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Institute of Genetics and Cancer

Institute of Genetics and Cancer

A blog for our community to write about their interests and to share their stories.

A conversation with a young group leader: Hannah Long

Portrait of Hannah Long

As a PhD student very interested in gene regulation who is passionate about supporting women in science, I was very keen to talk to one of the MRC Human Genetics Unit’s new group leaders, Hannah Long. Hannah has recently moved from Stanford to Edinburgh to start her own group here.

I sat down with Hannah to speak about her career, her experiences as a woman in science, and any advice she may have for young, ambitious scientists. She immediately strikes me as a confident, curious person who is clearly passionate about her work.


First, I ask her about her research.

‘’I am fascinated how organisms arise from a single cell during development, how so many distinct cell types are formed, and are arranged in a pattern essential to their function. All cells in our body contain the same genome or genetic blueprint which encodes all the information to build an organism, and it is therefore through the differential utilisation of our approximately 20,000 genes that cellular diversity is achieved. In my lab, we are interested to understand how genes are turned on and off during development to drive this complexity. As a model system to study this, we focus on the development of the face which is one of the most divergent structures to form during embryonic development and provides a fantastic opportunity to investigate how changes in DNA sequence drive changes in appearance. Furthermore, facial development is highly sensitive to genetic and environmental perturbation with around one third of birth defects having a facial component. Therefore, by studying how important facial genes are controlled during development, we can understand how this process can go wrong in human developmental disorders.

In our current work, we are exploring how a key gene for the development of the face – SOX9 – is turned on and off during facial development. To study early facial formation we utilise a cell-based model of facial progenitor cells called cranial neural crest cells in the dish. The SOX9 gene sits in a gene-poor region of the genome and is surrounded by many regulatory sequences (or on/off switches) called enhancers that act to turn on SOX9 in a developmentally-regulated manner. We are currently exploring how a large number of enhancers can work together to regulate a single gene concurrently, and how these enhancers can upregulate gene expression when they are very far away from the SOX9 gene, separated by millions of bases along the chromosome. Many patients with congenital craniofacial defects including cleft palate have genetic mutations mapped to the SOX9 locus, and through understanding normal developmental processes, we hope to elucidate disease mechanisms for these disorders.’’


It is clear Hannah knows where her interests and strengths lie. As my own heart is set on pursuing a career in academic research, I want to know whether she always had a clear idea of her career path.

‘’ I have always enjoyed science, but at school I really enjoyed humanities, languages and art also. I decided to take a broad undergraduate degree so that I could continue to study chemistry and maths in addition to biological subjects covering evolutionary biology, molecular biology and biochemistry. A couple of summer research projects in the USA and Japan solidified the idea that I would apply next to do a PhD, as I loved the ability to travel, work with people from diverse backgrounds and the intellectual challenges and comradery from working in a lab environment.

During my PhD I still wasn’t sure if I was cut out to be a group leader, but I thoroughly enjoyed the research experience and exploration of the unknown and thought I would apply to do a post-doc in the USA. This next step again gave me the opportunity to travel and to work in a distinct research environment and continue to explore my growing interests in gene regulation and human genetic disorders. During my postdoc the feeling that I could be a group leader didn’t come overnight, but gradually I began to have more ideas and experiments on my wish-list than I could achieve with my own hands. And I found that I took great satisfaction and pride from working with and training PhD students and revelled in their successes and progression. So for me, it wasn’t always my plan to run my own lab, though I knew I loved doing science and working on challenging questions, and I just kept doing what I was enjoying. And while on this journey I tried to take advantage of opportunities as they arose along the way. I feel extremely fortunate to now be starting my own research group within the MRC Human Genetics Unit and am excited to continue to follow research and collaborative opportunities that spark my excitement and joy in science.’’


Hannah is a successful, confident, and enthusiastic female scientist. As a woman in science myself, I am particularly curious whether Hannah has ever felt held back on the basis of being a woman.

‘’ I can’t think of a moment during my career where I can pinpoint feeling disadvantaged on the basis of being a woman. I have been extremely fortunate throughout my training to have had fantastic mentors that have encouraged and advised me during those key moments during a career – giving me confidence to apply for fellowships, putting me forward for an opportunity to communicate my science, or giving me the boost to carry on when experiments weren’t working out.

Seeing women in leadership and senior positions is also a great inspiration to me, and is something that has become more common during the course of my training. I think this is still a work in progress though, and something that we should continue to strive for to increase the diversity of voices and backgrounds in STEM research and leadership.’’


It is inspiring to hear that Hannah has had such supportive mentors throughout her career. Nonetheless, every scientist faces setbacks and many PhD students experience imposter syndrome. I ask if Hannah has ever felt out of her depth and, if so, what helped her overcome this.

‘’ I think most scientists experience this at most stages of their career, especially during times of transition and I am no different in that regard. I think what can help is remembering that everyone feels this way, and that you have earned your position through merit and hard work. In science, we are all trying to explore the unknown, and so inherently there is a feeling of sitting at the edge of current knowledge which can be intimidating – but is also extremely exciting. Science benefits immensely from a variety of backgrounds and vantage points, and having distinct ideas and ways of problem solving enriches a research environment, so we don’t all need to be the same or take the same approaches to be an extremely valuable member of a team to advance science. I would also advise students to find mentors (not necessarily your supervisor) to give you honest feedback on your ideas and progress, who can offer you some validation and confidence, or perhaps make suggestions how to improve in an area you are struggling with. ‘’


looking back over my career, I think I am most proud for putting myself forward for opportunities […] to succeed in the face of the possibility that I might fail.


I want to know if there is a special moment in Hannah’s career that she is particularly proud of.

‘’ I can think of many examples when I have felt excited and proud that an experiment or project I have worked on has worked out or has been completed. However, I think looking back over my career, I think I am most proud for putting myself forward for opportunities – that I applied to PhD programmes, post-doctoral fellowships and group leader positions and gave myself the opportunity to succeed in the face of the possibility that I might fail. ‘’


Having the confidence to put yourself forward for opportunities is very important yet daunting. I ask what advice Hannah would give to PhD students just starting their own journey in science.

‘’ My advice would be to make sure to do what you enjoy – and this doesn’t mean that you need to love doing science every day because some days can be tough when experiments aren’t working and it doesn’t feel like progress is being made. Your PhD is an opportunity to start learning and exploring what you love about science, and find your passion. Ultimately, I think that many of us can find excitement in many areas of science, and so during your PhD I think it’s also equally important to find people and a lab culture you would like to work with. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help and support, your PhD is a time of training and you aren’t supposed to know everything straight away, don’t struggle in silence. And take opportunities that come along to present your work to peers, your field or to the general public – it’s great practice for you to present your work, and you may get some fantastic feedback and renewed energy for your science!’’


We part ways and I am left with a very positive impression. It was great to get an honest insight into Hannah’s career path and I believe many will find some helpful advice and inspiration in her story, especially new PhD students like myself. I wish Hannah all the best for establishing her group at the MRC Human Genetics Unit and I am looking forward to hearing about her work in the years to come.



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