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Black History Month: Q&A With Featured Research Trainee, Kaylia Duncan, PhD

Published on
Feb 3, 2021
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Featured Research Trainee Kaylia Duncan reflects on Black History Month and her career.

Editor’s note: To celebrate Black History Month, our Featured Research Trainee for the month of February is Kaylia Duncan, PhD. Dr. Duncan is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Véronique Lefebvre, PhD, in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery at CHOP. She graduated from University of Iowa in 2019 with a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology. In this Q&A, Dr. Duncan discusses her research, her experiences at CHOP, and why Black History Month is important to her.

Q: What does Black History Month mean to you?

To me, Black History Month is a dedicated time where we as a society reflect and honor the accomplishments of African-Americans and members of the African diaspora. This includes individuals who are no longer with us, but who defied the odds by dismantling the barriers of prejudicial practices to open up opportunities for future generations like me. It is a time to also acknowledge the trailblazers among us who are benefitting from these opportunities that were once inaccessible. This is why I am excited about the recent publication of “1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America” in Cell Mentor by Cell Press. Visibility matters, and as a scientist, knowing that there are colleagues who have made significant contributions to the scientific community is inspiring. I will definitely be reading some of the work from these Black Scientists on this list for Black History Month and thereafter.

Q: What are some research projects you are working on? Why is your work important?

Currently, I am working as a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Dr. Véronique Lefebvre, which I joined in April 2020. The Lefebvre Lab belongs to the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery and to a cluster of labs that constitute the Translational Research Program in Pediatric Orthopaedics at CHOP.

I’m interested in research topics regarding the genetics of developmental disorders. I have had the opportunity to construct a gene regulatory network underlying cleft lip and or/palate, one of the most common birth defects in the world. Now, I’m working on a project dedicated -to unraveling the molecular underpinnings of a relatively rare and newly characterized neurodevelopmental disorder called Lamb-Shaffer Syndrome (LAMSHF), a human developmental disease primarily characterized by global developmental delay, intellectual disability, and autism spectrum disorder features.

My research mentor, Dr. Lefebvre is a leading expert on SOX transcription factors and manages a multi-focused research program investigating the diverse roles of SOX transcription factors in various developmental contexts. My project is a relatively new one to the lab and focuses on how SOX5 inactivation causes LAMSHF. The roles of SOX5 in chondrogenesis are well known, but publications on roles for SOX5 in neurogenesis are sparse. Thus, the exact nature of molecular processes during brain development that are directly or indirectly dependent on SOX5 represents a knowledge gap.

This work is important because understanding the molecular underpinnings of LAMSHF would help us develop strategies to treat the intellectual and motor impediments experienced by LAMSHF patients and thereby significantly improve the quality of life for these individuals and their family members. Furthermore, achieving this goal would suggest that similar therapeutic approaches could be deployed for related neurodevelopmental disorders.

Q: What are some of the most salient training experiences you have had at CHOP thus far? What has been most beneficial for you as a trainee?

It has been very interesting to witness how research practices have evolved under the conditions of a pandemic. One such outcome has been the rise of virtual seminars and symposiums. In July 2020, I had the opportunity to attend the “Towards Targeted Therapies for Neurodevelopmental Disorders” symposium co-hosted by Dr. Ethan Goldberg, a pediatric neurologist in the Division of Neurology at CHOP. I was impressed on how well-organized and accessible the talks were and how they attracted speakers and attendees from national and international institutions alike. It was a great way to absorb content and research trends, while simultaneously being introduced to colleagues and potential collaborators in the neuroscience research community.

I’ve had multiple opportunities to improve my communication skills while at CHOP. As mentioned, my project is relatively new to the lab, and I am putting in a lot of effort getting several protocols working in the lab. This means that I have had to be more persistent in contacting potential collaborators and emailing scientists located in other institutions, even if it is to clarify a technical step in a published protocol. Simply put, I’ve learned if you don’t ask the question, then you won’t find the answer.

Q: Apart from research, what do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

An activity I am proud of was serving as an accompanist to the Children’s Choir at First United Methodist Church in Iowa City, Iowa, during my years as a graduate student. Growing up, I was lucky to be immersed in a rich musical environment and fondly remember singing in choirs and attending music festivals. These experiences groomed me into the person I am today, instilling in me the concept of discipline/diligence and fostering an appreciation for the performing arts. So, I was more than delighted that the church and the musical directors there gave me the opportunity to share these experiences with the children in that community.

Q: Share with us some fun facts about yourself.

I grew up in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), a multi-island nation in the Southern Caribbean. I left SVG at the age of 20 and subsequently migrated to the United States to pursue educational opportunities. On this journey, I have lived in Tennessee, Iowa, and now Pennsylvania. A dream destination would be New Zealand to see the unique flora and fauna all nestled among a most dramatic landscape ... at least this is my impression from the numerous photos and movies filmed there.

When I was younger, I had several dream jobs, all of which reflected my wide interests. These careers ranged from a classical pianist, to a linguist and a scientist (specifically a geneticist). Remarkably, I’ve managed to achieve at least one of these goals!

My go to stress reliever is playing on my piano. I’ve often found that I feel more anxious when I don’t dedicate time to the piano.