Karmella Haynes: Synthetic Biologist, Artist, Advocate, and Ultimate Puzzle Solver

Lily Helfrich

The Art of Experimentation

Current Position

Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Emory University

Educational and Career History

B.S. Biology, Florida A&M; Ph.D. Molecular Genetics, Washington University in St. Louis; Postdoctoral fellow, Davidson College; Postdoctoral fellow, Harvard Medical School; Assistant Professor of Bioengineering, Arizona State University

Primary area of research

Mammalian synthetic biology with a focus on cancer research

Recent papers

  1. The synthetic histone-binding regulator protein PcTF activates interferon genes in breast cancer cells. BMC Syst Biol. 12: 83 (2018).

  2. Design, construction, and validation of histone-binding effectors in vitro and in cells. Biochemistry. 57: 31, 4707-4716 (2018).

  3. The Impact of Chromatin Dynamics on Cas9-Mediated Genome Editing in Human Cells. ACS Synth Biol. 6: 3, 428-438 (2017).

Karmella Haynes always had a strong leaning toward puzzle solving and experimentation. In elementary school, this came through in her math classes and, perhaps unexpectedly, her art classes. She took off with art projects, morphing them beyond their initial scope. She loved asking questions. How could she put visual elements together to convey a message? How could she use photorealism to convince people that they were looking at a 3D object?

Through art, Karmella learned to carry out her first experiments. But it wasn't until late high school that she developed a clear interest in science. Around that time, Karmella was introduced to genetics in her classes—and through Jurassic Park. She got excited about tracking genetic inheritance with tricky but solvable Punnett Squares. She was curious about DNA, a cool molecular substance that worked like a code, and what scientists could do with it. To Karmella, biology started looking more and more like a puzzle.

Formative Years

Karmella's career as an academic jump-started during college when she participated in the MIT Summer Research Program. Karmella spent two summers working with Dr. Mary-Lou Pardue, exploring telomeres and chromosome replication in Drosophila. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she entered the Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program at Washington University in Saint Louis, and she joined Dr. Sarah Elgin's lab. She studied Drosophila heterochromatin and the role of chromatin states in gene regulation.

As a graduate student, Karmella developed a strong sense of confidence in the lab. This confidence—built upon her strengths in creative thinking, puzzle solving, and careful experimentation—allowed her to work productively and independently. She loved devising testable hypotheses and designing intelligent experiments. “I took the philosophy very seriously,” she says. “And I wasn't bad at the bench. I had an artist's skills, had 'the hands' so-to-speak. I suppose I was a philosopher and a good technician, which is really what makes a successful Ph.D. student.”

The Road to Synthetic Epigenetics

What's one word to describe your attitude toward science?


What's your dream research project?

In general, I love inventing genetic gadgetry that functions in live cells. My dream invention would make discoveries easier for resource-limited labs. My dream cell engineering project is to regulate whole sets of genes in cells in a coordinated fashion to regulate cell behavior and tissue formation.

Though she was skilled at the bench, Karmella was leaning toward a teaching career at a liberal arts college. She pursued a postdoc at Davidson College, where she serendipitously found a role as a coach for the Davidson iGEM team. Working in synthetic biology and on bacteria—a system new to Karmella—the iGEM team made waves when they published a paper about bacterial computers, or E. coli engineered to solve a mathematical puzzle. Karmella started thinking seriously about pursuing research again; she wanted to apply synthetic biology to chromatin biology.

At the time, there were only a couple of labs working at the interface of synthetic biology and eukaryotic molecular biology. The leading lab was Dr. Pam Silver's. Karmella shortly joined the Silver Lab as a postdoc. A few years later, she took her postdoctoral research to a faculty position in bioengineering at Arizona State University.

Why Benchling?

I think I first heard about Benchling in 2013 at SB 6.0 in London. I was excited to have my whole lab use Benchling because it's a revolutionary way to share information about recombinant DNA. In the old days (early 2000s) scientists mailed paper sketches of plasmids and pages of printed-out sequences to each other. As digital media became popular, sharing sequences via NCBI and GenBank format files improved things, but those files are static. With Benchling, your updated, corrected, and amended sequences and maps can be accessible to the public. It's a great vehicle for transparency. I believe that requiring my trainees to use this platform will improve how science is done in the future.

Karmella now runs a research lab at Emory University whose goal is, broadly, “to use chromatin as an engineering substrate.” By that, Karmella means that she wants to target engineered regulatory proteins to histone marks. Because histone regulators can modulate the expression of multiple genes, the techniques and bioengineered proteins developed in the Haynes Lab can be used to study diseases in which controlling regulatory states is critical. These histone regulators also have the capacity to change 3D genome architecture, so the Haynes Lab is exploring ways to enable CRISPR editing of previously inaccessible, tightly-packaged chromatin. With this research, Karmella aims to improve both the scientific understanding and the treatment of various human cancers.

SBHSE Haynes lab

Karmella shares her infectious energy with her graduate, undergraduate, and iGEM students.

On Representation in Academia

Looking back on what set the stage for her successful career, Karmella first credits her education at Florida A&M. She received a full scholarship to Florida A&M, a historically black public institution. “A&M taught me to be a scholar without being distracted by being marginalized. Being marginalized has a strong impact on a person—on your self-worth. You're defining yourself by defending yourself. That's just draining.”

Karmella did not have the same experience during her first year in graduate school. Though she eventually excelled at Wash U, she initially found herself distracted, lacking moral support and struggling with imposter syndrome. “The environment—the opposite of what I try to offer my students now—didn't have strong moral support. I feel like some people tried to handle me with kiddie gloves. They didn't give me the same kind of coaching they would have if they were comfortable with me.”

She fortunately found a program at Wash U that supported minority and underrepresented graduate students. Through the Chancellor’s Fellows program, students received a community and resources. Karmella remembers, “Ph.D. students like me that didn’t come from Ph.D. families tended to be first-generation. We lacked the cultural capital that many of our peers had. I loved that program. It really, really encouraged me to stick it out.”

More scientists are needed when we start talking about culture and representation.

The program at Wash U and the environment at A&M didn't make Karmella a good scientist, or change how much potential she had. Instead, both experiences gave her the confidence to capitalize on that potential, the confidence to recognize herself as a scholar and a philosopher. Karmella reflects on these experiences, and the experiences of working with trailblazing female professors like Sarah Elgin and Pam Silver, with gratitude. She also identifies the need for similar opportunities elsewhere. “More scientists are needed when we start talking about culture and representation.”

Solving New Puzzles

Where did you grow up?

St. Louis, Missouri

Where can people find you outside of the lab or classroom?

Jogging through my neighborhood, walking my dog, or enjoying craft beer

Can you share a fun fact?

I am the unofficial genealogist for my family. I've traced three different lineages back to ~1865. This work inspired me to build a collection of antebellum era information to help other descendants of enslaved African-Americans to do their own research: www.sankofagenus.com.

See Karmella's art!

Today, Karmella advocates strongly for representation in science and for her students. She balances several other interests with running a successful research lab. While she works diligently to master grant writing and presentation giving, she continues excitedly to coach iGEM and to teach. Karmella has had to sacrifice painting in recent years, but fortunately she lives out her love of experimentation and puzzle solving through science. And she does take advantage of her artistic side every so often, mostly to make intuitive and aesthetically appealing scientific figures.

If you or someone you know is interested in being featured in Benchling’s Scientist Spotlight, let us know!

Author's note: The photos included in this post are credited to Marco_Alexis Chaira/ASU.

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