Focus on Postdoctoral Fellow: Mark McCormick, PhD

Mark McCormick, PhDHearing Mark McCormick, PhD, talk about his work is like surfing the ‘net in five Google windows simultaneously. He’s able to articulate several thoughts and threads at the same time, while his context-sensitive eyes scan for comprehension. He adjusts the information stream as needed.

McCormick works in the lab of Buck President and CEO Brian Kennedy. His expansive investigative palette delves into the basic mechanics of aging in yeast, some cell cultures, and “a few worms.” In yeast, he is working his way through a list of genes that are connected to lifespan extension. One by one, the lab tests yeast strains from a “library” that has had individual genes deleted though an ingenious biochemical process. The lab tests the gene deletions’ effects on replicative lifespan by counting how many daughter cells each strain creates before stopping. McCormick is helping to analyze these results to arrive at a big picture of what they all mean. He’s also working on projects involving chromatin remodeling, a natural process that tinkers with DNA, and epistasis, which involves the study of inhibitory genes. McCormick is quick to credit Research Associate Marc Ting and Masters student Chris Pobre for their amazing, high-speed lab skills.

Sensitive that he might be perceived as working on a “magic bullet” that would extend longevity, he points out that he doubts such a thing exists. McCormick believes biological systems are too complex for that. He paints a picture of an intricate network with feedback loops whereby some biological levers and knobs affect how other levers and knobs do their jobs. Better analogies, he says, might be “describing the whole elephant” or “pulling on the string that ties it all together.”

McCormick is happy to discuss theories of aging—but he’s got to see the data before signing on. To further that effort, he is looking for patterns in the effects of deleting combinations of genes on lifespan. And then, just to keep things interesting, he also studies the metabolic effects of hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation. He gets tight-lipped and sparkly-eyed when mentioning a proprietary project that could yield some translational applications.

McCormick grew up in Baton Rouge, and got his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. After a foray into aerospace engineering (perhaps rocket science was not a sufficient challenge), he majored in mechanical engineering and molecular biology.  From there, he went to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) where he earned his PhD doing cross-factor analyses on lifespan extension of C. elegans in Cynthia Kenyon’s lab.

He moved to Seattle in 2010 to work with Dr. Kennedy. He wanted a new challenge after studying C. elegans, and Brian’s work with yeast seemed a great path. When Brian moved to the Buck that same year, McCormick quickly followed suit, returning to the Bay Area. He credits Dr. Kennedy’s leadership and management style when describing his enthusiasm for working at the Buck. McCormick points out that everyone in Brian’s lab—including the undergraduates, staff scientists, and postdocs—came with him to the Institute. Inspired by Kenyon and Kennedy, as well as Gary Ruvkun’s discoveries in worms at Harvard, along with much of the ongoing work of his colleagues here at the Buck, McCormick says “aging is the thing—the area of research that can have the greatest effect on lifespan and delayed onset of disease.”

When not in the lab, he enjoys playing his guitar and even “played some gigs in Seattle.” He’s a scuba instructor who helps in diving certification training with a group at UCSF. His favorite interactions underwater are with juvenile harbor seals, which he describes at curious 200-pound puppies. He enjoys his daily work and aspires to someday lead his own lab. McCormick’s credo is simple: work hard and take nothing for granted. Theories without data are just paper. And he is a search engine, after all, not a printer.

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