“I Just Really Love Microglia”

Like neurons, the journey of a research career can be characterized by its plasticity.

This week I was privileged to sit down with Dr. Staci Bilbo (who was able to squeeze me in despite her hectic traveling schedule) and get to know her both as a PI and as an individual. Special thanks to Dr. Bilbo for sharing with me her story!

Beginning her academic path as a psychology major, Dr. Staci Bilbo’s introduction to research was not one of glia cells (her main focus, currently) but rather of neuroethology, the study of animal behavior and its underlying mechanistic control by the nervous system. For two years of her undergraduate time at Texas Tech she really enjoyed working with frogs, lizards, and various other types of reptiles to understand the neural underpinnings of navigation and communication in the hippocampus. The lab environment was fun and creative, such a positive start propelling Dr. Bilbo to continue a path of research. From here she moved to Johns Hopkins wherein she worked to understand the effects of biological rhythms, both daily and seasonal, on immune activity and efficiency. To do this she used the Siberian hamster (the animals literally collected and shipped to the U.S. by a team in Siberia!). These animals shift both the colors of their coats, and the workings of their immune response during different seasonal periods; their fever responses are shorter in the winter to the decrease metabolic strain of prolonged sickness. It was not until after this, that Dr. Bilbo really became interested in brain immunity and, after taking a neuroimmunology course at Hopkins, discovered her passion for microglia: the macrophages of the brain. This grand interest in microglia cells drove the rest of her career, even through hard times. Dr. Bilbo reflected on a great obstacle of her trajectory: when her lab at Johns Hopkins moved to Ohio State University while she was a grad student, and she was the only PhD candidate who chose to move as well. Though, she attributes the collaborative projects which resulted from this move as instrumental to her career, despite the being taxed by the move.

After a postdoc at Colorado, Boulder, she established her microglia focused lab at Duke, examining the impacts of environment on development. Talking about microglial cells, her passion for the topic was clearly evident, best summed up by her simple phrase: “I just really love microglia.” About 2 years ago, Dr. Bilbo was recruited by Harvard to begin and oversee a pre-clinical/ basic research segment of the Lurie Center for Autism as MassGeneral hospital. While this opportunity holds fond memories, the Bilbo lab is currently moving back to Duke. Personally, Duke is where Dr. Bilbo feels most at home, though a portion of the lab will remain headquartered at Harvard, noting a great chance to make the most out of available resources.

While movement throughout her life and career seems very common, it goes to show the unpredictability of one’s path, and the non-linear reality of doing what you love. Very excited about the Bilbo lab’s re-joining of Duke’s community, and the cool projects to come.

The Career of Dr. Edward Levin

Dr. Levin is Chief of the Neurobehavioral Research Lab in the Psychiatry Department of Duke University Medical Center. He works as both a professor and a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He is currently in charge of a multitude of investigations centered around addiction and neurobehavioral toxicology. His research has led to many discoveries centered around the effects of substances of the brain and how this chronically effects an organism’s biology.

Dr. Levin started off his career as a student at Penn State University where he was initially premed. Due to his interest in the mind, he switched his major to psychology and later transferred to University of Rochester. He attended the University of Wisconsin for grad school and earned a master’s in psychology. He later earned a PhD in environmental toxicology. He later taught toxicology seminars, an experience he said was OK but was a lot of work.

Throughout his career, he discovered many different things related to behavior and toxicology. One of the first things he researched was link to cognitive impairments with exposure to electrical transformers. He also studied chlorine in water and how its reaction with organic materials creates trichloromethane otherwise known as chloroform which is carcinogenic. He told me that while drinking chlorinated water does slightly increase cancer rates, it significantly reduces infectious diseases and thus should be added to the water supply. Later in his career he started to study drug abuse primarily. Nicotine was the drug he studied heavily in his career due to its widespread use across the globe and its addictive properties. He found that it has cognitive enhancing abilities including how it may lessen the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease. Haloperidol is another drug whose side effects he is credited for studying. He determined that tardive dyskinesia is a side effect of Haloperidol.

Dr. Levin’s primary focus at the moment however is opioid abuse. He is currently focusing on treatments for addiction by administering drugs. One of such studies I am currently working on. He is currently studying a drug that blocks the re-uptake of certain neurotransmitters. This acts as an indirect agonist to the opioid drug. His research found that the drug currently being studied as a treatment for opioid abuse has been shown to significantly reduce nicotine self-administration. When studying opioid abuse, the drug being used as the opioid is Remi-fentanyl due to it’s rapidly acting properties as well as it’s very short half-life. He hopes that by finding a drug that treats addiction, the deaths from opioid overdose in this country may decrease.

When asked why he enjoys science, Dr. Levin credited the joy of discovery and how it is a tremendous reward. He said it is an incredible feeling when, through your research you are the first person in the world to know something. As for what he would change, the first thing that came to his mind was bureaucracy. He fills out too many forms and wrights too many proposals for funding. Then again, what other industry lacks excessive bureaucracy?

The Audacity to Imagine and Create

In the world of non-neuronal cell contribution to pain, there is one name that does not escape the mind: Dr. Ru-Rong Ji. Currently chief of pain research within Duke Anesthesiology, Dr. Ji’s humble roots extend back to China, where he went to Nanjing University for undergraduate studies in the biology department and studied human physiology. Afterwards, he found himself at the Shanghai Institute of Physiology for graduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Further in his academic journey, he studied neurobiology at the Karolinska Institute, the Royal Institute of Medicine in Sweden. It was after this when he first came to the US, initially at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He then spent his next 14 years at Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital, where he went from an instructor to assistant professor to associate professor and received his first NIH independent grant before coming to Duke. Upon arrival to Duke for the first time, what first stuck out to him as special and necessary in science was the environment–one that was collaborative and supportive.

Throughout this extensive scientific background, his goals have mostly remained the same: to understand the mechanisms by which pain operates and create translational potential to help patients dealing with chronic pain. However, over time, his interests have shifted from the role of neural circuits to non-neuronal cells in pain, and now he is one of the leading experts in the non-neuronal cell contribution to pain.

Biology, however, was not always his calling. In high school, Dr. Ji first gravitated towards math or physics since biology at that time was not so popular. Before his year, biology was not even taught in high school. However, he had an amazing teacher that was able to open him up to the wonders of the world of biology. From then, his interest snowballed and led to an entire career in neurobiology. Dr. Ji has since very much enjoyed science because it is a creative and innovative craft, with every project leading to a new journey. Through the seminars and talks he has given all over the world, he has very much enjoyed communicating with other scientists to spark new ideas in each other and to eliminate any kind of boundaries science might have. One of the most rewarding aspects of his career he thinks is mentoring students and fostering in them a love for pain research and science itself.

In recollecting what first got him into pain research, Dr. Ji remembers being very fascinated with how acupuncture was able to produce pain relieving effects. He was interested in how it happened and what neural pathways were activated by acupuncture. When he first started as a research scientist, the focus of pain research was on how neurons themselves contributed to pain. Over the years, Dr. Ji and others have discovered that non-neuronal cells such as microglia or astrocytes release mediating molecules that regulate pain, elucidating the interaction between the pain system and the immune system.
When asked what he hopes will happen in the field of pain research, he expressed the need for more effective and personalized therapeutics for pain relief. Currently, every drug and medicine has its own limitations: there is no one magical treatment. However, he’s optimistic that his research can increase our knowledge base of the mechanisms of pain, ultimately to increase our options of treatment and address a wider array of diseases.

Though widely recognized today, Dr. Ji has personally experienced the difficulty in taking unconventional routes, often away from what the public deems to be the most exciting or popular topics of science. But he believes that even if what you are doing is not the biggest, most showy story, you must not let go of your personal belief of what will make an impact in the future. Communication with others is important but you should always maintain your independent thinking. For young scientists today, his biggest advice is to be creative, stay open-minded, and remain persistent and patient. He believes that successful science doesn’t require raw intelligence. With enough persistence and focus on specific goals, you can eventually be recognized as a leader in whatever field you pursue. The world might be very different in the next 10 to 15 years with the rapid progress and innovation in medicine, and he is very optimistic that the young generation will pioneer this progress.

With all that, I am immensely grateful for the excellent mentorship I have received in the Ji Lab from mentors such as Dr. Ru-Rong Ji and Dr. Chris Donnelly and the opportunity to be a part of this exciting, ongoing journey.

Discovering Science with Dr. Gong

Dr. Yiyang Gong is the Primary Investigator of the Gong Lab in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Duke. He has always had an interest in the growth and learning aspects of science and believes that applying science to address interesting problems through research is a big part of the field. He completed his undergraduate degree at Cal Tech and went to Stanford for graduate school and his postdoctoral fellowship. Dr. Gong majored in electrical engineering, which he finds useful as the biomedical engineering department here at Duke draws a lot from EE. In grad school, Dr. Gong focused on applying nanophotonics to record novel things in the brain by looking at how nanometer-scale objects interact with light. For his post-doc, Dr. Gong delved into protein engineering and was interested in light sensors that respond to neural activity. These sensors look more at action potentials rather than calcium transients, thus giving more precise temporal estimates of brain activity. Through his studies, Dr. Gong applied the quantitative skills he had, like math, statistics, and optical design, to something that can be solved with biology while advancing science along the way.

After his post-doc, Dr. Gong was excited to bring his research topics together to discover new phenomenon about the brain. By using both optics and protein concepts to develop and apply new optical tools that can look at the brain in more detail along certain dimensions, Dr. Gong was able to carry out new types of experiments that he would otherwise be unable to do.

Dr. Gong’s daily life includes guiding people in his lab with their experiments, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, and writing applications and drafts of papers. Dr. Gong’s favorite part of his job is learning new things, both in teaching and in research. In the Bioelectricity and Optogenetic Tools courses he teaches, he finds that teaching a concept by giving new examples sometimes gives him a better understanding of the model and creates a new perspective with which to view an idea. In the lab, he finds that there are small opportunities to learn every day. By accomplishing a set of tasks, he is able to discover something about how to do an experiment, what techniques work, what doesn’t work, etc.

In terms of science in general, Dr. Gong believes that science is its own process and that although it is often unpredictable, things will come in time. While there isn’t anything major that he would change about doing science, he would like for science to be more exploratory and less monetary-based. Currently, a lot of what he does in the lab and thinks is true for science in general is that research is largely driven by business. In an ideal world, he would like for science to have less of a business environment and be more about discovery.

Some big-picture advice Dr. Gong would give to students and people trying to figure out their future is that you should do what excites you. It’s less about what you want to do, but more about the fulfillment you want to experience in a career and what kind of impact you want to make through your work. I plan on taking that advice with me as I start finding my way through this summer of research, the rest of my college years, and beyond.

On a Mountaintop in Vermont

As an undergraduate, Dr. David McClay was a man of many interests, curious and adventurous and carefree. He was fascinated by all that his school had to offer him, and spent his four years at Penn State exploring anthropology, philosophy, and a number of other majors before eventually settling with biology. Despite growing up knowing that he wanted to be a professor like his father, Dr. McClay was content with living life day-by-day, relishing each moment in its present.

When he went on to graduate school at the University of Vermont, a decision he made rather spontaneously after encouragement from his father, Dr. McClay was still rather unhurried about his future. But in the time he spent there, enjoying the serenity of the mountains and taking time alone in his thoughts, he began to ponder. He wondered about life later on, the kind of person he wanted to be, the things he wanted to do, who he wanted to love. These years were integral to his growth and maturity. By the end, he had come up with three things.

  1. He knew he wanted to be successful.
  2. He was willing to work hard for it.
  3. He was going to love it.

He later went on to earn his PhD at UNC, and spent his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago. These years eventually led him to Duke, where he has been since.

When asked about his favorite part of working in research, Dr. McClay told me that he loved to reduce questions down to ask how the little, smaller processes work. He enjoyed the creativity that comes with his research, as well. But the thing that is the most rewarding to him, he says, “is the illumination in the eyes of students when they get it.” As a professor and mentor, he is a key figure in introducing students to research, guiding them along the path of discovery. To witness as something in them clicks, as the project they’ve been working on for months or even years falls into place, to see that joy and excitement is, he tells me, his favorite part about doing what he does.

One of his favorite moments in the lab, however, is a discovery of his own. In the 1970s, after the emergence of monoclonal antibodies, he was the first to find markers for individual cell types. This marked his entry into the field, as he presented his results at a meeting for sea urchin researchers. The audience was stunned by his brilliant and colorful images; red and blue and green illuminated each component of the sea urchin embryo “just like a Christmas tree,” Dr. McClay recounts, eyes bright and animated.

Those vivid memories of the feeling of success, of hard work finally paying off, and of recognition still bring tears to his eyes. But despite that, his journey–as did everyone’s–has had its bumps and bruises. He remembers one time that stood out from the others, when he so believed in his hypothesis that he refused to acknowledge the data he gathered suggesting otherwise. He hadn’t realized at the time, but that experience allowed him to understand that the most principal goal in research is having a correct outcome, not to prove your own hypothesis. To overcome mentalities like the one he struggled with, he offers a simple, yet significant piece of advice to me, and to others in my position:

“You have to learn to reduce your fear of failing. It’s okay if you are wrong.”

On his own time, Dr. McClay continues to be a man of many interests. He enjoys tending to his flower garden, biking, reading, skiing and traveling, among other things. He has mastered how to balance his priorities between loved ones, pleasure, and work, all of which are equally as important to him. Over the years, he has had to fight his own ego, learn to embrace difficult truths, and power forward into frightening new beginnings. He has since found success, he has worked hard for it, and he has loved every moment of it.

Scientific Art or Artistic Science?

Dr. Alison Adcock isn’t just a scientist or the principal investigator of the lab I work at—she’s also an artist. Ever since she was a child, she had a desire to understand the brain—how the brain that instinctively draws our hands back from a hot stove is the same brain that is able to think critically and philosophically. She was initially fascinated by the concept of learning, particularly regarding the structure-function relationship of the hippocampus, and she was driven to understand it at a deeper level. Dr. Adcock followed that curiosity, majoring in Psychology at Emory University. One of her formative experiences during her undergraduate years, however, was traveling abroad to Oxford University to study under their Psychology, Philosophy, and Physiology (PPP) program. With this multidimensional education, she was left to consider following either one of two paths—an artist or a scientist. Dr. Adcock soon realized that she would likely be more able to integrate art into science than science into art. “Science is about curiosity,” she says. She describes how some scientists are utilitarian, considering only that which is practical or novel. Yet she didn’t want that to be her science—she wanted to pursue a path where she could integrate art, service, society, and her own personal aims. As such, she went to Yale University to pursue her M.D.-Ph.D., wanting to experience both worlds of a physician and researcher. As she continued with her career and consequently made her way to Duke, she began to question more—why people choose to investigate the world, why we fail to learn at times, and when and if we can be ready to learn at all. These questions form the basis of the Adcock Lab, as the intrinsic and extrinsic mediating variables surrounding learning are the pillars of the projects being done today.

When asked about what she likes about her lab, Dr. Adcock responds that one of her favorite components was actually something she didn’t expect. She found that by helping others refine their own research questions and explore their own aims, she was able to see how their questions and aims overlapped with her own. This almost symbiotic relationship of learning wouldn’t occur if every researcher worked separately and secretly; collaboration, therefore, is one of her personal joys. Before moving on to the next question, however, she adds—“and of course, discovery,” and smiles.

What she enjoys about science is not just limited to her work in the lab. “Similar to faith, [science] is a way to access a truth,” Dr. Adcock says. Scientists do well in refining and getting closer to that truth, every discovery a marker of human progress. Even so, she wishes that the genuine scientific process, beyond simply just the “eureka”s and the Nobel Prizes, would be better acknowledged. “If we value only the objective and the utilitarian, we implicitly devalue the subjective things, like the process,” Dr. Adcock asserts. She continues, stating that if we pretend that the error-filled, emotion-filled uncertainties don’t exist, we fail to represent to others how beautiful science is. It’s important to embrace the unknown as we continue to refine certain truths, to embrace our stumbles on the road to discovery. As a current college student exploring the scientific unknown, this particularly resonated with me.

When I followed by asking Dr. Adcock what she would say to her college self, she sits and thinks for a while before responding: “To not worry so much about being right. We’re always wrong; always just trying to be less wrong. Be aware for when performance is the most important (which is almost never, she adds) and for when it is not grades, but what you learn.” From one artist-scientist to another, sitting down with Dr. Adcock was truly an insightful experience. As I become more integrated into the scientific community, I hope that my own exploration into the unknown follows a path not just in science, but art, ethics, and emotion.

Dr. Cagla pronounced “Challa” or other acceptable name: Mother of Astrocytes

Dr. Cagla Eroglu PI, runs an organized and efficient lab very unlike Daenerys season 8. Also debatably unlike the Mother of Dragons, Cagla, Mother of Astrocytes, enjoys working with her lab members. Outside of weekly meetings, She schedules one-on-one meetings with each of her mentees  in order to keep updated on their research and to offer guidance. Cagla often posts literature relevant to folks projects on the lab’s communication app along with a picture of a moose or possibly some ducks. Working with students is really meaningful to Cagla. She learns a lot from them and she gives sage advice and wisdom in order to help them. Cagla recognizes that we really do not know much about mechanisms of the brain and biology processes. She is adamant that one of the most important things she does is to help her students in how to interpret the data they receive, whether that means using existing theories or challenging the current beliefs as they may very well be incorrect. This philosophy has manifested in a lab of individuals who are open minded and thoughtful about their work.

I had the opportunity to interview this incredible individual to learn to hear her talk passionately about what I had observed in her interactions with lab members. Originally from Turkey, Cagla’s mother was a scientist so she grew up running experiments and doing scientisty things. In her close proximity to research, she held the misconception that most people wanted to do science. Realizing that was not the case heightened her interest in STEM, so she continued on that path in her undergraduate studies. She felt the all too familiar pressure to become either a doctor or an engineer and decided to major in chemical engineering. This intense training provided her with a strong background in math, physics, and chemistry. All of these subjects, she says, have helped support her research endeavors and her training also taught her not to be afraid to apply new procedures, instruments, and technology to her experiments if they might provide better results.

Cagla really wanted to be in biology, so after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, she pursued a Master’s degree in biology. As she had only learned intro level biology in Undergrad, she had to work hard to learn all of the biological processes. Despite the challenges in entering the field of biology, she was impassioned and determined to continue learning. She was fortunate enough to enter a PhD program in Germany for international students. The labs in Germany collaborated often sharing equipment and ideas. Cagla emphasized the importance of this environment, as it engenders greater exchange of ideas between people. Cagla worked on her PhD on the glutamate receptors on neurons. Her work on cellular receptors lead her to glial cells. She wanted to understand cell-cell connections and glial-neuron interactions were of particular interest to her. In order to pursue this line of study, she entered a lab at Stanford University for her Post-Doctoral Fellowship. This lab was well established allowing her to conduct new and exciting research on astrocytes that launched her career. Fortunately, this lead her to Duke where the Eroglu lab is now known for its work demonstrating how astrocytes secrete factors that cause synapse formation and maturation.  

In(SIGHT)ful Words from Dr. Lindsey Glickfeld

A few days ago, I had a chat with Dr. Lindsey Glickfeld to learn a little more about her and her journey to the Glickfeld Lab. As she was talking, I heard a lot of insightful and comforting words that I hope to share with the blog today. (I also hope you readers appreciate the title because the Glickfeld Lab focuses on perception!)

1. Be Proactive about your Passion

For her undergraduate studies, Dr. Glickfeld attended Stanford University, and like most college students, she didn’t know what she wanted to study. She was always fond towards science and the natural world and followed the path of a Bachelor’s degree in biology. I asked her where her interest in neurobiology began if she had majored in solely biology. She explained that she didn’t know that neurobiology was a thing or a specific field, and it was a little bit of luck that opened the doors. As a freshman, she was sifting through research job listings and saw an opening from a graduate student looking for a research technician. Dr. Glickfeld thought that the opportunities that came with this job looked appealing; she joined this neurobiology lab and stayed for the rest of her time at Stanford!

She graduated from Stanford with a B.S. in biological sciences and attended the University of California at San Diego for her Ph.D., studying inhibitory interneurons in cortical circuits. Her passion in neurobiology continued to flourish during her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Now, she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Duke University, and the principal investigator of the Glickfeld Lab!

2. Some Lessons Learned

“Learn to code.” As an undergraduate, Dr. Glickfeld was not sure whether to take an introductory computer science class or another biological sciences class. When she turned to a graduate student in her lab, the second opinion told her not to waste her time with the computer science class. The graduate student’s justification was that the programs and code functions in the comp-sci class could be found online. It wasn’t until Dr. Glickfeld was a postdoc that she first learned how to code and encourages others to learn how to code early.

“When the research is working . . . make hay.” As an experienced researcher, Dr. Glickfeld tries to extract different types of data from the same experiment to save time and money. She covers all the bases and passes down this tip to lab members. In fact, the project I am working on now was kicked off by past data that was reanalyzed in MatLab; so when experiments are working, “make hay because it always comes in handy.”

3. Silly Moments in Science

When Dr. Glickfeld first arrived to Duke to start up the Glickfeld Lab, she came with Dr. Court Hull, who is our next door neighbor in the Bryan Research Building. They were setting up some new equipment and finished getting the 2-photon microscope ready. Everyone in both labs were super excited and ready to image a mouse brain under the scope. Because the 2-photon microscope fires lasers that may damage eyesight, everyone gathered around the scope with safety goggles. Dr. Glickfeld remembers how silly they all looked, squished around in a circle, waiting for something to show up on the microscope. After spending all that time setting up the equipment, no data showed up; they saw nothing. She laughed recalling this moment and apologized for not telling a science related memory. Yet, I appreciated that her favorite memory in lab was non-scientific, and I wanted to share this memory to show the community that has been built between these two labs.

I’ve become more and more comfortable being here at the Glickfeld Lab knowing that I have a kind and supportive mentor ready to help. I hope anyone reading gets a better feel on what the environment at the Glickfeld Lab is like, and I am enthusiastic for what’s to come!

Living for the Love of Discovery— a Sit-Down with Dr. Henry Yin

This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with the principal investigator of my lab, Associate Professor Dr. Henry Yin of the Duke Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. I’d like to personally thank him for taking the time to talk to me about his experiences in science, research, and life in general, as well as for welcoming me into his lab. It’s through the generosity of Dr. Yin that I’m able to work in a lab and train as a young scientist, and I can’t express how grateful I am for the opportunity he’s given me this summer.

This interview, in particular, allowed me to pick the brain of an adult scientist— someone who knows what it takes to do well in the field and get results. As a nineteen-year-old, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to receive mentorship from Dr. Yin, and I hope that this as myself and this relationship continue to develop, I will improve as a scientist and better understand the ins and outs of academic research in neuroscience.

Q: What were your beginnings in science? Where did you study and where have you worked as you built your career?

A: Dr. Yin attended Washington University of St. Louis for his undergraduate studies. While working in a molecular lab during the summer prior to his junior year, he started reading neuroscience books, including those by Oliver Sacks. A lot of these books were about “big ideas” in neuroscience like language and human memory, which really sparked his interest in the field. After getting interested in neuroscience, he went to graduate school at UCLA expecting to work with human language and memory, but ended up studying rodents and the neural substrates of actions.

He considers himself lucky in that his early projects had moderate success, which further interested him in a career in science, while some of his peers had difficulty getting results and were thus somewhat alienated from research. He described this using an analogy to golf, saying that people who are naturally talented or have a great coach early on tend to continue with it while others who are less successful tend to give up more easily. After completing his graduate degree, he completed a postdoc at the NIH, working on cellular and molecular plasticity, long-term potentiation, long-term depression, and synaptic plasticity. He says he’s worked on the basal ganglia for his entire career and feels fortunate to have done so.

Q: What’s been your most meaningful accomplishment in science thus far?

A: Dr. Yin is proud of the work he’s done at Duke. His work has led to increased understanding of the basal ganglia and he believes that his results have been meaningful. To him, it’s about the results, not the career trajectory or title.

Q: If you could change one thing about how science is done, what would it be?

A: Dr. Yin expressed displeasure with what’s known as “careerism”. He believes that science should be about the passion for understanding nature and getting results, but believes that often people view it too much as a career. “It’s a cool job. You get to travel and there’s not as much pressure as a corporate job.” It’s for this reason that he thinks that a lot of researchers focus more on the prestige, status, and money rather than the results of their research and love for discovery.

Q: If you could go back in time and speak to yourself as an undergraduate around the age of 19 or 20, what’s the number one piece of advice you would give yourself?

A: Dr. Yin expressed the importance of seeking advice from people you really admire. He said that “Students will be willing to spend 200+ hours studying orgo or something to get an A vs a B+, but they don’t think to put in time like that to seeking advice from other people. There are many interesting people on campus.” He believes that a great deal of knowledge can be acquired from others and students should fully take advantage of it.

My parents have always given me advice and often I’d respond with an “OK, mom, got it,” disregard the advice, and move on with my day, but in the past year, I’ve encountered so many situations in which something they said turned out to be the best advice possible. I’ve realized that maybe these people who’ve lived for 30 years longer than me, gone to college, and earned a living for themselves might actually know something about how to be successful.

That’s the type of mentality I’ve decided to bring into the lab because I believe that the magic of Duke lies in the people we meet here. Dr. Yin and the others in my lab know what neuroscience research entails because they’ve done it for years, and I get to come into the lab as a sponge and soak up as much of their wisdom as possible. I’m grateful to be here and receiving advice from people I admire like Dr. Yin is something that I’m learning to make a priority. Dr. Yin demonstrated to me that becoming a successful scientist requires a can-do attitude, persistence, communication, and, most importantly, a willingness to learn. With these traits in mind, I will continue to work hard in the lab and talk to those around me in order to best capitalize on my time here in the Yin Lab.

Trust the Process

When most people talk about flies, it’s usually in disgust followed by swift swatting motions. But when Dr. Pelin Volkan talks about flies, it’s with fascination followed by swift strategies to answer the next scientific question. My principal investigator first started studying molecular biology and genetics at Bogazici University in Turkey and began to get interested in neuroscience. When she went to the University of North Carolina for her PhD, she began to study the nervous system of Drosophila and continued this study during her post doc at the University of California, Los Angeles. At the time, the olfactory system of Drosophila was just being described and peaked Dr. Volkan’s interest in the development and evolution of brain and behavior. This influenced the main work she does now at her lab at Duke, asking how a hard-wired system maintains plasticity, ultimately, what are the nature and nurture factors that influence this organism’s brain?

Dr. Volkan’s approach to doing science is really quite insightful. She notes that you almost never stick with the plan and that your study and goals will change with the problems or circumstances that you encounter. And importantly, chance favors the prepared mind. She told me she really enjoys the academic environment as you are frequently bombarded with new perspectives that open up new questions. She notes that science is not static, it’s progressive, and we need innovative and creative thinkers to continue to propel science forward. Dr. Volkan describes the most rewarding part of doing science is getting a crystal clear answer to one of these questions, but as she explained to me that very rarely happens.

But she also enjoys the chase, the process of discovery and the thrill of seeking answers. This is what drives her, and many other researchers, to press on, failed experiment through failed experiment to find an answer. She enjoys relaying this notion of taking joy in the process to her students in her favorite class here at Duke, her lab course in which students take on projects connected with the lab and experience what it’s like to do science. I am so grateful for this experience to work with Dr. Volkan who has already inspired me to press on and trust the process. 

Dr. Pendergast’s Polymorphic Path to PI

What’s up readers? Welcome to Week 3 of my summer research blog. For this week’s stimulating content I interviewed Dr. Pendergast, the PI of the lab I’m researching in. Dr. Pendergast has a great story about how she got to current position as a PI at Duke. I really enjoyed hearing how her career panned out since I am thinking about a similar path.

As an undergraduate, Dr. Pendergast majored in chemistry and minored in molecular biology. She was always interested in pursuing academic research as a career, so she completed graduate school in California and did a postdoc in Dr. Owen Witte’s lab at UCLA. She found an interest in tyrosine kinases at UCLA, and has since continued studying these cell messengers at Duke. Her lab focuses on a specific kinase, the ABL kinase, and its role in cancer metastasis. It was interesting to hear how the direction of her research has changed through her time at Duke. She began researching the ABL kinase in the context of leukemia, and she even used developmental biology experiments to understand the kinase’s functions in cancer. Later she focused more on solid tumors and metastasis, and finally settling on brain metastasis as the primary focus of the lab which is where the lab is now. The non-undergraduate members of her lab are composed of four graduate students and one senior scientist. When I asked her why she doesn’t have any postdocs in her lab, Dr. Pendergast explained that she loves the energy that graduate students have in the lab and that training graduate students is one of her favorite aspects of being a PI. She also told me that the senior scientist in the lab brings really valuable experience to the lab. The combination of old and young makes the lab a vibrant and successful environment. For a fun conclusion to the interview, I asked Dr. Pendergast if there had been any disasters in the lab. Thankfully, she said she has never had any major accidents in the lab, but one student from another lab nearby did accidentally stab herself with a pipette tip! The student was alright afterwards. It was really informative to hear Dr. Pendergast’s path from her time as an undergraduate to PI at Duke. Maybe my path will follow a similar route and I’ll end up as a PI somewhere too. Over the next week I’ll present a chalk talk of my project to the rest of the BSURF program and then reflect on someone else’s for next week’s blog post. See ya then!


Get to know Dr. Brennan!

Dr. Richard Brennan began his research journey at Boston University.  He started as a chemistry major but switched to biology, although he maintained his interest in chemistry, which ultimately led him to the field of biochemistry.  He was also interested in history and English, and he emphasized to me the importance of the humanities in science.  Without the ability to communicate, science is meaningless, and scientists need to be good writers in order to effectively write informative and intelligible papers.  Thus, Dr. Brennan’s interest in language and English proved especially beneficial for his life of publishing papers and writing reviews.  This advice from Dr. Brennan made me appreciate the interdisciplinary curriculum I enjoy at Duke: my humanities classes are just as crucial in preparing me for a career in research as my science classes.

The summer after his sophomore year of undergrad, Dr. Brennan participated in a summer research fellowship much like BSURF during which he decided that he might like to pursue research as a career.  After graduating from Boston University, Dr. Brennan went to Cornell University for graduate school, but he quickly realized that he needed to take a break before continuing his education.  He left and took a position as a technician at a hospital in Boston.  This taught me that there isn’t a set career path to research: it’s okay and even important to take breaks and explore other options and fields.  Later, Dr. Brennan returned to school and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin and then went to the University of Oregon for his postdoctoral fellowship.  Dr. Brennan emphasized to me the importance of good mentorship: he took his first job at a medical school in Portland because it was geographically close to his mentor at the University of Oregon, allowing them to continue to work together.  He became a full professor at the medical school in Portland.

After seventeen years, Dr. Brennan moved to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to establish a structural biology center there.  However, after six years, he was offered a job as the Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at Duke University.  Dr. Brennan emphasized how much he enjoys working with students and how he thinks graduate students are essential to laboratory research.  Accepting the position at Duke would allow him to work with highly motivated graduate students, and Duke had an excellent grad student to faculty member ratio in its biochemistry labs which would allow the Brennan lab to bring in many graduate students.  Furthermore, a position as chair of the department would allow Dr. Brennan to build a strong department at an already great school.  Needless to say, Dr. Brennan accepted the position at Duke, and the rest is history.

One takeaway from Dr. Brennan’s journey is that amazing opportunities are often unexpected: he was not looking to leave MD Anderson, but he received an amazing offer to do what he loves most at Duke.

Dr. Brennan truly loves students and teaching.  He believes graduate students are what make research labs great, and he also believes that all faculty members should teach.  Dr. Brennan teaches everything from courses on grant writing to x-rays to his specialty, structural biochemistry, and he usually has at least two undergraduate students in his lab each year.

While Dr. Brennan loves research because of the unique opportunity it gives him to observe something that has never before been observed and to understand something that has never before been understood, he offered me some warnings about the nature of the field.  He encouraged me to study topics that interest me, rather than those considered “hot” in science right now.  Brilliant research is being done everywhere, but not all of it is recognized because not all of it focuses on what is considered new and important in the field at the time.  Focus on what you love, not on what will win you awards and national recognition.

Dr. Brennan’s final advice to me was to seize all the opportunities available to me and try as many different research settings as possible until I find one in which I feel truly comfortable and happy.  There are many different research experiences, and I cannot know how I really feel about conducting research after this one experience, however great it may be.  I should never close myself to other opportunities just because I am comfortable where I am: Dr. Brennan loved his job at MD Anderson, but he was open to a change and got to create an amazing department at Duke, where he is very happy.

TL;DR: Always be on the lookout for new opportunities and never stop pursuing what interests you!

The Double Doctor: Dr. Ashely Helseth

My mentor, Dr. Ashley Helseth, has been a tremendous help in not only guiding me in my research project, but also in helping me to navigate and understand my lab’s research as a whole. She has been incredibly influential and I cannot wait to continue working with her for the rest of the summer and into the future.

Dr. Helseth has definitely had a unique journey in science as she seemingly never stops learning. At the age of 5, she knew she wanted to be a pediatrician. But, as she got older she realized she wanted to become a vet. She spent her undergraduate career as “pre-vet”, but soon realized she had a passion for scientific research. So, she decided to get a pHD at the University of Nebraska Medical Center following her undergrad. During graduate school, she focused on neuroimmunology, but specifically the modulation of the immune system to treat Parkinson’s. One driving reason she decided to do research on Parkinson’s in specific was because she had many family members who had been diagnosed with it and wanted to understand the disease pathology.

However, Dr. Helseth’s journey did not stop after she got her PhD. Her love for learning continued as she was inspired by her PhD mentor to pursue an MD. Dr. Helseth explained that in addition to the obvious job security that comes with being a physician, she realized that the best way to understand the disease is to see the clinical manifestation. She explained how good scientists can take a step back to see the big picture and she found that incredibly fascinating. So, then Dr. Helseth came full circle to her passion from when she was a mere 5 years old. After medical school at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Helseth did her residency in child neurology here at Duke.

Though Dr. Helseth does go to clinic occasionally, she spends a lot of her time in the lab doing research of course. When asked what her favorite part about doing research is, she explained that it is that moment when you obtains a result that contradicts past literature. Dr. Helseth loves the thrill of exciting and unexpected outcomes! However, she also spoke to me about something that she wished to change about the field. She wished for a world in which science was more focused on collaboration, as opposed to competition. She explained how in the physician world, doctors constantly collaborate to obtain the best medical outcome for their patient. She explained how she would like for their to be less of a focus on competing to publish first and more focus on reaching out to others to achieve the end goal of disease treatment.

In addition, despite her busy life, Dr. Helseth explained how it is important to have a balance. Outside of lab and clinic, she enjoys running, hiking, watching movies and of course hanging out with her family. She also offered two main pieces of advice to future students based on her experiences.

  1. Don’t be discouraged by failure because it is going to happen.
  2. Work should never be your job, but it should be your career. She was explaining how important it to find something you are passionate about, because work won’t feel like “work” if you do!

I’m so grateful to have Dr. Helseth as a mentor and I can’t wait to continue learning alongside her!

At the Edge of Knowledge…Getting to Know Dr. Amy Bejsovec!

I had the pleasure to sit down with my PI, Dr. Amy Bejsovec and her dog Benny, this week to interview her for my blog post. I was really excited for this opportunity to learn more about her and her research journey.

Dr. Amy Bejsovec started out at Cornell University as a biology major. She then continued her education at University of Wisconsin Madison after being accepted into their genetics program. However, her love of science started way before her undergraduate major. Growing up in near a wooded area on Long Island, Dr. Bejsovec spent much time in nature venturing out as far as her bike could take her. She told me that she found herself just fascinated with animals and wanting to learn more.

With such a wide area of interest for nature, I wanted to know more about how Dr. Bejsovec came to be working with Drosophila melanogaster. Dr. Bejsovec did not always know that she would work with Drosophila, in fact her first encounters with an organism occurred through a project on territorialism in hermit crabs that won her first prize (a calculator that she still has and occasionally uses till this day!). Throughout graduate school, Dr. Bejsovec worked on muscle development in nematode worms. When Dr. Bejsovec was deciding what to do for her post-doctoral work, new discoveries regarding the striped nature of gene expression in Drosophila caught her attention. From then on, Dr. Bejsovec has spent much of her career researching wingless.

A fascinating moment in her research journey she told me about occurred during her third year of graduate school when she truly recognized herself as a scientist. Up until that point, she thought that these unanswered questions were a shortcoming of her own knowledge; however, she came to realize that these questions signified the edge of knowledge. But after recognizing this boundary that she was approaching; she decided to persevere and push forward (a common theme in her research journey) to begin finding the answers to the questions.

In her own lab at Duke, she continues working with winglessand Drosophila and foresees herself continuing her work with this model. Outside of her research Dr. Bejsovec co-teaches Biology 202 Genetics and Evolution, and a class on Cancer Genetics. In addition to teaching roles, she serves on the Academic Council for Duke University. Towards the end of our interview session, I asked Dr. Bejsovec about what advice she would give to someone wanting to get involved with research. Though our conversation Dr. Bejsovec imported many lessons of persistence and perseverance but I leave you with a few things that resonated deeply with me:


“Find what you’re passionate about, what makes you feel fulfilled and satisfied and pursue that”

“Talk to as many people as you can who are willing to speak with you and don’t just listen to one person.”

“When you recognize that you’re at the edge of knowledge… the question is how do we push beyond it?”


Read more about her and her work on her lab website and Duke informational page.


Spicy Noodles and Words of Wisdom

At my first lab meeting, I was both amused and mildly horrified to watch my PI compete in the Spicy Noodle Challenge. (Think instant noodles whose packaging has pictures of chili peppers with evil eyes. And a chicken breathing fire and holding an about-to-explode bomb.) At my second lab meeting, he walked in with a paper bag, pulling from it an assortment of hot sauces which he carefully laid out in order of spiciness and sampled one by one with wings from Heav Buffs.

When I sat down to chat with Dr. Jason Somarelli for the first time, I knew little about him besides that he had a ridiculously high tolerance for spicy food. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to hear about his experiences and learn from his wisdom. These were a few of my takeaways:

1. Life is non-linear

Dr. Somarelli received a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College, a Master’s degree in biology from the State University of New York at Brockport, and a Ph.D. in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Florida International University. After completing his post-doctoral training at Duke, he stayed at Duke as a Research Associate and is now a Medical Instructor at the Duke Medical Center and the Director of Research for the Duke Comparative Oncology Group. However, behind this seemingly straightforward, LinkedIn-simple chronology is a story of resilience in the face of disappointment, of a relentless pursuit of education despite a string of rejections from graduate schools, and of a professor at FIU who “believed in [him] when nobody else would.” When life took unexpected turns, Dr. Somarelli turned moments of rejection into opportunities to learn perseverance, a lesson I think must have contributed to Dr. Somarelli’s continued success as a scientist.

2. Science is hard, even for scientists.

“Challenges in science are constant. They’re challenges that you face professionally, but it feels like they’re directed at you, personally.” Dr. Somarelli explained the idea of Imposter’s Syndrome in the scientific community–how incredibly smart scientists feel like they don’t belong and fear being “exposed” as less intelligent than they really are. Tacked above Dr. Somarelli’s desk is an essay published in the Journal of Cell Science titled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” My favorite quote from the article was this: “Science involves confronting our ‘absolute stupidity.’ That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown” (Schwartz). After weeks of feeling stupid in the lab, “stupid” has taken on a new, more positive meaning for me, and I take comfort in knowing that embracing stupidity makes great scientists.

3. Science should never be just about you.

One of Dr. Somarelli’s biggest goals is mentoring. “I don’t think I’m going to win a Nobel Prize, but I think my enthusiasm for what I do can bleed through onto people. If I can do that for enough talented people, one of them will be able to revolutionize something. Mentoring has far-reaching consequences,” he told me.

I’ll leave you with something Dr. Somarelli said that I found really beautiful–

“Science is a challenge because you don’t know what you’re doing all the time. It’s equally amazing for that reason.”

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with Dr. Somarelli this summer, and excited to witness some more spicy challenges!

Try, and fail. And thus you will succeed…

Before Dr. Richard Mooney was the George Barth Geller Professor of Neurobiology at Duke, he was a curious five-year-old who knew he preferred facts to opinions. Speaking to me in his office today, he fondly recalled childhood memories being outdoors, fishing and collecting butterflies and moths. This kindergartner didn’t know the word yet, but he knew he wanted to be a scientist.

In middle and high school, he was fascinated by chemistry (what kid doesn’t love lighting metals on fire and seeing pretty colors?) and even considered a chemistry major at Yale, but he never forgot his childhood love of plants and animals and ultimately chose to major in evolutionary biology. The only subject that ever rivaled Dr. Mooney’s interest in biology was his love of music. Growing up, he had learned classical guitar and often struggled with balancing schoolwork, lab work, exercise (Dr. Mooney was also a track star!), and the time commitment of a musical instrument. Motivated by curiosity coupled with sheer busyness, he wondered how to connect his two interests of music and biology. A musician myself, I faced a similar dilemma in high school and was interested in how Dr. Mooney approached this challenge. He credits two men with helping him start to bridge this gap: Dr. John Trinkaus, an esteemed developmental biologist, and Dr. Alvin Novick.

Dr. Trinkaus was the “master” of the Branford residential college at Yale and ultimately introduced Dr. Mooney to Dr. Novick after learning of his dual interests in music and biology. Dr. Novick studied echolocation in bats, and specifically how bats were able to control the rate of their ultrasonic pips in response to auditory feedback. Sound familiar? If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that one thing the Mooney lab studies is the mechanism by which mice are conscious of their own ultrasonic vocalizations and can control it in response to auditory feedback (eg. hearing a higher pitched version of their voice in helium). The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Finally, his two interests had merged into one: the study of audition. But to Dr. Mooney, it wasn’t just their impressive work and helpful mentorship that made Dr. Trinkaus and Dr. Novick inspiring, but also their personalities. Both of these men dared to be different in a much more oppressive world than the one we live in today, and Dr. Mooney admires that “they knew who they were, with no apologies”. He fondly remembers the stories he heard of Dr. Trinkaus’ daring compassion, hospitality, and pure humanity to members of the controversial Black Panther movement and Dr. Novick’s steadfast advocacy for HIV/AIDS prevention and education despite public ridicule. Being a great scientist is respectable, but being an even better person is truly admirable.

After graduating from Yale, Dr. Mooney missed playing the guitar and decided to return to music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. However, after achieving his goal of performing a solo recital from memorization, he had kind of a, “Now what?” moment. Biology was still calling out to him, and in what he described as a lucky opportunity, he trekked up the hill to UCSF and met Dr. Jim Hudspeth who took him under his wing as a lab technician. Dr. Mooney had been a lab tech before in less stimulating environments, but Dr. Hudspeth was the first PI to provide an environment he could really flourish and learn in. Having a good mentor can go a long way, and Dr. Hudspeth reset Dr. Mooney on the path that would become the rest of his career.

Dr. Mooney completed his PhD at CalTech under Dr. Mark Konishi, an “amazing behaviorist” who had a deep understanding of and love for animals. It was Dr. Konishi that inspired Dr. Mooney to run the lab the way he does now: to let his mentees “sink or swim”, letting them think critically about their own scientific projects without holding their hands. Dr. Konishi summed up this philosophy: “If you succeed in this environment, you’ll be fine. If you fail, you will learn and this is a safe place to do so”. And that leads into Dr. Mooney’s take-home message quite well: “always try, and don’t be afraid to fail. Trial and error is the only way you’ll find out what you really want to do”. It took plenty of tries to eventually land at CalTech with Dr. Konishi, from an unsatisfying lab tech position at Stanford to his classical guitar studies at SFCM. But without these “failures”, he never would’ve been able to narrow down his true career passion. And if my mentioning his many mentors hasn’t hit it home to you yet, Dr. Mooney emphasized the importance of reaching out to mentors and peers and building relationships with people. Not only will they help you bloom as a scientist, they will become wonderful friends for decades to come.

P.S. Pro tip! Want to be a better scientist? Try learning an instrument! Dr. Mooney also believes that musicians make good scientists: besides physical similarities between the two disciplines like fine motor skills, both fields require a keen attention to detail, strong focus, and crucially, a commitment to practice and repetition that won’t always successful. So maybe your mom forcing you to take piano lessons in third grade wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

My PI was almost Zion…but now she’s cooler!

Dr. Sanders is an amazing mentor and I have truly enjoyed getting to know more about her and her incredible research during these last three weeks. I first met Dr. Laurie Sanders when she gave a talk to the SPIRE Fellows program. I enjoyed her talk and was fascinated by her research and that is why I asked to work with her and her lab this summer, and hopefully for the next few years. You can read more about Dr. Sanders, her research, and her vast accomplishments here.

When Dr. Sanders was in high school, she desperately wanted to be a Duke basketball player. She was sadly unable to fulfill this dream because of an injury. She then continued her education at Cornell, where she fell in love with science. When she was about to graduate, one of her advisors told Dr. Sanders that her (very good) GPA would not be enough to get her into medical school. Because of this poor mentorship, Dr. Sanders is now a mentor for many undergraduates at Duke (like those in the SPIRE program) and believes that good mentorship and a solid support system are some of the most important factors in the undergraduate experience and beyond.

Dr. Sanders then went to the University of Buffalo, where she received her PhD in biochemistry and met her husband. She completed her post-doc at The University of Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease. This was where she started “thinking of the disease from a new and original angle, bringing innovation to the field” of Parkinson’s research, which she sees as her greatest accomplishment in her career. She has received the first Parkinson’s Action Network Postdoctoral Advocacy Prize and was also rewarded the William N. & Bernice E. Bumpas Foundation Innovation award. She works extensively with mitochondrial damage, repair, and dysfunction and its role in Parkinson’s Disease. Her colleagues commend her on her risky but extremely rewarding ideas that continue to advance our understanding of the most common neurodegenerative disease in the country.

Lucky for me and the future of science, Dr. Sanders eventually returned to her dream school and now works in the Bryan Research building with her amazing lab team. They continue to study the role of mitochondrial DNA damage in Parkinson’s Disease models in vitro. Outside of her remarkable discoveries, Dr. Sanders’ time and passion lies in her children. Dr. Sanders has three boys and is truly outnumbered at home. She loves that they keep her busy and she knows that balancing her ever advancing career and her growing boys will be her favorite challenge. Dr. Sanders had the potential to be a Duke basketball star, but her name will still go down in history (and on many published papers) and she has the potential to help millions. I’m certainly a fan!

Empire State of Mice

The great American philosopher Alicia Keys once declared that “Big lights will inspire you” on a track with Jay-Z.


It’s this sentiment that I’ll be spending my summer trying to extrapolate to my mice. See, my project involves optogenetic stimulation of the brain. Optogenetics is a brain stimulation technique that relies on light. Basically, a surgeon puts some implants in a specific region of the mouse brain, we hook up the mice to some optic fibers, and then we use light on that brain region to stimulate it.


Optogenetics is a powerful technique because it allows us to pinpoint certain regions and see how behavior is altered by either activation or inhibition of those regions. In my project, we’re trying to see how activation and inhibition in the prefrontal cortex affects operant learning (learning to perform a task to obtain a reward). To test this, I’ve spent some time training mice to press a lever under different reward schedules. First, they learned that one press of a small lever leads to the release of one pellet of food. After 3 days of that schedule, I ramped it up to 5 lever presses for one pellet of food, and then finally to 10 lever presses for one pellet of food. The first day, they’ll take two hours and maybe press the lever 20 times or so, but within 2 days of training, they’ll press it 50 times in less than 10 minutes. It’s just like us humans— if we’re hungry and want food, we’ll figure out what it takes to get it.


After the first 9 days of training and eagerness to see the results of the experiment, I initialized the optogenetic stimulation for the first time on Saturday. The operant conditioning chambers in the lab are each equipped with motion sensors to track when the mice put their little heads in the feeding area and each box is connected to two computers that control the illumination and track how many times each mouse presses the lever to obtain a food pellet. Right now, I’m focused on collecting data and processing it so that I can start to make graphs for the analysis this upcoming week.


If I’m able to observe a significant change in the lever pressing behavior in response to illumination, we could develop a more detailed model of the operant learning pathway that’s being studied in other projects in the lab as well. The results from Saturday and Sunday will be my first optogenetic results of the summer, and I’m looking forward to seeing if the data I gathered can implicate the implanted brain region into the operant learning pathway.