Dr. Trudy Mackay, William Neal Reynolds and Distinguished University Professor of Genetics and Entomology at NC State University.

Hooked on Science

May 5, 2010

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On April 27, Dr. Trudy Mackay became the ninth current NC State faculty member to gain election to the National Academy of Sciences, an honor that speaks to the significance of her more than two decades of work and study here at the university.

“The entire NC State community is proud of Dr. Mackay, who now has an opportunity to work alongside a number of university colleagues in playing a vital role in supporting and shaping our government’s efforts in the scientific arena,” NC State chancellor Randy Woodson said. “Her election to the NAS is testament to the ground-breaking work she has done here at NC State and speaks to the caliber of bright minds we have at this university.”

The NAS was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln that calls on the Academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science. Because membership is only achieved by election, there is no process for individuals to apply for membership.

Earlier this week, we sat down with Mackay to discuss her work, her passion for science and her ability to equip students with the information and knowledge they need to succeed both in and outside the laboratory.

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Dave Pond, University Communications: The National Academy of Sciences elects those scientists who are “dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare.” How do you feel your work fits into this criterion?

Trudy Mackay: My work is on the genetic architecture of complex traits – characters such as height, weight, behaviors, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and life span – any difference between individuals that can be measured and that varies in populations.

Most common human diseases are complex traits – as are most traits of interest to plant and animal breeders – traits important for adaptive evolution in the face of environmental change. Although I primarily study complex traits in a model organism (the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster), general principles emerging from my work are relevant for human health, plant and animal breeding, as well as evolution.

DP: How did you originally become involved and interested in the sciences and academia?

TM: When I was in high school, I took an advanced placement class in biology that had an extensive genetic curriculum, including laboratory experiments working with Drosophila. I was hooked for life.

DP: Talk a bit about your history at NC State, as well as your work with students at the university.

TM: Twenty-two years ago, NC State gave me the opportunity to extend my research to study the molecular genetic basis of variation in complex traits. My training and background have allowed me to attract talented postdoctoral fellows with expertise in molecular genetics to the lab. Most of them remained in academia, and began their own professional careers based on projects they started in my lab and took with them to their first faculty positions.

As far as graduate students go, I like to start them with a project that excites them but one that is not difficult to execute using existing laboratory resources, so they can complete the project and data analysis and write the manuscript for publication early in their graduate career. Then, they’ll be ready to design their own projects to complete their degrees with minimal guidance from me.

My husband, Robert Anholt, came to NC State as a faculty member in the Department of Zoology (now Biology) in the mid-1990s. Robert is a neurobiologist and biochemist by training, but together we began to become interested in behavioral genetics using flies as a model system. Our labs are adjacent in Thomas Hall, and we have several students and postdoctoral fellows working on joint projects. Together we currently mentor seven graduate students, ten postdoctoral fellows and PhD level researchers, and eight technicians, as well as many undergraduate trainees.

DP: What is your philosophy as it pertains to science, and helping to instill your passion for the sciences in your students as well?

TM: We teach students from the standpoint of “our success is your success.” Science is fun when you identify an important research question to which you do not know the answer, but you have all of the tools in place to find out. Of course, answers to important questions tend to be complicated, and we must embrace the complexity and attempt to comprehend it.

Working out these puzzles and being able to continually bring new technological advances and developments from different disciplines to bear on the problems keeps life interesting on a daily basis. And if we’re actually lucky enough to solve one interesting problem, it will inevitably suggest 10 more to pursue.