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Biochemistry’s Hodges stays grounded in joy of discovery

Jul. 16, 2015, 8:52 AM

Emily Hodges, Ph.D., joined Vanderbilt’s Department of Biochemistry earlier this year. (photo by Anne Rayner)

by Stephen Doster

Albert Einstein once wrote, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

For Emily Hodges, Ph.D., that awakening occurred in a high school science class taught by Trudy Anderson, Ed.D. “She made science exciting,” Hodges said.

Two decades later, science is still fun for Hodges, who joined the Department of Biochemistry as an assistant professor earlier this year.

Her scientific passion is epigenetics, understanding how variations in chemical modifications of DNA, including DNA methylation, the addition of methyl groups to DNA, can affect gene regulation, gene expression and disease susceptibility.

With a Ph.D. from the Karolinska Institute, postdoctoral work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and 30 scientific publications to her credit since 2004, Hodges “is an extraordinary investigator,” said John York, Ph.D., chair of the department and Natalie Overall Warren Professor of Biochemistry.

“Emily’s transformative research in genomics will broaden the Department of Biochemistry’s reach and strengthen our connectivity to the Vanderbilt’s Genetics Institute, Cancer Center and Department of Medicine,” York said. “We are delighted that she chose Vanderbilt and look forward to helping her incredibly bright future become reality.”

Big draws for Hodges, she said, are Vanderbilt’s “unique genetics data resources and BioVU biorepository, next-generation DNA sequencing, as well as computational core resources that are readily accessible and essential for the kind of work that I do … I love being able to develop and utilize cutting-edge technology for discovery.”

Hodges’ path to Vanderbilt began in Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up, and at the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School (formerly Shades Valley Resource Learning Center), where several teachers, including Anderson, encouraged her to pursue her love of science.

During her junior and senior years, she volunteered in research labs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as part of a work-study program. At Rhodes College in Memphis, she earned a double major in biology and French.

Oddly enough, it was her French degree that kick-started her science career.

“I had always wanted to travel and had the opportunity to teach in France,” Hodges recalled. “The French Ministry of Education had a program that brought in young, English-speaking assistants. I was assigned to a high school in Lille, north of France.”

While there she made a connection that led to her apply for a graduate degree at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Her adviser, Christer Höög, was a founding member of a new Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics.

“The human genome had recently been published, so this was a burgeoning field,” she said.

Here again, hard work and a chance connection made a big difference in Hodges’ career.
In 2013, she was named a finalist for a Regional Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists in recognition of her contributions in developing genome-scale techniques for next-generation sequencing as a postdoctoral fellow at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.

At the award ceremony, she met a fellow finalist, Jason MacGurn, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who had just been hired by Vanderbilt and is now an assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology.

“When I mentioned I was in the job market, he immediately told me about the ongoing faculty search in Biochemistry and that I should apply,” Hodges recalled. “Without that connection, I might have missed this incredible opportunity.”

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