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Meet Our Speakers: Dr. Gillian Griffiths

May 07, 2023
by Meg Tian

A Journey Through Scientific Discovery, Personal Growth, and Building a Supportive Community

Introduction: In our latest "Meet Our Speakers" series, we are thrilled to feature the inspiring journey of Dr. Gillian Griffiths from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research for an insightful seminar on her latest research. Dr. Griffiths is an esteemed immunologist known for her work on T cells and their impact on the human immune system. We delve into Dr. Griffiths' research, motivations, career, life, and advice for aspiring scientists. Her insights provide a glimpse into the life and mind of a dedicated researcher.

A Passion for Scientific Discovery

Thanks to the Nuffield Biology teaching scheme, which emphasized scientific discovery and experimentation over rote learning, Dr. Griffiths' love for scientific research was ignited in high school. This early exposure to simple experiments and careful observation, coupled with her experience at University College London and the mentorship of influential scientists such as Av Mitchison and Martin Raff, both of whom were active researchers and took the time to teach and talk to students, solidified her decision to pursue a career in research devote herself to immunology and cell biology.

An Important Lesson on Conducting Research Properly

Dr. Griffiths' research journey was significantly influenced by a remark made by her Ph.D. advisor, Cesar Milstein, a Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 1984. He taught her valuable lessons on thinking critically about how to set up projects properly and how to comprehend and interpret results (not only the positive results that one is expecting).

One of the most memorable lessons was his reassurance to Dr. Griffiths that other labs were "not doing it properly" when she expressed concern about some labs working on similar projects as hers. This phrase stayed with her and motivated her to plan and execute experiments rigorously throughout her career, leading to her significant contributions in the field and overcoming challenges along the way.

Overcoming Obstacles and Learning from Failure

Despite her early success as a Ph.D. student, Dr. Griffiths experienced challenges during her postdoctoral research, when her initial project “didn’t work” resulting in a five-year gap on her CV. From this challenging time, Dr. Griffiths says that she learned the important lesson of “which experiments not to do”. The turning point came when she shifted her focus to “secretory lysosomes” in T cells, inspired by the work of Stuart Kornfeld and colleagues on the mannose-6-phosphate receptor pathway that targeted proteins to lysosomes, and she realized that she could use a similar approach to study proteins targeted to secretory lysosomes in T cells. This work ultimately resulted in the first publication from her own lab in the Journal of Cell Biology.

Current Research Direction in the Lab

Throughout her career, Dr. Griffiths has focused on understanding killer cells and cytotoxicity. Initially working with killer cells as a postdoc, she became fascinated by secretory lysosomes and the unique cellular processes required to turn a lysosome into a secretory organelle. This curiosity led her to start her own lab, where she could further explore these intriguing mechanisms.

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(A group photo of Griffiths lab on Christmas)

The primary focus of Dr. Griffiths’ lab is understanding the molecular mechanisms controlling polarized secretion from killer T cells (cytotoxic T lymphocytes, CTLs). She thinks that it’s such a great system to study as these cells are very dynamic primary cells that undergo rapid changes in polarity, destroying targets by secreting modified lysosomes. She is particularly excited about recent projects identifying novel and unexpected mechanisms regulating killer cells, such as mitochondrial translation (Lisci et al, Science 2021) that may contribute to the development of improved immunotherapies for cancer treatment.

Maintaining a Good Work-Life Balance

Dr. Griffiths loves her life in research but also manages to maintain a good work-life balance, heading off to the swimming pool, cycling trips or simply birdwatching. These escapes, however brief, allow her to disconnect and rejuvenate her mental and physical energy.

Building a Supportive Lab Environment

Dr. Griffiths understands the value of nurturing a supportive and close-knit lab environment. In a warm and fun-loving lab tradition, when someone leaves her lab, they will receive a custom LEGO character of themselves as a farewell gift. This practice, ongoing for a decade, has resulted in a collection of LEGO characters that represent cherished memories and camaraderie among lab members. Now you can still find a collection of these LEGO characters on the Griffiths Lab website.

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(A LEGO feature of a former member in Griffiths lab)

Championing Women in Science

Dr. Griffiths is a strong advocate for women in science and recognizes the importance of a diverse scientific community. She emphasizes the need for equal representation and opportunities for women and encourages them to pursue careers in STEM fields. By sharing her own experiences, she hopes to inspire and empower other women to overcome challenges and break through barriers in their scientific pursuits.

One of Dr. Griffiths' most memorable moments was early in her Ph.D. studies when Joan Steitz (Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale) was visiting Cambridge and walked into the seminar room holding a small baby. Dr. Steitz handed the baby to her husband before delivering an impressive seminar. This moment left a lasting impression on Dr. Griffiths, as it showed her that women could indeed balance motherhood and a successful scientific career.

Communicating Research Effectively

Stressing the value of writing in plain English when describing research projects, Dr. Griffiths encourages her team to create short, engaging videos on YouTube that explain their work in simple terms (an example: She believes that making research accessible to a wider audience is crucial, not just to attract more people to work in the lab or satisfy the expectations of funding bodies like the Wellcome Trust.

Advice for Young Scientists

Dr. Griffiths emphasizes the importance of finding a subject that truly fascinates them. She suggests taking time to ponder and find a significant biological question that truly captivates them and ignites their curiosity. She advises young scientists always to maintain their sense of wonder and curiosity. This passion and determination will undoubtedly drive their success in the field.

Enjoy yourself – science is infinitely fascinating!

-- Gillian Griffiths

Dr. Griffiths also emphasizes the importance of finding a supportive scientific community. She attributes much of her success to the supportive community she has built around her throughout her career. She encourages young researchers to engage in conversations with their peers, present their work, and build relationships with like-minded individuals. These connections not only provide guidance but also foster long-lasting friendships that can have a profound impact on one's career. She believes that mentorship should evolve naturally, rather than being assigned, for the best possible outcomes.

Closure: Dr. Gillian Griffiths' story is an inspiring example of how curiosity, determination, and the support of influential mentors can lead to a successful and fulfilling career in science. As her work continues to advance our understanding of killer cells and cytotoxicity, she serves as an inspiration to young scientists and those striving to make a difference in the world of science. We look forward to witnessing the exciting discoveries she will undoubtedly make in the years to come.

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Youtube channel:

Submitted by C. Patrick Lusk on May 07, 2023