Harvard Integrated Life Sciences and Tami Lieberman's work at the intersection of biology, math, and the clinic

Tami Lieberman working at the lab bench.

As Tami Lieberman, PhD ’14, considered her options for graduate school, she found herself drawn to Harvard’s Systems Biology PhD Program—primarily because of the quantitative approach it takes, which resonated with her interest in quantitative methods and thinking. “I also liked that the systems biology researchers were asking big questions in evolution,” she remembers. “And I appreciated that I could pursue experimental work alongside computational work.”

Five years later, Tami has never questioned her decision. “I arrived here with a biology degree and a minor in math, and while I had taken computer science classes, I had never applied that knowledge to biology,” she says. “At Harvard, I was able to become a computational biologist.” Based in the lab of Roy Kishony, now a visiting professor of systems biology, Tami studied how bacteria evolve and diversify, essentially watching evolution as it happens. What she and others in the lab discovered was that as bacteria adapted, mutations occurred on the same genes, providing clues about the challenges bacteria experience within the body. “Essentially, we could look at one sample from a single infected patient, identify the genetic mutations among the bacteria in that sample, and use what genes are changing to infer what is most challenging to the bacteria,” she explains. “We could then develop therapies that heighten these challenges. These approaches could accelerate our understanding of bacteria.”

Tami thrived as a graduate student, calling her time in systems biology a magical experience. “I was in a lab surrounded by physicists and engineers, who taught me multiple ways to think about data,” she says. “And, since they weren’t biologists and weren’t as constrained by the knowledge of existing tools, they just built what they needed. This has expanded my imagination about what is possible.”

Due to the strong existing connections with the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area, Tami also acquired an important understanding of clinical research. “There are several places where you can explore the intersection of biology and math, but I’ve been fortunate to work at the intersection of biology, math, and the clinic,” she says. “I very much appreciate that I can imagine in a very direct way how our research could ultimately benefit patients.”

Tami successfully defended her thesis in January and has remained in the Kishony Lab as a postdoc. She is hoping to demonstrate that the results of her graduate studies can be adapted to other bacteria, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. “The evolution of TB within a single patient hasn’t been looked at yet, and I want to model the spread of the disease throughout the body,” she says. “I also want to look to see if patients are infected multiple times with different strains, a critical piece of data for epidemiologists.”

Thanks to the Systems Biology graduate program and the HILS initiative, Tami gained valuable experience in an interdisciplinary environment, and she feels that she is continuing to develop as a researcher. “It just keeps getting better as I keep growing up in science,” she says. “Every little milestone, like learning how to turn data into a manuscript or helping to write a grant, makes me more excited about being a scientist.”

Growing Up in Science

Photo by Remy Chait