Social scientist

Allyson Morton
Allyson Morton

Allyson Morton, PhD ’18, studied the intricacies of cholesterol as a bench scientist, but as a ‘people person’ she also embraced opportunities to work with others at the School outside of the lab

May 17, 2018 — As the first member of her family to attend college, Allyson Morton dived into her education free from the pressure of preconceived notions. From her undergraduate years at Duke University, to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where she’ll earn a PhD in biological sciences this month, Morton embraced the process with a sense of adventure. And along the way, she discovered that research is fun.

For her thesis, Morton looked at the metabolism of HDL cholesterol—the “good” kind, known to lower heart disease risk by helping remove excess cholesterol from the body. Having high levels of HDL is better for health, but attempts to raise it with drugs have been unsuccessful. Understanding how the proteins contained in molecules of HDL regulate its behavior may ultimately provide a better target for treatment.

Morton and her colleagues found that a protein called ApoE is associated with HDL’s heart healthy benefits. But the protein ApoCIII, which is also present in some HDL molecules, lessens ApoE’s effects. The results were published in February in JCI Insight.

In a second study, the researchers found that dietary unsaturated fat seems to activate ApoE—a novel discovery.

“It’s great to be the expert in something,” Morton said. “For a little while, you get to be one of the only people in the world who knows your finding.”

For Morton, the work was even more exciting because it used samples from humans, not the rodents more commonly used in metabolism studies. She said, “The beauty of working with humans is that no matter what result you get, as long as the data quality are good, you can trust that the results are really based on human physiology.”

Science with a human touch

Morton loved working in the lab of her mentor Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention, and even taught herself mathematical modeling so that she could better understand the software she was using in her research. But Morton, an extrovert who likes to be around people, also made a point to meet and interact with members of the Harvard Chan community outside of the lab. She served as vice president of student life for student government and on the School’s committee on educational policy.

Volunteering while in the thick of thesis research may sound like a heavy lift, but Morton said that having activities outside the lab helped keep her sane. And having the opportunity to achieve short-term goals, such as putting on a successful student event, was a morale boost during the long slog of waiting for her research to show results.

“Research is slow. While you’re in the middle of it, it’s like a canopy over you and you have no idea where you are and where you’re going,” Morton said. “There are times when an experiment you’ve been working on for months suddenly fails and you have no idea what to do next. If that’s where you’ve put all of your emotional energy, it can be crushing.” But a balanced life helps with maintaining perspective, she said. “If you have a setback, you know that it isn’t going to ruin your life.”

Although Morton may someday return to academia, her next step is a job as a pharmacovigilance consultant, checking the accuracy of data submitted by drug companies looking for Food and Drug Administration approval.

“I want to help people because I’ve been helped a lot, starting with my parents, who made my life easier than theirs ever were,” Morton said. She also credits her mentors, including Marianne Wessling-Resnick, professor of nutritional biochemistry. Morton spent a summer in her lab as an undergraduate intern studying iron metabolism.

Morton hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll return to her home state of North Carolina after graduation or embark on a new adventure, but she’s not too worried about where she ends up. “I’m an optimistic person and I try to keep it that way,” she said. “Even if things don’t go perfectly, I can always say, ‘But look at all the things I learned!’”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Sarah Sholes

Note: Allyson Morton was chosen by the Graduate Student Council to be a 2018 Commencement Marshall, and also received the Student Recognition Award at the School’s annual award ceremony on May 22.