Episode 64: Kristin Kaus - Tour TGen
Karie Dozer [00:00:04] I'm Karie Dozer and this is TGen Talks. When TGen was founded in downtown Phoenix more than 20 years ago, the Phenix Biomedical campus was just an idea. TGen is now at the center of 30 acres of research facilities now known as the Phoenix Bioscience Core. If you listen to this podcast, or if you follow the headlines about breakthroughs in cancer research, you already know TGen leads the world in unraveling the genetic components of common and complex diseases. But how? What does a lab look like? Who exactly is working inside and how many people work in a lab at one time? Let's take a look inside and find out. And this episode of TGen Talks brings us downtown at Fifth Street and Van Buren. And the subject is TGen Tours. If you've ever driven by TGen and wondered what exactly is inside. Well, the good news is you can find out for yourself because you can tour TGen in a variety of different ways. My guest on the podcast today is Kristen Kaus. Kristen, tell me a little bit about what you do here at TGen. What's your title and what is it that you do every day?
Kristen Kaus [00:01:09] Well, thank you, Karie. So my title is the Manager of Education and Outreach. So I oversee all of our public face tours, community-based events, as well as our internship opportunities for student populations.
Karie Dozer [00:01:22] What is the student population? What kind of students come here to teach?
Kristen Kaus [00:01:25] Great questions. We have all varieties here. We have internship opportunities for high school and college age students, as well as learning experiential activities for the younger generation. So we've had as young as kindergarten in our building up through a Ph.D. program.
Karie Dozer [00:01:44] But it's not just students that can tour, TGen. Who has the opportunity to come in the front doors and poke around a little bit.
Kristen Kaus [00:01:49] Well, honestly, I think that we're all students in our lives and we're trying to learn about what's around us. So any adults, any age is able to come in and learn about the subject matter that we work with here at TGen.
Karie Dozer [00:02:01] What's a typical tour consist of? How long is it and what might somebody see?
Kristen Kaus [00:02:05] Our normal tour is going to last about one hour where we'll bring you in and sit you down, go over a short presentation over some of the history and background of TGen, as well as some of the current scientists that we have and staff and some of the projects that they're working on. And then we'll go and we'll walk around the building. And so from there we can see the supercomputing core. We can talk to some of the scientists as we go through the labs looking at the different research that's happening currently. We also see some of our core facilities, such as our clever sequencing center or our clever center for translational mass spectrometry.
Karie Dozer [00:02:41] So this isn't a tour of a building that has nobody working in it. This is active TGen, this is TGen on a regular day. So there's really no telling what somebody might be able to see.
Kristen Kaus [00:02:51] Yeah, there are some days that I can get you in and I'll have one of our researchers that's working in the cell culture lab and you can see some brain cells that are being worked on in research. Other times I'll have somebody that would be in our fish lab being able to talk to you about the model organism that we use here for overcoming neurodevelopmental syndrome.
Karie Dozer [00:03:11] What is fish lab? That sounds like a lab full of fish. What is.
Kristen Kaus [00:03:14] It? It is a lab full of fish.
Karie Dozer [00:03:15] And what does that have to do with Oka Chung?
Kristen Kaus [00:03:18] So currently we know that we have about 70% of our genomics is similar, are identical to the zebrafish that we work with in house. And when we're looking at some of the proteins of interest for the neurological diseases that we're currently using them for study, it's actually closer to 96% similar for the protein signatures.
Karie Dozer [00:03:37] How long does the typical tour last and how many people are on a tour? Is this like a Disneyland sized line or is this like a small classroom size group of people?
Kristen Kaus [00:03:47] So tours really depend. Some of our public tours can be as little as five or as many as 20. Typically, when we're looking at our public tours where anybody can sign up for those are we also offer tours for community groups or school tours. Also, some of our school tours are usually a little bit a little bit larger as they're bringing their classes down. So we have upwards of 30 to 60 that I've seen in some of our school tours. But when you're coming in on our public tours, it's much more of a intimate gathering between the individuals. So you're with some like-minded people that are interested in the content that we're working on, and it's very much more, much smaller.
Karie Dozer [00:04:23] Some adults listening might think they don't know enough about genomics and genetic medicine to make anything of the information that they get on a tour here. But you told me earlier you have very young children who come through and how young are some of the tour takers and what would you say to somebody who says, I don't know enough about Tea Gen to get anything out of that information?
Kristen Kaus [00:04:47] Well, our goal in education and outreach is to educate the public about what genomic research is and what we're doing here in translational medicine. So I would say you need to know nothing and have no experience to come in the doors and take away some great information that you can share out with friends and family.
Karie Dozer [00:05:03] How personalized could a tour be if you come here seeking particular answers to particular questions, or you have certain topics that are of great interest to you? How much can I learn about something very specific?
Kristen Kaus [00:05:14] If you're asking those questions before the tour starts with email communication back and forth, I oftentimes can reach out to our scientists and get them as part of the tour so you can get some of those answers that you might be looking for particular diseases and disorders that we might be researching. So when we're bringing in school populations or community groups coming in that might have a very particular area of interest, we definitely can cater to what we're sharing with them.
Karie Dozer [00:05:42] What do most of those educate? All tours look like. What are most teachers seeking to show their students when they bring them to teach?
Kristen Kaus [00:05:50] I think they're really wanting to share with the students the STEM identity that they can see and the scientists and researchers that are coming through the building. So as an educator, former educator myself, I would love to bring my students in so they could see what research looks like in real life. In a classroom, you're not really getting the same setting as when you're coming in here to teach. And so I think a lot of it is just giving those students the experience so they can witness what real life science looks like in a lab and then potentially providing them with the ability to see themselves in those researchers to then push them forward in a career.
Karie Dozer [00:06:26] You used the term STEM identity. What does that mean?
Kristen Kaus [00:06:29] STEM identity is really just being able to see yourself in a STEM based field as you grow. So I think a lot of times when I'm working with student populations, they don't recognize the STEM careers that are here in the Valley and in Arizona at large. And so being able to see themselves gives them a leg up from other students, some members that are of their peer group that might not see themselves in a career opportunity. And so that helps to push them forward, to continue to strive for better things in their lives.
Karie Dozer [00:07:03] Some people who hear about a tour of T Gen might think it's a very sterile environment. How much of a concern is that bringing in members of the public to walk through a lab that's obviously doing some very high-tech research?
Kristen Kaus [00:07:16] So we aren't bringing you into areas that would potentially harm the research that we're doing. The only thing that we request is closed toed shoes because you just never know what might happen in an active lab group or lab area. It's very open, collaborative, which is one thing that I absolutely love about T gen. So you'll hear the scientists talking. Anything that you might see, you can come and take photos. I don't bring you into any of the areas of the lab that would be considered off limits or could potentially have material that would be confidential.
Karie Dozer [00:07:46] When you drive by this TGen facility on Fifth Street, it looks very much like another office building. There's a lot of metal in glass, but otherwise it looks fairly typical. Are people surprised by what they see?
Kristen Kaus [00:07:58] I think people are surprised by the amount of technology that we have in the building. I think it's really interesting with the populations that have come through recently, we have now four sequencers in our cloud of sequencing core, doing both long read and storage technology, and so being able to share with them and educate the public as to what the difference is and why there's a need for both of those different types of technology. And then having both of those different technologies in the building is really important to the research that we're doing so that we can move research forward as well as potential translational medicine for the patients that we help.
Karie Dozer [00:08:33] Why don't you start by educating me what the difference is? Tell me what a sequencer actually is, what it looks like, and what the difference is between long and short sequence.
Kristen Kaus [00:08:41] So when we're looking at our sequencers, we have I mean, they look like a box, almost one looks like a big washing machine. One's a little bit smaller than that. More table top. And then we have the pack bio, which is newer, which is a little bit larger. And then we do have we do have the brand new Illumina X plus. So we were a very recent install for that one. So we're really excited. I did have a college group come through the other day and one of the students looked just like, Oh, you have the Illumina X.
Karie Dozer [00:09:12] He knew what it was.
Kristen Kaus [00:09:13] Yeah, you just I hadn't been able to see that in person. Can I go touch? I'm like, No, you can't. But the difference is between the long read and short technology. When you're looking at short read, that's really what has been used for a long time at this point. So it breaks the DNA into tiny little pieces. And then we use our supercomputing core to put it all back together to be able to read what's going on in the genome. When we're looking at long read technology, we can do much longer sequences overall. So with that, it helps us if we don't have parents, if we're working with the children for the Center for Rare Childhood Disorders, if we don't have the parent DNA, we're able to find more of the potential differences that we wouldn't have been able to find with the short read technology. I like to equate it. The difference between the two. Your short read technology is like taking that thousand piece puzzle, throwing it up in the air, and then trying to put it together as quickly as you can versus your long read technology. Taking a 24 piece puzzle thrown up in the air and then putting it all back together, it's a little bit easier to see the pieces with a long read.
Karie Dozer [00:10:12] Tell me about some of the interactions between a typical person taking a tour, a member of the public, and one of your scientists. Do these people taking the tour ask questions about specific disorders and diseases and what it is that those scientists are doing?
Kristen Kaus [00:10:29] That's really going to depend on the group that comes through. So a lot of times with our student populations, they're talking about career exploration, they're talking about what got them into the field, why they're here, and then a little bit about what their research is, what we're talking about. More community based groups or even on our public tours. I do start to see questions that are a little more pointed and direct to particular diseases and disorders that they might have a personal relationship with and some of the research that's coming out of our labs.
Karie Dozer [00:10:56] What about the actual science behind genomics and the fact that most nonscientific people who won't might be taking these tours know very little about the human genome? How much of a deep dive can you do with someone in an hour's time to help them really understand that, which is a very, very complex subject?
Kristen Kaus [00:11:16] I do a little bit of a primmer in our presentations so that most people have a general understanding of your genome and precision medicine. So what the difference would be if I go to the doctor and I'm sick for a general doctor and what they're doing for me versus somebody who's going to be looking at the deep dive of genomics. So we do a little bit of that general education before you even start walking around the building to get an idea.
Karie Dozer [00:11:45] What are the biggest surprises? What are some of the things that people taking tours have said to you or asked of you that were the most astonishing to them?
Kristen Kaus [00:11:55] I think one of the biggest things that people don't recognize is the collaboration that goes through the building. So we have a proteomics division, we have the collider sequencing core, we have spatial transcriptomics. But when you're working in the lab, you don't need to have your own sequencer. You can then take it to the sequencing team and you can get the genome sequenced. If you want to understand more about what's going on in the proteomic or the protein level, you don't need to have your own spectrometers. You can then go to our proteomics division. They can run things through as a center. So when we're looking at that, I think one of the unique aspects of T gene is the collaboration that is going on within the building as well as throughout the state of Arizona and the world overall with the number of collaborations that we do have. But being able to have experts in the field in an area where you might not be an expert, but then they can help you better understand what's going on genomically and having that in the same building. You can just walk down the hallway a little bit and just having those pieces I think, helps us to remain nimble and cutting edge to push research forward.
Karie Dozer [00:13:08] Your background isn't specifically science. You're not one of the ten researchers. What's your background and how is it that you came to be the tour leader?
Kristen Kaus [00:13:17] I am a former educator of eight years, so I spent 18 years in a high school classroom teaching AP biology and other levels. I remember 11 years ago, I think it is now. I had brought my students on a tour. My friend or a colleague had heard of a T gen, and so we came and I remember turning to my colleague after an hour as we walked out of the building and said, That's where I need to work. The mission, the drive, the focus kind of fit my wheelhouse. And then in 2019, when I knew I needed more time and the weekends to spend with my children, the position opened and it's been amazing.
Karie Dozer [00:13:54] So you took a tour and on a whim you got more than information. You got a.
Kristen Kaus [00:13:57] Job. I did.
Karie Dozer [00:13:59] What does somebody do to schedule a tour?
Kristen Kaus [00:14:01] So if you're looking for a public tour, so if it's just one or two of you wanting to come in, you can join one of our public tours. Those are posted on our website. And then if we're looking at groups, schools, community groups, those you can reach out to our education department and we can look at good times that work for both our department, our building, and then your group to find a time that works for everybody.
Karie Dozer [00:14:25] What do you want people listening to know most that you think they don't know about? T Gen Right now.
Kristen Kaus [00:14:30] The work that we do is amazing. I think we're uniquely positioned between academia and industry to allow us to push boundaries that academia and industry aren't able to push. And so I think that knowing that you have this resource here in Phenix is just such a benefit to the economy and to the state overall.
Karie Dozer [00:14:52] It is pretty incredible. Preston Course, director of Education and Outreach and tour guide here at TI. Jen, thanks for your time. Thanks for letting us see what you do.
Kristen Kaus [00:15:00] Thanks for having me.
Karie Dozer [00:15:02] Want to sign up for a tour of gen. Go to teach inorganic education or simply search for the word tour antigens website. For more on TGen’s research, go to tgen dot org slash news. The Translational Genomics Research Institute, part of City of Hope, is an Arizona based nonprofit medical research institution dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research with life changing results. You can find more of these podcasts at tgen dot org slash tgen talks, Apple and Spotify and most podcast platforms. For TGen Talks, I’m Karie Dozer.