A Young Mount Sinai Scientist Makes Her Mark

Jillian Shapiro had known since grade school that she wanted to go into science, but she couldn't have predicted she would make her mark on the field so quickly. "My dad's a doctor and my mom's a nurse, so I was always around science and medicine," says the third-year graduate student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at  Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who was named to the Forbes list of 30 Under 30 in Science and Health in December for a discovery related to microRNA. "But it was really in my high school chemistry class that I fell in love with the subject and knew I wanted to study it."

Shapiro, 25, did her undergraduate work at NYU, where she majored in biochemistry. She came to Mount Sinai in 2009 to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), where she valued the exposure to the work being done at the school—especially in the Microbiology Department. In particular she became interested in the lab of Ben tenOever, PhD, a virologist studying small RNA-mediated gene silencing, which had been discovered in the 1990s—a development that could open the door to the design of new medical therapies.

"I found microRNAs to be really fascinating because they're so tiny but they play an important role in so many cellular processes," says Shapiro. Her excitement about Mount Sinai and this field of research was so great that she applied to the early decision portion of the graduate program, and upon hearing of her acceptance she started working in Dr. tenOever's lab while still finishing her undergraduate degree at NYU.

Shapiro's subsequent work focused on one of the major challenges that had stood in the way of advancing the emerging field of microRNA-mediated therapeutics, which was the question of how to deliver these small RNAs into the cell without overwhelming that cell's natural systems. By creating a modified virus, she developed a novel means of delivering any small RNA sequence to a target cell's cytoplasm via a non-canonical microRNA biogeneesis pathway that bypasses the nucleus, thus preventing saturation of the host cell's processes.

"Northern blot analyses revealed for the first time that we had succeeded in engineering a cytoplasmic virus to produce microRNAs," said Shapiro of the breakthrough results she observed with Dr. tenOever in the spring of 2010. "We were pretty speechless to see that it actually worked." The discovery of this process granted her the permission to defend her PhD in two years, and led to the recognition by Forbes. Along the way Shapiro's work has also involved an expanding list of publications, which has grown to include two first-author and two second-author papers in journals such as RNA, Cell Host & Microbe, and Molecular Therapy.  

Since her discovery, Shapiro has been studying the interplay between the molecular pathway she identified and the response to virus infection, as well as its therapeutic potential. And with the Forbes distinction, she is appreciating all the support for her efforts. "As grad students, we work really hard, and sometimes it doesn't really seem like there can be a light at the end of the tunnel," she says. "But for someone to come out and recognize the work you've done and the publications you have outside of that process is really great."