Alumni Profiles Series: Kathryn Ellis
Dr. Kathryn Ellis is a Senior Director and Head of Discovery Programs at Decibel Therapeutics, a Boston-based biotechnology company dedicated to discovering and developing transformative treatments to restore and improve hearing and balance. She earned her bachelor’s degree from East Carolina University in Biology. After graduating from Duke with a Ph.D. in Cell Biology in 2014 through the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology training program, she joined the NIH National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) as a postdoctoral scholar. Seeking a transition to biotech after three years at NIDCD, she was hired at Decibel, where she has found an outlet for her passion to improve human health.
What has your career path looked like?
My doctoral research was focused on the development of the notochord. I showed the vacuoles in the notochord were important for the development of the zebrafish body axis and eventually spine, which has implications for understanding scoliosis in kids (vacuole defects lead to scoliosis of the spine). For me, it’s immensely satisfying to be able to tie a basic biology question, through developmental biology, to the improvement of human life.
After graduation, I did a postdoc at NIH's NIDCD because I'm passionate about developmental biology and at the same time wanted to move more towards having an impact on human health. I had a clear goal of eventually joining a biotech company, and my advisor was very supportive of that. After my postdoc, a former colleague recommended Decibel to me and I joined because they're doing great science and the atmosphere is fantastic.
Which part of your job do you find most valuable?
Having the opportunity to hear from individuals with hearing loss or parents of children with hearing loss is very rewarding to me. The focus of Decibel is the patients, and ensuring the science is done in a rigorous way so that we de-risk the translation of our product candidates as much as possible. I remember meeting parents of children with profound or moderate hearing loss for the first time and hearing their struggles. Kids who wear assistive devices come home from school completely exhausted from having to pay extra attention to listen via their devices. This was my first time seeing the real-life impact of the potential therapies we're working on. Envisioning the positive changes ways we could improve people's lives, especially children, is rewarding. It's a privilege to be able to work on something that could make a difference in someone’s life.
How is Decibel Therapeutics working to treat hearing loss?
Some types of hearing loss are caused by mutation of a single gene (monogenic). In these cases, we know exactly which gene is deficient and therefore what protein is lacking. In most cases, genetic hearing loss is inherited in a recessive manner, so we don't need to edit the bad copy of the gene. Instead, we can perform gene replacement therapy. Decibel and other companies plan to use AAV (adeno-associated virus) for gene replacement, which involves the local delivery of a virus carrying a good copy of the deficient gene. AAV does not integrate into the genome and is regulated by its own elements. Decibel prides itself in our ability to leverage our rich bioinformatics dataset to build precision regulatory elements to control the timing and location of gene expression. Additionally, the inner ear cells that we target are post-mitotic, so the AAV vector should remain stable over time. The surgery is similar to cochlear implant surgery, which is performed routinely by ENT surgeons today.
How does your current position differ from academia?
I started at Decibel as a bench scientist but gradually took on more responsibility in program management. I led a gene therapy effort for a few years, which was like running my own lab. Very recently, I was promoted to Head of all our Discovery programs. In an academic context, this is maybe more like overseeing five labs. This new role has been rewarding, as now I get to learn the business side of things. I still get to do science every day, but I am also learning career skills, like how to manage people, projects, and a business. I'm continually learning, and I think it's because new opportunities present themselves as you grow and then you take advantage of them. It is still fun a fun and exciting place to be, which is delightful!
What do you think is the value of a postdoc?
Grad school was quick! Doing a postdoc was useful because it provided the opportunity to see a different way of scientific thinking. In grad school, you're growing as a baby scientist straight under a current PI or co-mentors. As soon as you step foot in a new lab, you're treated more competently. People view you as a scientist, so you behave differently because you're perceived differently. That changes the way you behave and take risks. You start to be more independent. A postdoc is a great opportunity to learn new skills, see a different style of doing science, and test your independence. If I had to do it over again, I might have finished my postdoc a bit sooner, but it allowed me to pivot into a new field, and work with a new model and system, which was valuable.
How did your graduate education prepare you for your current position? What did you have to learn on the job?
My bench work in grad school taught me how to think and gave me a solid foundation in cell biology, which is the backbone of all biological processes. Gene therapies were brand new to everyone in the field and I had never worked with AAV before. It involved learning on the job, and Decibel supports that. What's really important is having a passion for what you're doing. Excitement can't be taught, but it's what sets people apart. If you bring a level of excitement and eagerness to learn and grow, that's more valuable than coming out of grad school with deep knowledge in a specific field. As long as you have that drive, you'll be successful.
What advice would you give to current graduate students?
It's what you're interested in that drives you. My interest in developmental biology set me up for success. I followed that in my career, and it has led to a lot of great opportunities, just like the expression “fortune favors the prepared mind.” A postdoc is a great time to explore, learn new skills, and see different styles of thinking. You don't have to go into academia afterwards, but if you do, it's a chance to build up your skills and reputation. Whatever career path you choose, make sure it's something that excites you and that you're passionate about. That's what will drive you forward and bring you success.
Ph.D. candidate, Psychology and Neuroscience
Jiayue Liu is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Neuroscience. Her primary research interests are perception and neural signatures related to hearing loss using behavioral and EEG measures. She is also part of the A2i program at Duke Career Center, which serves Ph.D. students who are interested in career paths outside of academia.