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A passion for the lab bench—and beyond

Carol Marchetto
A passion for the lab bench—and beyond

Carol Marchetto

Carol Marchetto

At first blush, Carol Marchetto's passions—yoga, dance and cell culture—seem an odd mix. But the more time one spends with her, the more it makes sense. All three activities require focus, energy and grace, traits that she exudes.

"I guess you'd say I'm a doer," says Marchetto, a staff scientist in the laboratory of Salk professor Fred Gage. "I love to be in the action, whether I'm dancing, in yoga class or working at a laboratory bench."

A highly experienced and successful laboratory scientist, Marchetto finds herself in a period of transition in her career, still committed to hands-on laboratory work but also exploring new and unfamiliar directions in her research and learning to communicate her work to the world outside her lab.

98 "I'm not ashamed to say I love spending my days culturing cells," she says. "It's who I am. It rejuvenates me. But I'm discovering that being a scientist is more than just bench work. There's also coming up with new ideas, finding funding to support those experiments and explaining to the public why science is so important."

Talking with Marchetto, a native of Brazil, one immediately notices her beaming smile, enviable posture and dancer's penchant for expressing herself with her hands, which move constantly to illustrate ideas and events.

With those same hands, Marchetto coaxed skin cells taken from patients with Rett syndrome, a debilitating form of autism that occurs most often in girls, to develop into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and then into neurons. This feat allowed neurons from autistic patients to be studied in the laboratory, opening the door to understanding the genetic causes of the disease.

"Carol has a remarkable ability to make experiments work," Gage says. "She also really enjoys science—you can see it. She loves to talk about it, she reads deeply in the literature, she brings incredible energy to the lab. We are very fortunate to have Carol as a colleague."

As a child, Marchetto was equal parts inquisitive and creative, fascinated with the strength of ants and possessed of a deep aversion to following recipes, preferring to mix ingredients according to her own whims. She once left a piece of raw meat out in the Brazilian sun to see the worms consume it, an experiment that was cut short by her mother's reaction to the smell. "I've always been super-curious," says Marchetto.

She received her doctorate in genetics in 2005 from Brazil's University of São Paulo and that same year joined Gage's lab as a postdoctoral fellow, where she's focused on using iPSCs to study brain development and model human neurological diseases.

Carol Marchetto

"It's all so new and cool," Marchetto says. "You're not going to open a textbook and find instructions on what experiments to do. We have to figure it out as we go."

Last summer, she was promoted to staff scientist at Salk and has since expanded her research to explore how the human brain evolved from those of our primate ancestors. Humans and apes share a large number of genes—around 96% in the case of chimps—but our brain sizes and cognitive abilities are vastly different.

Marchetto is studying how iPSC-derived neurons from chimps, monkeys and bonobos develop and make connections with one another in the laboratory and is comparing them to iPSC neurons from humans.

"It's amazing that our DNA is so similar but our brains so different," Marchetto says. "Many of these differences arise during development, probably due to varying patterns of gene expression. By comparing development of iPSC-derived neurons from humans and apes, we can study human evolution in a laboratory dish."

Marchetto also has recently devoted more of her time to sharing her infectious passion for science with other people through mentoring postdocs; mentoring students on Salk's March of Dimes High School Science Day; and delivering Back to Basics talks, public lectures on Salk research organized by the Planned Giving office. With government funding for basic science in decline, she hopes her talks will help the public better understand the positive impact of science on people' s lives and the need to fund research.

"I love to go to my little cell culture room and work," she says. "But you have to look at the big picture and get out of your comfort zone. It takes a while to learn how to explain science to non-scientists, but if you don't take the time to explain to people what you are doing, they won't respect and appreciate your work."