Making an impact through genetic health innovation and education

Melanie Maurer Wallace

Melanie (Maurer) Wallace, Ph.D. 2021

Hometown: Spring Grove, IL
BME Degree Program: Ph.D. 
Lab Affiliation: Lammerding Lab

Why Cornell?
I knew within the first 24 hours of my Ph.D. visit weekend that Cornell BME was the place for me! It was clear that our program not only speaks of but has a deeply rooted culture of collaboration, support, and community. I believe these are fundamental pillars to successful and cutting-edge research, and they were an integral part of my degree and development as a scientist. 

Why BME?
As a biomedical engineer, I want to advance our understanding of human health and improve health and quality of life through innovation. At Cornell, this was through my research on a genetic heart condition. In my career in scientific communication at 23andMe, this is through developing new genetic health products that inform and encourage customers to take responsibility for their health.

What was your research focus at Cornell and why is it important?
My research was focused on understanding (1) how certain proteins in the cell nucleus, called lamins, maintain the normal structure of the nucleus and (2) how mutations to lamins can cause disease. Specifically, I developed a stem cell model of a type of genetic heart disease caused by lamin mutations, called Dilated Cardiomyopathy, and used it to study the disease mechanisms. I found that lamin mutations disrupt the normal structure of the nucleus and cause the nucleus to become weak and damaged. In the future, prevention of nuclear damage can be explored as a potential therapeutic target for Dilated Cardiomyopathy from lamin mutations.

The Lammerding Lab hosting their annual bake sale to fundraise for the Ithaca Cancer Resource Center in 2019. From left: Pragya Shah, Richa Agrawal, Melanie Wallace, and Joseph Long.
The Lammerding Lab hosting their annual bake sale to fundraise for the Ithaca Cancer Resource Center in 2019. From left: Pragya Shah, Richa Agrawal, Melanie Wallace, and Joseph Long.

What stands out to you about your Cornell BME experience?
The community at Cornell BME will always stand out to me. The cohesive and supportive environment created by my lab, fellow students, the professors (particularly through my committee and collaborations), and the department staff shaped my experience at Cornell.

What advice might you give other students considering Cornell or BME?
My advice would be to consider your values, recognizing which are most important to you in choosing a program/field of study and an advisor. For example, while some people are motivated by competition or prefer working independently, I knew that the collaborative and cohesive environment of Cornell BME and the Lammerding lab would be best suited for my happiness and development as a scientist.

Where are you now?
I have a science communication position at 23andMe as a product scientist. My job is to synthesize current scientific and medical literature into concise and broadly understandable reports informing 23andMe customers of their risk of developing genetic health conditions, with an emphasis on those that can be heavily influenced by lifestyle. A key component of this job is working with the FDA to develop reports providing customers with particularly sensitive and impactful genetic health information.

Melanie and her fiancé on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park.
Melanie and her fiancé on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park.

Any interests outside of or in relationship to your scholarship?
I love being outdoors and/or moving around! I am an avid runner, hiker, and rock climber, and I love to spend my time learning new sports. Some of my favorite activities at Cornell were learning springboard diving, figure skating, and inner tube water polo. Outside of sports, I love to travel, cook, and play board games.

Favorite quote that helps inspire you in your work/life?
My favorite quote is by Walt Disney:  "Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious … and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."

I have found that as a scientist, while it is important to be hypothesis-driven and have a research plan, by staying flexible, curious, and inspired, the science may lead you to exciting new places! I have found the same thing applies in my career. While I always knew that I loved scientific communication, I never knew that a job like mine existed until I came across a 23andMe internship posting and decided to go for it! Today, I couldn’t be happier with that decision.

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