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Student Q&A: Hannah Happ, Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences

Hannah Happ

Hannah Happ, a fifth-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP), studies the molecular basis of epilepsy in the laboratory of Gemma Carvill, PhD, assistant professor of Neurology in the Division of Neurophysiology/Epilepsy. Over the past twenty years, the field has gradually recognized that most epilepsies have a genetic cause, but most patients lack a “molecular diagnosis” — the specific genetic change that is causing a patient’s epilepsy. Happ and her collaborators in the Carvill laboratory and beyond study the impact of epilepsy-linked genetic variants in order to elucidate their downstream effects.

Read a Q&A with Happ below.

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in Mequon, Wis., about a 30 minute drive north of Milwaukee.

What are your research interests?

My primary interest is in human genetics, which started back in high school when I learned about the Human Genome Project in a biology class. That interest grew during college and was solidified by several fulfilling experiences in human genetics labs.

As a member of the Carvill laboratory, I’ve entered the world of neurogenetics research, where we work to understand the molecular basis of epilepsy. I particularly love the translational aspect of our work and the ability to collaborate with clinicians and provide answers to patients and families affected by epilepsy.

What exciting projects are you working on?

Over the past couple of decades and with the advent of next generation sequencing, we now understand that the majority of epilepsies, both early- and adult-onset, have a genetic basis. However, most patients have an unknown molecular etiology.

Some of these cases may be due to somatic mosaicism, where only a portion of cells in the body carry a disease-causing genetic variant, but detecting variants present only in the brain is very challenging. We propose that cell-free DNA originating from cells in the brain could be used to identify brain-specific genetic variants in individuals with epilepsy caused by somatic variants. I work with both a mouse model and a human study with a cohort of individuals with epilepsy to investigate this question. This project is funded by Dr. Carvill’s NIH New Innovator Award, which supports innovative, high-risk research; it has been really cool to be a part of cutting-edge research.

What attracted you to your program?

I was initially drawn to the Driskill Graduate Program because it's a biomedical science umbrella program, which gave me a chance to rotate in different departments. I also loved that the program is on the Chicago campus and is affiliated with Northwestern Medicine and Lurie Children’s Hospital, which facilitates clinical collaborations. There’s also a really nice community of students for studying together, social events and even finding a reagent when your lab runs out.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

My advisor co-leads an Epilepsy Genetics case-conference with Dr. Elizabeth Gerard, an adult epileptologist who directs the Epilepsy Neurogenetics Clinic. Once a month clinicians and researchers meet to discuss particularly interesting or puzzling cases that have a likely genetic basis. We discuss recent genetic testing results, their clinical implications and the logistics of testing patients with suspected genetic disease.

I attended one of these meetings while rotating in the Carvill laboratory, and was pretty much sold on the lab then and there. I joined a biomedical science graduate program at an academic medical center because I’m interested in medicine and excited about genetics research. The medical perspective is an important piece of biomedical research and I love being able to learn about the clinical aspect of the disease I am studying and connect my research with the patients that it will ultimately affect.

Ultimately, though, the best part of my time at Feinberg has been being a part of the Carvill lab. My advisor, Gemma Carvill, is a phenomenal mentor and PI, and she has put together an awesome team. My fellow lab members inspire and motivate me and make coming into work a joy.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

One of the best things about this program is the collaboration and support for trainees. When I need to learn a new technique, I feel like I can email anyone and will receive a thoughtful response. Just yesterday I walked to a different a lab to ask about using a piece of equipment, and the PI immediately showed me how to use it and told me I was free to use it anytime. My lab holds joint weekly lab meetings with two other Feinberg labs that study epilepsy, but with neurophysiology and electrophysiology approaches, which provides helpful perspectives and feedback.

What do you do in your free time?

In the summer I try to get outside as much as possible and go on a lot of walks and bike rides along the lake and around the city. Reading and cooking are my self-care, and I love TV! I’m lucky to have a great group of friends in the city, and we’re on a mission to check out all the great pizza in Chicago!

What are your plans for after graduation?

I’m still a little way away from graduating, but I plan to do an academic post-doc. I am pretty set on staying in the world of human genetics, and I could very much see myself working in another neurogenetics lab!