Have you ever wondered why cheetahs have spots and tigers have stripes? HudsonAlpha researcher Chris Kaelin did.  Now he is using the power of genetics to study hair color and coat patterns in mammals, an area of research that can lead to a greater understanding of the genetic basis for particular traits.

Q: What led you to HudsonAlpha?

I started working for HudsonAlpha in August of 2009. My first trip to Huntsville was in December of 2008, and I had the opportunity to meet a number of people, attend the holiday party and explore the town. Working at HudsonAlpha offered a bit of old and new for me. I had worked for Dr. Greg Barsh at Stanford and joining his lab at HudsonAlpha provided the opportunity to continue the research that originally attracted me to his lab. On the other hand, HudsonAlpha is an exciting environment with a different focus, one based on emerging genomic technologies that provide new approaches to addressing old interests.

Q: What is your research area and what is your role?

My research focuses on using genetics to understand the biology of hair color and coat patterns in mammals. Color and pattern vary tremendously in different species and even among individuals of the same species. By identifying the genes involved in color and pattern differences we can learn about their specific functions in a relevant context. The work is important because the chemicals involved in making hair and coat color are involved in other pathways in mammals. When these go wrong, the result can be cancer, for example. This is also another example of the importance of studying basic biology: We need to understand how the world works.

I am involved in all aspects of the research – thinking of purposeful scientific questions, finding tractable ways to answer them, conducting research and communicating the results and interpretations. Every day is different and I enjoy the process of turning an interesting idea into an important answer.

Q: Why is this research important?

Forward genetics is the process that identifies the genetic basis for a particular trait. It is a powerful approach because you can often make concrete conclusions about how genes function in an organism rather than in a test tube. Coat colors and patterns may seem unrelated to medically relevant issues like obesity and diabetes, but biology has an interesting way of using the same biological processes to do different things. The first step is understanding the process itself.

 Using cats and dogs as genetic models is slightly off the beaten path of biomedical research. I have always had a love of nature and I view my research interests as a means of incorporating that passion into my work. It is also a great way to communicate science to non-scientists. Not many people relate to metalloproteases or cell surface receptors, but many people wonder why cheetahs have spots and tigers have stripes.

Q: You are still in California, but working for HudsonAlpha in Huntsville. How does that work?

Yes, I am still in California. Although the majority of my time is spent at Stanford University, I travel to HudsonAlpha once every couple months, usually for a week at a time. Working remotely would have been difficult a few years ago, but modern communication tools make the situation easier. I have about half a dozen ways to communicate with people at HudsonAlpha (phone, Skype, texting, email, chatting and a giant life-size monitor) and I take advantage of all of them. The situation has its share of benefits too. I have access to different resources and I have friends and colleagues at both places.  

It is possible that I will transition to Huntsville. Huntsville and the surrounding areas are beautiful, and the research facilities at HudsonAlpha are fantastic. So moving is a tempting idea.

Q: What’s your educational background?

I attended the University of California Davis as an undergraduate, earning an undergraduate degree in genetics in 1994. I spent the rest of my educational career at Stanford, where I was a graduate student and a post-doctoral fellow in the genetics department of the Stanford School of Medicine. My graduate work focused on the molecular process involved in body weight regulation, particularly how the brain received and interpreted hunger signals.

Q: What sparked your passion for science?

I enjoyed nature, particularly watching and interacting with animals, from a young age. I worked at veterinary clinics in high school, and I attended UC Davis as an undergraduate because they had a strong veterinary school. I was initially an animal science major. After my first college genetics course, I decided to switch majors and take a research internship. The hands-on experience of molecular biology altered my career path.

Q: What do you like best about working at HudsonAlpha and how does it differ from other places you’ve been?

My favorite aspect of HudsonAlpha is the people who work there. Even though I work remotely, I rely on several people at the institute for help and support. I am constantly amazed by the friendly and supportive atmosphere, whether I am in California or at the institute. It is a rare and much appreciated quality!