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Stars of Stanford Medicine: In pursuit of the “Aha!” discoveries

This Stars of Stanford Medicine Q&A features Massa Shoura, a postdoc who studies genome architecture.

Massa Shoura, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Nobel Laureate Andrew Fire, PhD, a Stanford professor of pathology and of genetics. She recently received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. A Dallas native, Shoura earned one doctorate in molecular and cell biology and another in biomedical engineering, both from the University of Texas at Dallas. I chatted with her about her scientific and personal interests.

Why did you go into science?

The cool thing about the job we do is that it’s different every day – you get different challenges on almost a weekly basis. One day I'm at the beach working with mammalian samples, the next day I'm writing code for data analysis, the next week I'm working with worms.

But what I love about being a scientist is the ability to make a discovery. That 'Aha!' moment when you feel that you’ve just discovered something that no one else on earth knows about yet. For me, there is something really thrilling about being the first person to know something and then the joy of sharing it.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on understanding our genome: how it folds, how it compacts in the nucleus, yet remains accessible when needed and how certain structures have a particular function. I’m also working on understanding a subset of our genome that is structurally different from the classic linear chromosome and how the information encoded in these structures might contribute to our genomic fitness and disease.

What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

As a postdoctoral researcher, I have a lot of freedom to explore and implement many ideas. The independence and the full dedication to research is really great. The other fulfilling thing is having to supervise or teach an undergraduate or a high-school student and seeing how excited they are about science and how much they appreciate the opportunity.

Why did you choose to come to Stanford?

Before figuring out which program I wanted to join, I was leaning towards moving to Stanford because of the outstanding support they offer to postdocs. In terms of the places I interviewed at, the labs here work together and there's a very collaborative environment. The PIs are very down-to-earth and very much invested in the future of the postdoc. The reason why I enjoy the lab I work in right now is because of Dr. Fire’s philosophy of how to conduct research, his ultimate support of the lab crew, and the exceptional training environment his lab provides – the postdoc, if he or she chooses, will come up with his or her own ideas to peruse, and ultimately it is your project under his guidance. Although it is more risky to do your postdoc research this way, you are much more independent than a typical postdoc elsewhere.

What is your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate life goal is to continue being challenged – I would like to see myself staying in academia. I do want to be a team leader doing research in genomics and coming up with new ways to contribute to mechanisms of disease and diagnostics.

What are you currently reading and why?

I am reading a book called Stiff by Mary Roach, which is a witty book about cadavers and the lives of people who deal with cadavers. I’m still on the first chapter. The book tries to make sense of conditions that we don’t think of as normal and how people deal with them — it is insightful, educational, respectful, and, yes, funny.

Do you have a role model?

The underdog! Every man or woman who had to go through obstacles or overcome challenges and never quit trying to achieve their goals in life. In science, my role models are humble and patient scientists who are doing research because of their absolute love of science — I try to learn from them. We need more of those.

Do you have any rituals or things that you do before you can get into the mode to work?

Coffee. I usually start my work day early, and before coffee I don’t think I can do much, so my morning coffee – definitely a must.

What is one of your most memorable moments doing research?

When I was in graduate school, three of my major experiments had their breakthroughs during the Christmas holidays, so I made it a habit of trying to work every Christmas.

Stars of Stanford Medicine is a new series introducing readers to some standout scholars in the School of Medicine.

Previously: Meet the stars of Stanford Medicine
Photo by Margarita Gallardo

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