Tracy Raines

Hometown: Grundy, Virginia

Undergraduate: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)

Unlike many graduate students in the biosciences, Biology student Tracy Raines didn’t get a lot of early exposure to hands on science in high school or do any research during her undergraduate years.  “I had no idea what I was going to do after I graduated.  I knew I didn’t want to be in medicine and I knew I liked plant biology.  In my last year I took a molecular biology course and really loved it.  When I realized other people had been doing this kind of research all through undergrad I thought that would have been an awesome thing to do.”  This revelation motivated her to apply for jobs in some biotech companies when she moved to the RTP area of North Carolina after college.   Tracy had no lab experience – she literally had never used a pipette before – and says she’s still not quite sure how she got her first part time job running sequencing machines at Paradigm Genetics.   “I was persistent I guess.  I just kept asking them about the position, telling them that I really thought I could do it.  When I got the chance to meet some people in the company they saw that I really wanted this opportunity so I guess they thought ‘why not?’ and let me try it.”  Tracy’s determination paid off and the part-time job quickly turned into a full time position.

Tracy stayed with Paradigm for a few years and then moved to Athenix Corporation – another start-up company (which was eventually bought by Bayer Crop Science).  There Tracy moved quickly to team leader and she stayed in this position for about 4 years until her life took a different turn.  In 2005 Tracy had her first child and made the difficult decision to stay at home instead of going back to work.  A few years later she had a second child and she stayed home another year but by that point she found she was really missing science.  “It was really nice being at home with them, I wouldn’t change that for the world.  But I needed more.  I started looking for positions but science changes so quickly and in the time I was out I missed a lot, especially in the sequencing field.  If I went back to work I’d have to start back in an entry level position – but the jobs I really wanted were for PhD scientists.”  Tracy decided that if she was going to leave her kids and go to work, it was going to be for something she really enjoyed so she applied to UNC’s BBSP program and was accepted.

When Tracy started graduate school her children were 3 and 1 and she says that “balancing family and research time was really hard.  It still is – I feel guilt daily.  As a graduate student you should be in lab a lot and really be focused, but as a parent you want to see your kids and spend more time with them.”  When she set up rotations she was upfront with each PI that she had young children and laid out her needs for flexibility.  She also talked with people in the lab to get a feel for whether the environment was family friendly.  Ultimately Tracy found that Joe Kieber’s lab was a good fit both for her scientific interests and her commitment to her family.   Besides having the right lab environment Tracy says time management has been critical to her success. “Having been in industry really benefited me because when I’m here, I work.  I am efficient.  I have been able to get as much done as some people who are here for longer hours but may socialize or do other things some of the time.  It’s hard and requires a lot of planning, but I just don’t have another option.”

In the Kieber lab Tracy focused on her attention on cytokinin, a plant hormone that regulates many processes in plants including growth, development, and environmental stress response.   Tracy says “the Kieber Lab is one of the best known labs in the field of cytokinin signaling. They have helped unravel the mechanics of the signaling pathway that controls cytokinin perception in a plant by creating many mutant plant lines and tools.”  Plant senescence, a normal part of the plant life cycle in which various parts of a plant age and die, occurs when important growth signals such as cytokinin are withdrawn from the plant.  One easily observable example of senescence in nature is the bright coloration followed by browning and eventually separation of leaves from trees in autumn.  Tracy’s work demonstrated how cytokinin inhibits leaf senescence by acting through a group of transcription factors called Cytokinin Response Factors (CRFs).  Tracy was drawn to this project because of its real world applications.  “Cytokinin plays a major role in areas such as response to environmental stresses as well as overall plant health and yield. By untangling the genetics regulating senescence and seed yield, we can begin to create healthier crops as well as a more robust food supply.”  Early in her graduate career Tracy was awarded a prestigious NSF fellowship that supported her for three years.  Tracy’s advisor Joe Kieber says she has been an “inspiring presence in the lab.  She took on a very challenging project, which was no small feat for a single mom juggling time with young children and the demands of research.”

After graduate school Tracy knows exactly what she wants: to go back into industry and lead a research group focused on plant biotechnology.  For her, the team approach to science in a company is very appealing.  Even in graduate school she found that collaboration was a really important tool and she has enjoyed working in a highly interactive lab.  “If you work on your project all by yourself, you are missing out on the big picture.  Just talking to someone can show you a different way of looking at something and that can be the solution you need.”  Another important skill that Tracy has learned over the years is how to handle the adversity that all scientists face.  Her favorite advice to give to new students is: “You are going to make mistakes.  What will make you successful is how you handle those situations. Take those moments of failure and turn them into a learning experience and you become a better researcher. It’s helpful to realize that every successful scientist you admire has been in your shoes at some point in their lives.”