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HudsonAlpha lure for researcher to return to state

Kim Newberry, a research assistant at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, is helping figure out what happens to various genes when certain proteins are attached.

The work is part of the international Encode project, which seeks to catalog all the functional elements of the human genome sequence.

On this Wednesday afternoon, Newberry, 28, says helping discover something new and being able to contribute to something important – like figuring out why genes act the way they do in our bodies – is especially satisfying.

Newberry, who grew up near Dothan, had been working for the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., before returning to Alabama.

Her husband Scott’s family lives in Huntsville and called one day to tell Kim about a new biotechnology institute that Huntsville biotech pioneer Jim Hudson and a group of private investors were going to build, with state assistance.

The institute has recruited a number of world class researchers, including Dr. Rick Myers, whose lab Newberry works in. Myers formerly headed up the genomics lab at Stanford University. The focus at HudsonAlpha is on the human genome, seeking to understand how disease occurs.

Newberry, who joined the institute last spring, said Myers is tremendous fun to work with.

"I’m always amazed how tuned in he is to the details, given how much he has going on, and how aware of everything he is," she said. "And whatever issues with projects we’re having, he’s able to figure it out or knows someone who’s done something similar and can help us."

HudsonAlpha also offers a number of educational outreach programs and will partner with the related companies to spin off biotech research into products that can help with the diagnosis and treatment of
disease.

Newberry, who graduated from Auburn with a degree in molecular biology, took her first job out of school at the NIH in 2004. For the next two years she worked with a team seeking to develop vaccines for the various strains of avian flu. Her job as a research assistant included checking to see how various antibodies reacted to the bird flu strains and which ones protected against the virus.

The work has far-reaching implications on flu strains that continue to prove elusive, and Newberry loved it. She and her husband also enjoyed the life and restaurant scene in Washington, but after a couple of years, the idea of coming home became increasingly appealing.

"My husband is a software engineer, so we knew he could find work here," she said. "When we found out the institute was being built, seeing the investment being made by the community, we knew it was going to be a growing industry in Huntsville," Newberry said. "We saw it would be feasible for me to get a full-time job doing this kind of work here."

Newberry said the local cost-of-living, the lack of traffic – compared to the D.C. area – and the green spaces are all extremely appealing.

Her work in the lab, which includes working on gene sequences more than a billion DNA bases long, wouldn’t have been possible in the same way, just a few years ago. But technology advances and the know-how of researchers like Myers have led to a series of breakthroughs.

"What we had to do in the past was specifically look at a protein binding to DNA at a certain point," Newberry said. "Now, with the ability to sequence tremendous amounts of data, it’s more of a survey approach, we’re not limited to one part of the sequence."

Newberry said she is proud that the Encode project is committed to making all of its research findings publicly available for other researchers to build upon.

HudsonAlpha’s educational outreach efforts are also exciting, Newberry said, especially the chance to teach people about science and possible work in scientific fields.

"The educational outreach programs are tremendously important, there are a lot of places where people don’t understand what scientists do," she said.

"This will be great for the state and for the individual, who maybe wants to do this kind of work, but wants to stay in the state. "I’m happy to have the opportunity to do both."

By Brian Lawson
Times Business Writer