Collaborative Learning

Biology professor JJ Miranda counts on teamwork to research the mysteries of cancer-causing viruses

By Dana Najjar

JJ Miranda

JJ Miranda didn’t approach graduate school the way most people would. When he arrived at Harvard’s department of molecular biology in 2001, he was less concerned with choosing a topic and more intent on finding an advisor who could teach him the ins and outs of research and academia. At Barnard, he’s taken a similar, mentorship-driven approach. Since joining the faculty as an assistant professor in biology in 2018, he’s fostered the very same collaborative learning environment in the lab and classroom that benefited him in his own graduate studies.

I could not accomplish what I'm doing without the students and staff that have decided to join this crazy roller coaster ride of a research program.

“The sciences, maybe more so than a lot of the other fields, are really a group effort,” he says. “I could not accomplish what I’m doing without the students and staff that have decided to join this crazy roller coaster ride of a research program.”

Miranda was drawn to science by the promise of what it could accomplish. While still a freshman at Reed College, he read And the Band Played On, a journalistic account of the HIV epidemic, which set him on a path toward a career in biomedical research. “It was a book about the interplay of the scientists and researchers, the activists, and government,” Miranda says. “It was a very real kind of depiction of how different groups have to work together and coordinate to actually get something done.”

Inspired by what could be accomplished when scientists tackled real issues, he narrowed in on the field that best suited his curiosity and objectives. “Biochemistry is that sweet spot where you can engage in academic intellectualism yet do something that at some point might have an impact on medicine,” he says. “I wanted to do something that I enjoyed, but I also wanted a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Miranda has found that sense of purpose in the lab, where he and his group of technicians and students focus on unraveling the mysteries of cancer-causing viruses. Specifically, they study the ways in which viruses can turn on or off certain cancer-causing genes. Viruses “have evolved to basically take advantage of human processes and manipulate them to facilitate [their own] growth and reproduction,” says Miranda. “So if you learn how a virus works, you learn something about the cell at the same time.”

Some viruses can have an especially nasty effect. Epstein-Barr virus, for example, causes mononucleosis in most people it infects. The kissing disease, as it’s known, can cause fatigue and fever but ultimately resolves itself. “But in some people,” Miranda says, “it goes on to cause lymphomas or throat cancers, and we don’t know why that is.”

To try to find out, the lab isolates healthy human cells, then infects them with a cancer-causing virus. Some of the cells turn into cancer cells, which multiply feverishly and start to overtake all the healthy cells. Miranda and his team then compare the sick cells to the healthy ones: “And often the main difference is the presence or the state of the virus,” he says. Once they’ve pinpointed the ways in which the virus might be changing the healthy cells into cancer cells — the “pathway” of the disease — the team then checks to see if there are any drugs already on the market that might target that pathway and reverse the virus’s effect.

Growing and maintaining human cells is a constant challenge. “It’s like a combination of being a gardener and a preschool teacher and a zookeeper all at once,” Miranda says. “You have all these living organisms outside of your control and you have to constantly manage and feed and observe them.”

In addition to his work in the lab, Miranda teaches several classes. To him, teaching and research are two sides of the same coin. “In order to be a good researcher, you also need to be a good teacher. It’s easy to have this misconception that we only teach when we’re in the classroom, that we only have those hours that are on the course catalog, but we are teaching all the time,” he says.

And Miranda’s love of teaching is not lost on his students or colleagues. Nicole Rondeau, a technician in his lab, considers him one of the best teachers she’s ever had. Rondeau graduated from Barnard in 2018 with degrees in dance and biology. “I really appreciate how patient he is and how well he’s able to articulate the things that need to get done, how to do them, and then gives you the space to try and then fail,” she says. “It’s refreshing to be allowed to fail and have someone say, ‘That’s okay, try it again.’”

Rondeau describes working with Miranda as a full-on immersion into the real world of academia and research: “That’s the mark of a phenomenal teacher, that they’re not shielding you from the things that aren’t pretty,” she says. “It doesn’t matter, they’ll equip you with the tools to be able to take those challenges as they come.” But that doesn’t mean it’s all grunt work. The attitude in Miranda’s lab, she says, is very much “We’re here to do science! And we’re gonna have fun doing that!”

True to form, Miranda’s outlook on the future of cancer research is hopeful, and he’s focused on what can be achieved by working together: “I don’t want the complexity [of the problem] to give the impression that progress can’t be made,” he says. “In order to solve a problem, you need a ton of people trying, with the full knowledge that most of us are not going to succeed. But you need that critical mass to get enough shots on goal.”

Latest IssueSpring 2023