Krystal R. St. Julien's struggle with sickle cell anemia inspired her to become a biochemist.
Krystal R. St. Julien’s own hemoglobin got her hooked on biochemistry. Born with sickle cell anemia—a painful genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to become rigid and clump together when they don’t get enough oxygen—she spent many hours in the hospital as a child and decided, early on, to stand up to the disease.
Indeed, the 22-year-old biochemistry graduate student at Stanford University announced that determination at age four. “I’m tired of being sick. I’m going to make new shots,” she told her mother. “I was really adamant about making things better.”
As a teenager, St. Julien read research articles to keep up with new treatments for sickle cell disease, which can result in stroke or organ failure. With encouragement from a “really great” biology teacher at Oak Harbor Middle School in Oak Harbor, Washington, St. Julien also learned about the specific hemoglobin mutation that led to her own disease. The experience solidified her interest in molecular research, and her broad curiosity in that and other scientific subjects helped St. Julien cope with the sometimes harrowing treatments for her painful disease.
St. Julien’s doctors urged the curious teenager to consider medical school, but she saw a different path for herself. “I could not conceive of myself walking the halls of a hospital every day. I knew, even from very early on, that I was meant to be a researcher,” she says.
St. Julien entered the University of Washington as a biochemistry major, and she was often the only black person—and almost always the only black female—in most of her science classes. Concluding that minority students might be inspired to study the sciences if they had more role models their age, St. Julien decided to take a more active—and visible—role on campus and within the biology and chemistry honor societies. She was occasionally invited to speak on campus, usually about minority issues in the sciences. In one case, she spoke to the board of the University of Washington’s Safeco Insurance Minority Scholarship to encourage them to continue funding. “After hearing my speech highlighting my hopes for the future generation of minority scientists, the board members thanked me and a few told me they were proud to have contributed to my accomplishments.”
Throughout her undergraduate years, St. Julien’s sickle cell disease continued to plague her, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her dream of becoming a researcher. As a senior, she worked in the laboratory of developmental biologist David Kimelman, who studies the signaling pathways that control embryonic development in zebrafish.
In Kimelman’s lab, St. Julien studied a tumor suppressor that also helps to control cell shape and cell movement in vertebrate embryos. The work was sometimes frustrating. “If you make one slip, you have to start all over again,” she says. “I could easily waste a month.” But in the end, her tenacity paid off: she was the co-first author on a research article published in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. Kimelman says St. Julien stood out from other undergraduates because she didn’t just do as she was told in the lab. “She really thought about her project, contributed her own ideas, acted like a real scientist,” he says. “She’s a delightful person, the kind of person one would like to see teaching classes and raising another generation of scientists.” In June 2008, St. Julien graduated from the University of Washington and spent the summer at Harvard University doing research in the lab of HHMI investigator Catherine Dulac as part of HHMI's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). In Dulac’s lab, St. Julien helped develop a method to physically tease apart individual neurons from the brains of mice. Dulac’s team is now using the new technique to study genetic imprinting—the process by which a copy of a gene is silenced depending on whether it was inherited from the mother or the father—and its role in brain development and behavior.
After finishing up her work at Harvard, St. Julien returned to the West Coast to begin a Ph.D. program in biochemistry at Stanford University. Although learning about sickle cell drugs originally inspired St. Julien's interest in biochemistry, she doesn't expect her dissertation research to address that condition specifically. "I always kind of knew I wanted to be able to help people with diseases," she says, but she is still deciding on the details. "I just want to find something I love researching.”