Featuring Leah Liu
In this edition of BMB’s Alumni Spotlight, we feature Leah Liu, Ph.D.
Currently Leah is a Principal Scientist, Target Biology, at Korro Bio Inc, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A 2009 graduate of our department, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. During her time as an undergraduate, Leah worked as an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Wendy Hanna-Rose. Her undergraduate research focused on the development of the ventral uterus in C. elegans.
Upon graduating from Penn State, Leah moved to the greater Boston Area to continue her education with a Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School. Her research found new roles for cannabinoid receptor function in liver cell differentiation and metabolism. Her research employed several new techniques and models, such as using in vivo pharmacological screening, TALEN-edited zebrafish mutants, as well as animal models of alcoholic, metabolic, and drug induced liver injury.
Leah remained in the area for her Postdoctoral Fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. Using novel patient derived cell lines, organoid models, and genetically engineered mice, she investigated the molecular mechanisms of FGFR2 translocations common in cholangiocarcinoma (biliary cancer).
In 2018, Leah made the jump from academia to the private sector and took the role of scientist at Generation Bio. Generation Bio focuses on developing durable, redosable gene therapies for people living with rare and prevalent diseases.
In February of this year, Leah accepted her new role as Principal Scientist, Target Biology, at Korro Bio, Inc. Korro Bio is using the body’s natural RNA editing machinery to correct disease mutations and modulate protein function without permanently altering the genome.
You can follow Leah on LinkedIn
Let’s chat with Leah, talk about her experiences while at Penn State, what inspires her, and catch up with what she’s been up to.
What is it that you do at Korro Bio Inc?
I am a scientist in biotech, working to apply brand new technologies to liver disease therapies. In graduate school, my research focused on the molecular pathways that could be disrupted during liver development and metabolism, which I modeled using zebrafish. I followed my PhD with a short postdoc during which I used mouse and human cell systems to study mutations driving a liver cancer called cholangiocarcinoma. I have always been fascinated by how one or few genetic changes can cause disease and my career in biotech is motivated by applying new discoveries and technologies to treating rare and prevalent genetic diseases. I’m incredibly fortunate to work in Cambridge, MA, home to hundreds of biotech companies, startups, as well as large pharmaceutical companies exploring therapies across all fields and organ systems.
I recently started a new position at Korro Bio, where my specific role is to advance our liver disease programs from early evaluation of feasibility, to understanding biological mechanism, to determining effectiveness using cell and animal models. Previously, I got my start in biotech at Generation Bio, where I focused on non-viral gene therapy to treat rare liver diseases.
During my academic training, I didn’t realize how much I’d enjoy the collaborative environment that accompanies the fast pace of progress at a growing biotech, where scientists can gain significant responsibility and have a front seat to strategic decisions. Although there are many risks and unknowns associated with the development of a brand new class of therapies, successes could open the door for targeting diseases impacting other organs, multiple organs, including prevalent diseases.
What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education?
I knew I wanted to major in the sciences and undertake lab-based research, despite not knowing what research entailed at the time. Even though I gravitated towards the biological sciences, I enjoyed studying chemistry and physics as well, and the courses in the BMB major provided a well-rounded scientific education in addition to biochemistry and molecular biology depth. The social community, small class sizes, and academic experiences offered by the Schreyer Honors College was also a huge draw. I was able to join a lab early in my undergraduate education and continue the same research for my honors thesis.
How do you feel Penn State, and BMB, prepared you for your current position or career?
Penn State and BMB, along with the Schreyer Honors College have been absolutely essential in preparing me for my current career. Academically, I was prepared to attend graduate school with the ability to apply knowledge, design experiments, and complete a body of work through my BMB honors thesis. I registered for the honors version of every BMB course that was offered and enjoyed the personal interactions with BMB professors who invited us to meet the challenge of mastering difficult course material. From my upper level classes and time in a research lab, I learned how to assess journal articles and communicate scientific concepts to a variety of audiences, all of which are fundamental components in my current career. My lab experience solidified scientific research a realistic career path and provided me with the confidence to pursue a PhD. My research advisor, Dr. Wendy Hanna-Rose, fostered a lab environment where I was an equal scientific contributor who received not only rigorous training and the opportunity to drive my own project, but also the freedom to fail and try again.
Did you conduct research while at Penn State? Where was your research conducted and what was its focus?
I joined the lab of Dr. Wendy Hanna-Rose late in my freshman year and stayed on through each subsequent semester and one full time summer. Dr. Hanna-Rose’s laboratory offered a strong scientific and mentoring environment using the C. elegans model organism to investigate the impact of genetic changes during development. My undergraduate thesis focused on the development of the ventral uterus in C. elegans and I gained expertise in genetics, molecular biology, and imaging methods in addition to an appreciation for model organisms that followed me to graduate school and my subsequent career. When I graduated from Penn State, I chose Dr. Hanna-Rose to accompany me during the ceremony.
Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself.
The BMB department is responsible for my career and also my marriage: I met my husband, Jonathan Lichkus, in BMB 342 during our sophomore year, when we were assigned to be lab partners. Jonathan also graduated with a BMB degree from Penn State and the Schreyer Honors College. Our son Charlie was born in 2020 and even though we live in Massachusetts, we intend to expose him to PSU football games and trips to campus from an early age.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
Outside of work, I enjoy cycling, hiking, art museums, dining out, and casual participation in triathlons. I enjoy staying connected with the Penn State community and have volunteered for alumni interviewing and alumni mentoring programs through the Schreyer Honors College since their inception.
Advice from Leah to future generations of scientists:
Scientific research is worth trying out at least once. Choosing the right lab and research advisor is as important, if not more important than pursuing the most exciting research question. Proper mentoring, training, and resources not only impact what you gain from the experience, but also how the research project turns out. Even if you learn that research is not for you, achieving a deep understanding of the scientific process, awareness of the efforts and resources involved, as well as critical thinking skills are all applicable to many career fields and for participating in modern society.