilia to various changes and measuring the impact on sleep, Susan hopes to distinguish gene networks that are robust across environments from those that are not. And the identification of those networks just may have implications for humans.