“When I was in Grad School…” with Heidi Cook-Andersen


By Samantha Jones

Heidi pictureHeidi Cook-Andersen did not plan to be a scientist. Heidi was the first in her family to attend college and her father always wished he had the opportunity to go to law school, so at a young age, Heidi remembers her father impressing upon her that being a lawyer was the ideal career choice. Although she was accepting of a future in law, she unknowingly began to develop an appreciation for the natural world. It all started with bees.

How it all began

In 4th grade, Heidi stumbled upon a book in the school library about bee communication. She was captivated by the intricacies underlying how bees can distinguish variation in colors, tastes, and odors, all the while exchanging information. Heidi laughs as she recounts her obsession with these tiny buzzing insects, “It was the time in school where we started having to do lots of book reports and writing assignments, and my poor teacher, I think every single one of my writing assignments was about bees.”

“All of my friends were writing these cool fictional stories and I was detailing how bees communicate.”

Heidi grew up in the small town of Mesquite, Texas, a place known for its rodeo. She attended a few rodeos herself, but the closest she came to being a rodeo participant was with her favorite shoes in high school: red cowboy boots. After high school, Heidi headed off to college where she studied pre-law as an undergraduate. While there, she worked over 30 hours per week as a paralegal to pay her way through school, but quickly discovered it wasn’t for her. Although she didn’t feel passionate about going to law school, Heidi still felt compelled to follow through with the plan she and her dad settled on almost decades before. “I decided that if I took the LSAT and did really well then maybe I’d just go.” She did indeed do well, and filled out all of her applications, but in the end she couldn’t bring herself to send them in. Throughout undergrad, she was gradually realizing that she developed an interest in science that she never allowed herself to pursue.

Leaving behind the rodeo and Frito© pie

Heidi made the bold move of going back to school full time to fulfill pre-med requirements, all the while working as a lab technician.

After her first week in the lab she called her dad, announcing, “I’ve found my kind.”

Heidi’s dad, who passed away in 2015, would always recount the story to his friends as Heidi saying, “I’ve found my species.” Heidi’s eyes light up as she reminisces about that exciting time in her life. “It was the first time I found people who were excited about the same things that excited me.”

Heidi first decided to go the MD route but, while working as a lab technician, discovered a love of research, so she added on the PhD. Leaving the rodeo and Frito© pie (yes, this is a thing, I’m sure she would chat with you about it) behind, Heidi headed to New Haven, Connecticut to attend Yale University to obtain her MD/PhD. She spent her graduate years in the lab of world renowned RNA biologist Joan Steitz, investigating the role of small nuclear RNAs in monkey T cells. Heidi speaks highly of Dr. Steitz, and feels honored to have had the opportunity to train with such an accomplished scientist and role model for women in science. In retrospect, Heidi’s only graduate school misgivings concern her project choice. “I probably should have picked a more tractable system. Monkey T cells grow slowly, and you couldn’t transfect them, not to mention the genetic sequence was unknown, so you never knew what antibodies would cross react.” So, why did she choose such a technically challenging project?

“I got excited about the question, and the challenge of doing something that no one had done before. Looking back, when you’re designing your PhD project it’s probably equally important to consider feasibility. You need a balance of excitement and pushing the envelope, and feasibility.” That being said, Heidi had an overall positive graduate experience, and she feels fortunate to have been “given the freedom to struggle and fail for a little while.”

In Heidi’s opinion, a student’s PhD years should be a time of personal growth.

“You need to struggle; you need to dig yourself into a hole and figure out how to pull yourself out of it,” she says.

That being said, traversing the difficult, and often stressful, graduate school terrain is not easy. As a mentor, Heidi works to provide support and guidance while also giving her students the independence, and room, to learn from their mistakes. Heidi strongly believes that a combination of curiosity and persistence are what will help get a graduate student to the other side. “There is no field quite like this one, where you have the chance to find new things and new ideas, but it’s a challenging and often stressful path, so if you can’t keep that curiosity and remember why you’re here, why it’s exciting, and why it’s such a privilege to spend your days like this with other people who are excited too, it’s easy to become dissatisfied.”

How to make a good egg

Heidi is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Reproductive Medicine here at UCSD. Her background is in RNA biology, and post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression.

“My lab is interested in, at the most basic level, what it takes to make a good egg.”

“What is necessary at the molecular level for a fully differentiated oocyte to successfully convert into a totipotent embryo that can then drive development of an entire organism?” The work Heidi’s lab is doing has important implications not only for the field of development, but also cell reprogramming, RNA biology, and fertility. Heidi’s lab is off to an exciting start, as she just received the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Medical Scientists, a prestigious award offered to only a dozen physician-scientists nationwide.

When I ask Heidi if she could choose one word to describe science research today, she assuredly says, “Opportunity. It is an extremely exciting time to be in the field of early mammalian development. More and more cutting-edge, genome wide approaches that can be performed with a single cell or a low number of cells are becoming available. These new approaches will provide us the opportunity to address decades-old questions in development in ways never before possible. My laboratory is working to implement, and even help develop these approaches, and is poised to be at the leading edge of this era.”

Heidi could not be happier with where she is today, and so when I ask her what she would be doing were she not a physician-scientist it takes her a minute to respond. She settles on two things: spending more time with her 10-year-old son, who she worries won’t think she’s cool for much longer, and going on an extended sailing trip. She started sailing at the Yale Yacht club during graduate school, as they made it incredibly cheap for students. She was captivated by the excitement of sailing. “It was kind of fun to see how far you could push [the boat] before it would fall over,” she laughs. When Heidi started looking for jobs she wanted to be near the water so she could sail in her free time. One day she hopes to take a navigation course and get her license so that she can take overnight sailing trips.

If she wasn’t in the lab, at the clinic, or sailing around the globe, Heidi would apply her science expertise in Wine Country.

“I would love to buy a vineyard in Napa. That could be scientific, right? Maybe I’d study the molecular basis of good wine—I could genetically engineer good wine!” she says.

Although I’d love to be her first investor, it looks like Heidi has a long and exciting academic career ahead of her, as she and her lab appear well poised to help shape the field of developmental research.

Check out what Heidi’s lab is up to here: https://cookandersenlaboratory.wordpress.com