Category Archives: Week 2

Why do Science?

The Dr. Gayathri R. Devi lab revolves around translational and clinical applications of cell death signaling. Since this is a very broad topic, it allows Dr. Devi to take multiple avenues to conduct research. Her passion for research started as an undergraduate student in All India Institute of Medical Science (AIMS) located in New Delhi, India. There she had the opportunity to explore her options, and decided to pursue a science career. Her choice was between a practicing physician or clinical translational research. She decided to pursue clinical translational research because it allows for the bridging between both bench and bedside patient work. She felt that such type of work best fitted her personal qualities and her goals to help the scientific and public community. Clinical translational research allows for creativity; it allows you to be wrong, and even when you are wrong, you learn something new. It was with this form of thinking that Dr. Devi continued her career path and went on to receive her Masters in Biochemistry and her Ph.D. in both Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Dr. Devi discovered the insulin-like growth factor (IGF) binding domain during her time under a Nebraska Research Initiative Biotechnology Fellowship. This discovery led her to her postdoctoral fellowship at the Oregon Health and Sciences University, where she studied growth factors and prostate cancer. After years of research and hard work, she transitioned to a position at Duke University in 2005. Her time at Duke has been amazing in her perspective. She enjoys interacting not only with postdoctoral associates and graduate students, but also with undergraduate students. She truly believes that her work goes beyond just doing research on inflammatory breast cancer, but also incorporates training the next generation of scientist and creating a community between all participants in the lab where everyone learns from each other. As mentioned previously, being wrong is still learning, and there is always opportunity in this. Dr. Devi once challenged a grad student working in her lab on the ability of a protein, X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis protein (XIAP), to increase tumor growth of IBC. Both had a different hypothesis regarding the protein, but the graduate hypothesis was correct in that XIAP played a role in apoptosis and tumor growth. Dr. Devi’s lab thus moved forward and learned more about IBC, and such discovery has allowed her research to continue to grow.

Dr. Devi has had many people to keep her lab running over the years, including a graduate student who joined last year, named Risa Gearhart-Serna. Risa is my lab mentor and has answered many of my questions and aided me in the research I’ve done so far in this program. Risa went to Mills College and got her bachelor’s degrees in biology and environmental studies. Her life career goal is to do good science, science that will benefit the world, science that will help us learn more about cancer and ways to treat it. She enjoys the collaborative aspect of science that some overlook, having people around you that can help you and who you can learn from. That is what makes this type of career path enjoyable for her.

Both Dr. Devi and Risa are great mentors. Both have their own goals to help the science community, and they both have unique characteristics that make them enjoyable to be around. Hopefully with this summer experience I can learn from them, because they both have amazing things to offer.

Road Less Travelled

I had the pleasure of interviewing my post-doc, Dr. Stephen Mague, for this blog post. Dr. Mague attended Bates College for undergrad and got his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

I asked Dr. Mague why he chose to go into science. He said that he started off college taking science classes because he thought that he wanted to go to medical school. Though he originally saw his biology classes as a means to an end, during his junior year of college he discovered his love of neuroscience. It was a new, rare major that bridged his interests in psychology and biology so he began taking neuroscience classes. One such class was an animal models of behavioral disorders class where he got to do a class project and design an experiment studying Parkinson’s Disease in mouse models. He saw that it was possible to manipulate an animal’s behavior by changing brain levels of dopamine. Because of the class, Dr. Mague did a thesis project that extended his original work.

By the end of college, Dr. Mague was still in denial about being a scientist. He took three gap years working as a research technician where he learned more models of animal behavior, developed mouse surgical skills, and a love for studying animal behavior as it relates to neurological conditions. Dr. Mague was mostly motivated by intrigue in the general subject matter in which he was working and decided to go to grad school to pursue his interests.

Dr. Mague gave me some valuable insights that I would like to share with you all. First off, he explained that while grad school trains you to become a PI, most PhDs never become PIs. He said that it takes a specific skill set to be able to network, advocate for your lab, travel far and often, and be okay with being somewhat removed from the science that you work on. Next, he said that PhDs do not have to become professors either. He isn’t planning on ever teaching full time and has still made a career for himself in science. He said that there are many paths to go down in science besides the typical PI or professor route. Lastly, he said that it’s important to take care of yourself while you’re in school and not wait to live your life once you’re finished with school. I found this piece of advice to be particularly meaningful because I feel that at Duke it can be really easy to put yourself last behind all of your priorities. I think we can all learn a lot from what he had to say.

I really appreciate Dr. Mague speaking to me, and I found our conversation to be particularly informative and helpful. Though I couldn’t add all of our conversation to my post due to its length, all of what he said has helped me to focus on the importance of loving the science you do and realizing that the path you take may not be the path that everyone takes. It’s okay to make your own way in life and to be comfortable with yourself for doing so.

“Hot Oven” Experiences

Dr. Susan Alberts can trace her love for science back to one life-changing moment: learning about the fig wasp in freshman year introductory biology at Reed College. Dr. Alberts remembers being “mystified” by the relationship between the fig wasp and the fig and immediately wanting to learn more. While becoming a scientist was not the expected path for a once philosophy major, Dr. Alberts describes the job she has now as “the best job for me. Ever.”

Getting to her dream job, however, had ups and downs. First, the ups: Dr. Alberts received the Watson Foundation Fellowship, giving her funding to design a project and travel for a year. Dr. Alberts sent out letters to different potential projects and mentors, and received a call back from Jeanne Altmann, a behavioral ecologist who had set up a field research center in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Dr. Altmann offered Dr. Alberts the opportunity to work in Amboseli for the year, and Dr. Alberts accepted. Now, the (slight) downs: Dr. Alberts calls this first field experience a “tempering in a hot oven” experience, which I took to mean as a difficult experience which ultimately made Dr. Alberts stronger and more able to deal with challenges. Lack of easy international communication meant that Dr. Alberts was mostly on her own, figuring out how to run the project, from logistics such as vehicle repairs, to sometimes trying interpersonal relationships. After working in Amboseli for 15 months, Dr. Alberts came back to the states, received her master’s from UCLA, and began the first of two post-doc positions, one at University of Chicago and one at Harvard University. Dr. Alberts then joined the faculty at Duke.

During our interview, I also had the opportunity to hear Dr. Albert’s thoughts on being a woman in science. She, again, calls some experiences of being a woman in science “tempering in a hot oven”. While in training, Dr. Alberts saw some women not able to succeed because of familial expectations, sexual harassment, and unwelcoming environments. Dr. Alberts speaks to her first post-doc experience under a female mentor as a source of her strength in a male-dominated scientific community. Seeing herself reflected in a female-led environment allowed her to gain more confidence to stand up for herself when questioned, and to become a mentor to others. In 1998, Dr. Alberts found herself in a different mentorship role when her first child was born. The female graduate students at the time didn’t have many role models to look up to who were also mothers, and looked up to Dr. Alberts for advice on being a mother and working in the sciences.

Walking out of my interview with Dr. Alberts, I felt a renewed sense of determination to work hard to achieve my goals, especially those of working in the field. While I still have a lot of tempering to go through, I am enjoying being mystified by the work in the lab and the stories from those around me.

Exciting Questions

As we sat in the dark room behind the great and powerful Olympus microscope, I decided it would be a good time to ask my mentor, Dr. Katie Baldwin how she had gotten to this point. Starting college at the University of Michigan, Katie had first wanted to study biochemistry. When confronted with the obscene mathematics of this field, however, Katie made the sensible choice of switching to Cell and Molecular Biology. After completing her undergraduate degree, Katie went on to study stem cells as a graduate student at U Michigan. She was most interested in how the body could repair itself and started work in a lab to study stem cells in the spinal cord, an organ notorious for its inability to repair. Late in her grad school career, Katie went to a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories conference to learn about the cool and exciting things going on in the world of stem cells. The problem was that there “wasn’t much cool and exciting”. Katie found many of the questions being asked in the field to be subtle variations of those asked in the early days of stem cells a decade ago. She then decided for her postdoctoral work to head in a different direction.

Enjoying her work with the spinal cord and being intrigued by the role of microglia in its repair, Katie searched for laboratories that were studying the poorly understood glial cells of the brain and how these cells could be playing a much greater part than previously recognized. This led Katie to ask Dr. Cagla Eroglu to meet with her at a conference they were both attending. Katie said she knew from that first meeting that Cagla was a “person she could work with” and that she was fascinated by the “simple questions [in glial biology] that had not so simple answers”. This led Katie to the Eroglu lab where she is currently working on studying proteins expressed by astrocytes to see how they are affecting neuronal synapses in the brain.

After tracking her path in science, our conversation began to shift to more general advice about the profession. Katie mentioned how she enjoyed being in a smaller lab with good mentoring and how she enjoyed being able to take risks in her work to answer the tougher questions that no one knew hardly anything about. She described the best part of her job as the moment of discovery when she’s able to find something new and interesting. She then said a lab proverb that stuck with me: “If you do everything right, every time you’re not learning”. This idea that failure was an inherent part of success made my own efforts in the lab seem more meaningful. It takes a large body of work to make a breakthrough, and much of this work goes into figuring out what doesn’t work.

With these themes in mind, we looked at the computer screen to set up for the next picture and saw an interesting morphology that seemed to only be present in one of our conditions. It seems the next discovery was before us.

“I was born as a small child”- Dr.Edward Levin

This week I interviewed the Principal Investigator of my lab, Dr. Ed Levin, and I was able to take a dive into parts of his life and look at his journey of becoming the amazing researcher he is now.

As you may have guessed, Dr.Edward Levin wasn’t born with a Doctorate. In fact, he was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania where his father worked as a physician in another town in Pennsylvania that had a lot of pollution. The town had lots of smog and there was even an event that happened in 1948 before Dr. Levin was born that ended up killing a lot of people. The pollution and history of that town are what got Dr.Levin extremely interested in toxicology. He enrolled at Penn State University for a year and a half and then transferred to

He enrolled at Penn State University for a year and a half and then transferred to the University of Rochester due to their excellent “physiological psychology’ program which nowadays would be called Behavioral Neuroscience. He studied that then took a gap year to work as a lab technician in Philly. Then he applied to graduate schools and then went to UW-madison in 1977. He started off with a master in psychology where he studied the adverse effects of pharmaceutical drugs. He later switched to a Ph.D. program in toxicology. For his Ph.D., he did work with Rhesus monkeys and looked at the cognitive effects of lead on early life. He moved to UCLA and studied the motor function and the adverse side effects of psychiatric drugs.  He met his wife and after having his first child, he moved to Sweden for a while where he studied dementia and antipsychotic use. Coming back from Sweden, he came back to UCLA and got into studying nicotine. He started working with Jed Rose who was the co-founder of the nicotine skin patch. Jed Rose soon invited him to come to North Carolina with his family in 1989 where he came to Duke as an Assistant Professor. In 1992, he finally got his own lab and went back to working with animals. He continued doing work in neurotoxicology.


When I asked him why he kept doing research, he said that the joy of discovery is what drives him every day. Research is so interesting because when you have discovery, you realize that you are the first one to know a piece of information and that you are adding to the knowledge pool of mankind.

Finally, at the end of the interview, I asked him about the advice he would give to students like me who one day wanted to go into research and solve some unanswered questions. He told me that reading broadly and going out and meeting the different people that are doing things that interest you was one of the best things that a person like me could do. He also said that you should try to be an expert in one thing but be able to speak the languages of other disciplines so that you can converse with people in other areas besides your own. In addition, he says to be perseverant and never be afraid to make mistakes because they call it research for a reason. You search and then you re-search. Finally, always remember that research takes time. You don’t instantly make a discovery. It takes a lot of time and work. You could read one line of information in a textbook that probably took a person 40 years to discover. When it comes to research, patience is something that one needs to have.

It’s about making connections

Often times, one would envision ‘the scientist’ as an individual with specific plans, designs, and goals, all culminating into this profoundly ambitious dream. And that’s true. But, there’s something missing.

Dr Joe Heitman, MD., PhD.- my PI- stressed the importance of making connections in science, whether it be with other people, between different concepts, or among methods of inquiry. Working on these things, even little at a time, can get you so far.

Science is social. This doesn’t mean that ‘the scientist’ wouldn’t get anywhere with talking to anyone. But, communication is at the center of what makes great papers and discoveries. Dr Heitman emphasized the importance of having an open dialogue in the lab, and between labs that may even be a few states or nations apart. This work is isn’t about being another star in the night, a well-known ball of energy adding to the light of this sky. It’s about sending signals, working with others in order to leave some permanent or influential knowledge that could potentially shape current efforts or inspire new ones.

Dr Heitman told me stories about the people he’s met in his career that took him on paths he’d otherwise never consider. With subtle advice, some have even inadvertently led him to address questions in his research that ultimately led to significant breakthroughs. The key thing to take away is that although your mind should be focused, your ears should always be open. In fact, Dr Heitman’s primary interest has always been about molecular structures, specifically nucleic acids. Yet, here he is- in a microbiology lab instead of genetics. It’s amazing where a path can take you.

I definitely enjoyed speaking with him and getting to know his many transitions from a chemist to biologist to medical doctor to principal investigator.




Sherlock Holmes of molecules

“My work is kind of like that of Sherlock Holmes; instead of being a detective of people, I am a detective of molecules.” – Dr. Ann Marie Pendergast

Dr. Ann Marie Pendergast (source:

Dr. Pendergast grew up in just about every other country in Central and South America. In her words, “Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, you name it.” Her dad, who served as a United States diplomat mostly in Latin American countries, met her mom in El Salvador while she was working in the embassy. Hence, Dr. Pendergast’s education up to high school ranged from school to school, mostly Catholic schools, she mentioned, because those were probably the best schools in the various countries. In high school, she learned from teachers who taught at the university and who had very high expectations. Her excellent high school science teachers are the reason for her interest in science and research.

The University of Michigan is where Dr. Pendergast received her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. However, at the very end of her undergrad years, she took a very interesting class on molecular biology, which influenced her to pursue a minor in molecular biology. For her PhD at the University of California in Riverside, she studied biochemistry, and for her postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, the molecular biology of cancer. After her postdoctoral fellowship, she arrived here at Duke, where her lab primarily focuses on the role of tyrosine kinases of the Abl family and its effect on pathological conditions such as cancer.

Dr. Pendergast loves everything in cancer biology, especially the history of the field. People such as her mentor’s mentor, David Baltimore, who received the Nobel Prize at the age of 33, started the whole area of oncology by looking at viruses. Studying the way that viruses exploited the genes that eventually became either oncogenes or tumor suppressors excited her.

Concerning the manner in which research is conducted nowadays, Dr. Pendergast noted that the reason that science grew to such high levels in the United States is because there was a big investment in science research. Thus, the premier universities around the world, for research in particular, were in the United States. Over the years, this formula has changed in that the universities are dependent on resources from the government, which does not have a long-term strategy; everything is every 4 years, and budgets are not allocated correctly. There will be damage to the ability of the universities to keep funding research and to keep recruiting new faculty. Dr. Pendergast stressed that this type of uncertainty is unfavorable because if the United States is to remain the leader of the world, there has to be more sustained support rather that this short-term, unstable, and unpredictable support. If this instability continues, other countries, mainly China, will fill the vacuum quickly, which is fine, but the US will lose.

In one of my last questions to Dr. Pendergast, I asked for her advice for aspiring young researchers today. She encourages students to combine the MD and the PhD because the MD-PhD creates more options. She said it is like having two arms instead of just one. For example, the instability in the research part can be balanced with patient care. If, for example, the NIH crumbles or funding disappears, the MD part will still be there. It is an advantage to have both. For some people, it is beneficial even for the questions that people can ask; if you can see what is happening in the real patient world, you can combine it with the molecular world and have a better way to look at potential solutions. You can go from a particular problem and ask the more overarching questions. When Dr. Pendergast was getting her degree, the MD-PhD was not as pervasive as it is now. She sees with her own students that having that option really gives an edge, especially in these uncertain times.

As a student on the pre-med track, I asked Dr. Pendergast if she had ever considered pursuing other careers such as becoming a medical doctor. She was not fond of the idea of doing the same technique over and over again, and therefore, she did not really consider becoming a medical doctor. Rather, she was more interested in the concept of really thinking about the processes and making major breakthroughs.

Some of the most exciting discoveries in her lab have been, for example, the discovery that her lab’s molecules play a role in metastasis. Before that, her lab also identified how chromosomal translocation events induce leukemia and identified the main pathways by which that happens.

I then asked about goals. Her goal is to have fun! She pointed out that the nice thing about science and doing your own research is that you are your own boss. It is not like people who work in companies or under big hospital structures. You do not have to see 100 patients or write reports. You just have to have your own ideas and find out new pathways, new discoveries, and identify new ways of treating diseases. There is a lot more flexibility, and you take your own destiny into your own hands rather than other people telling you what to do. You try to find out how pathways connect to each other and how cancer cells find ways to evade being treated. All of that is really exciting! In science, there is always something new. It is not only doing one thing, it is doing multiple, hundreds of things.

Dr. Pendergast’s enthusiastic personality produced an animated conversation as all of her words and motions were filled with life as always. Boy, am I grateful to have a PI that so easily shares her joy and excitement for research. Both her wisdom and outlook on life are really inspiring for me as I think deeply about my future and how the circumstances we live in will affect me and those around me in the years to come.

30 for 30: Postdoctoral Interview Edition

Dr. Megan Capozzi is a new face to the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute, where she is a post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Campbell’s lab. This lab focuses on the hormones used in the regulation of insulin secretion and glucose tolerance in type 2 diabetes. This lab uses mice models in their research.

Before Dr. Capozzi arrived at the DMPI, she spent her undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University where she majored in neuroscience. During her undergraduate years, she became involved in research, which lead her to continue her education at graduate school. Throughout her undergraduate years, her main goal was to learn the most she could from all different areas of education. She then continued at Vanderbilt for graduate school where she focused on diabetic retinopathy.

From my few weeks at the DMPI, I’ve been lucky with the people I get to learn from. The members of this lab are collaborative with each other and are great team players. While Dr. Capozzi hasn’t taught in a classroom yet, she enjoys that when you teach others it allows her to think about her own work in another context.

Dr. Capozzi’s favorite part about science is that you get to do something different every day. She also enjoys getting to be the first person to see and interpret her own data daily.

At the end of our interview Dr. Capozzi gave some helpful advice and insight for the future of my academic career. She emphasized on not being afraid of making mistakes because you learn a lot from them. She also advised to try everything I can because I’ll learn more. This information struck me as very important because it helps maximize our opportunities and experiences while at Duke.

Caron Interview

In the early 60s, Dr. Caron became interested in the sciences while attending Laval University in Quebec. In this decade, steroid metabolism was at the forefront of biomedical research. This field within biochemistry prompted Dr. Caron to attend the University of Miami where he received his Ph.D. Following his time at U Miami, Dr. Caron sought a postdoctoral fellowship and ended up with Dr. Bob Lefkowitz at Duke. It was during this time that Dr. Caron’s research really began to evolve.

The main focus of Dr. Lefkowitz’s lab has always primarily been GPCRs, the largest and most diverse group of membrane receptors in eukaryotes. GPCRs are distributed widely in the human body, with notable examples including rhodopsin (in the eye), taste receptors such as sweet and bitter, adrenergic receptors (i.e. beta-adrenergic receptors involved in the flight-or-fight response), and other transmitter/hormone receptors (including for dopamine and endogenous opioids). Dr. Caron spent most of his time with Dr. Lefkowitz attempting to purify these receptors and found success in 1986 with the beta-adrenergic receptor. At this time, the homology between different GPCR receptor subtypes was discovered to be extremely close. In other words, the mechanism of action of the beta-adrenergic receptor closely mirrors that of a dopamine receptor, for example.

Nowadays, the focus of the Caron lab is GPCR cell signaling with emphasis placed on neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and Parkinsons. These disorders are largely a result of neurotransmitter imbalances (amongst other things) such as dopamine with schizophrenia. Thus, by studying receptors such as the dopamine receptors and their subsequent effects (i.e. with known or newly developed drugs), it is our hope to further our understanding of GPCRs to combat such disorders. In fact, 40-50% of drugs on the market specifically target GPCRs. However, many other GPCR subtypes remain to be tested within the realm of this exciting field.

On Teaching and Being Taught

Dr. Williamson hails from a small, working-class family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was the first of his family to go to college. During our discussion, he recalled having no idea what he wanted to do when he was 19 except for his drive to receive an education and obtain a Ph.D. He did just that after his bachelor’s in Psychology, receiving a Ph.D. in psychiatric epidemiology (the study of the distribution of psychiatric diseases in a population and the risk factors that impact the distribution).

Over time he has migrated towards integrating preclinical models, brain imaging, biomarkers and genetics into his study of stress-related disorders. He defined himself as a translational epidemiologist and really struck a chord with me when he said, “in life you can call yourself whatever you like and become it”. Given a chance to go back in time, he said he would have enhanced his biology training as an undergraduate, however he advised not worrying “about fitting everything into an end-product that you imagine for yourself because in 10 years I don’t think you’ll find yourself in the position you’re imagining now”.

I love how Dr. Williamson’s current projects are very much a product of happenstance and seized opportunities. The project I’m involved with is sequencing the gut bacteria of mice pre & post a chronic social defeat paradigm (which induces a depression-like phenotype) to measure shifts in their microbiome. What began as Kara’s (an undergrad who now works in the lab) senior thesis and has now grown into one of the lab’s main focuses—a beautiful example of Dr. Williamson’s teaching style in which he likes to work with students one-on-one and “to learn together, teaching and being taught”.

Their second project is within a national PTSD consortium (partially funded by Veteran Affairs). Before moving to Duke, Dr. Williamson worked in San Antonio where a colleague approached him about taking on a genetic study of soldiers pre & post deployment to find biomarkers for PTSD susceptibility. The happy accident which started out as helping a friend has grown exponentially, and Dr. Williamson is now the director of the ‘Genomic and Biomarkers Core’ within the consortium. Although Dr. Williamson has been lucky both professionally and financially to be able to branch into new fields, he mentioned that allowing investigators to access money not tied to project-specific grants would help science move forward. Additionally, he would like to see more incentives for scientists to be unselfish and collaborative so that one’s life experiences can become the whole group’s knowledge.

The lab’s final project is a longitudinal teen alcohol and depression study for which Dr. Williamson’s epidemiological background has been critical. “Depression is not depression is not depression”, each individual’s depression is characterized by their family history, presence early-life anxiety, age of first onset, etc. and one must look at the disease in that framework. In the pursuit of better understanding these factors, he is following children with high-risk backgrounds during the peak onset period of 12-15 years old.

As a final piece of advice for aspiring scientists, he emphasized the importance of being generous, gracious and dependable as a collaborator and of giving more than one takes. “No one will help you if you’re a pain in the ass,” he said jokingly, but also with the wisdom of one who has dealt with such a colleague before.

The Stories Behind the Research Papers

Dr. Joel Collier is the PI of the Collier Group—a biomedical engineering lab here at Duke that is working to design new vaccines, and I have been placed in his lab over the summer. He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me earlier this week, and I want to share some of what he told me about his experience of becoming a scientist, his favorite parts of the job, and some advice he gave me, and I am looking at a carrer in scienve.

Dr. Collier’s lab is focused on immunoenginnering, but he has not always been interested in this field. He got his undergraduate degree at Rice University in materials science—biomedical engineering, being a pretty new field, wasn’t even a major at Rice University at that time. Dr. Collier didn’t even go straight to graduate school out of undergrad. Rather, he took a few years to work in industry to satisfy his curiosity, and then returned to school at the University of Chicago. All this has led him to be a PI and a professor at Duke University. However, what I found most interesting is Dr. Collier’s perspective on teaching and running a lab.

In the interview, Dr. Collier explained that he believes labs produce two products: new technology and people, and he believes the more important of the two is the people each project produces. Research papers, Dr. Collier elaborated, contain a lot of science, but they do not really tell the story of how a discovery was made. A graduate student comes into a lab a different person than he or she leaves as, having learned more inside and outside of the lab. Each research paper has a story behind it that has to do with the growth of the person writing the paper. Dr. Collier enjoys having the opportunity to cultivate the learning and experiences of his students.

Finally, Dr. Collier dropped his final piece of advice. As a rising sophomore, I still don’t really know what I am going to do after college. In terms of deciding a career path, Dr. Collier told me to strongly consider how the day to day life of a particular job fits my personality because someone doing research, working as a physician, or working in industry has a vastly different everyday life.

The Path of a Scientist

(Warning: long post ahead.  I didn’t realize it, but we talked a lot!)

Dr. Patek in the aquarium part of the lab. Image Source: Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

So here’s the thing: I’ve been lucky to have numerous role models in my life, many of them female, ranging from my seniors to peers in the same grade as me. The problem is, every time I look up to someone, my ability to talk to them just goes down the drain. I stumble over words, trail off sentences and avert my eyes—more often than usual. So when I was assigned to interview Dr. Sheila Patek—a biologist who has spoken at a TED conference, defended the value of her research when politicians called it a “waste,” and also happens to be my PI—I freaked out big time. Fortunately, Dr. Patek is one of the friendliest people I’ve met at Duke. When I knocked on her office door she invited me to sit down with a smile, leaning back casually with her mug of tea. Even with the relaxed atmosphere I still stuttered my way through the interview. But in the end I learned a lot of interesting things about Dr. Patek, and also gained valuable insights into the nature of scientific research.

I was surprised to find out that Dr. Patek and I share a few similar experiences. For one thing, we first developed our love of the marine world by exploring it firsthand. While attending middle school in Japan, Dr. Patek’s class took a field trip to the island Miyake-jima. That was the first time Dr. Patek went snorkeling, and although everything appeared blurry without her glasses, the moving colors she saw underwater blew her away. As an avid scuba diver, I couldn’t agree with her more about how marine life can leave anyone in awe of the natural world. I also discovered that, like me, Dr. Patek has passions in both the sciences and the arts; and she too had to face the struggle of choosing between them career-wise. While I’m mainly interested in visual art and creative writing, Dr. Patek was hugely invested in orchestra during college. She loved playing the clarinet, and remarked during our interview that she could have actually continued down the path of a professional musician. However, during college she realized something about herself: while she worked hard in both her scientific and musical pursuits, she “couldn’t stand being beat up in music performance, but somehow it didn’t bother (her) in science.” She guessed that this might be because there’s something less personal about criticism in the sciences. Afterwards, she finally became set on being a scientist in her senior year. While I still hope to combine my artistic and scientific interests—for instance, through communication of science to the public—it was amazing to hear the story of someone who had once been in a position similar to mine, and hearing about her decision-making process provided insight into how I might make my own choices in the future.

We also talked at length about Dr. Patek’s development as a scientist. One big lesson I took away was that research involves a lot of hard work, tough decisions, and a bit of luck. While completing her postdoc at UC Berkeley, Dr. Patek initially aimed to study hearing in mantis shrimp. However, after a whole year of hard work, she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to answer her research question in time, and made the tough choice to switch studies. The turnover was definitely not an easy one. Dr. Patek’s next plan was to study the mantis shrimp’s strikes, however these ultra-fast movements could not be recorded by any of the university’s cameras. By utter chance, a BBC crew visited Berkeley around the time Dr. Patek was facing this dilemma, and were kind enough to rent out a ~$3000 high-speed video camera for her in exchange for filming her and other scientists doing research. It was only then that Dr. Patek was able to study the mind-blowing mechanism of the mantis shrimp’s strike. My jaw dropped when thinking about how important sheer luck was to Dr. Patek’s career trajectory; had the BBC crew not visited when they did, Dr. Patek herself admits that she would not be researching on mantis shrimp today. However, she also adds that she would’ve eventually found something else; and that reminded me that this luck was really only a bonus to all the labor Dr. Patek had already put in as a scientist. I’d like to think this adds weight to the idea that chance opportunities are great, but they’ll only really start arising once you’ve put in work yourself.

Finally, we also discussed Dr. Patek’s current work and life.  Surprisingly, one thing that my PI stressed to me was that research is a “ruthless” career. Obtaining grants and publishing papers is a highly competitive process, and many qualified people with PhDs aren’t able to succeed in a scientific career. The grants Dr. Patek receives are also the main thing keeping her lab running, so my PI spends a lot of her time writing grants. Dr. Patek also describes her job as “all-consuming,” as she often works all day and sometimes has to take work home with her. But at the same time, she notes that it grants her a degree of flexibility that most jobs don’t have. For instance, she’s able to attend her son’s kindergarten graduation at eleven in the morning, or be home at six for dinner everyday with her family, and do work later at night. She also says that it’s a huge privilege to be doing what she does: paving the way for new knowledge on subjects that she cares about, and working closely with others who have similar interests. And with regards to the job being “all-consuming,” she also notes that “sometimes the best things in life are like that.” Yes, research is a job that can demand total investment; but if it’s investment into something that you love, that you already have an “overwhelming fascination and passion” for, then this type of career can be pretty amazing. Through her voice and animated gestures, it’s very clear that Dr. Patek has this very passion she speaks of. I can’t help but feel in awe of how my PI balances the ups and downs of her career, and ultimately takes great joy and pride in what she does.

After half an hour, I finished the interview and thanked Dr. Patek for making time for me out of her busy schedule. We still ended up chatting about random things as we headed back to the lab.

I don’t know if this has gotten across already in my writing, but this interview was truly inspiring. I was genuinely surprised at the similarities Dr. Patek and I shared, and was amazed at the challenges she faces as part of her life as a researcher. Learning that someone I can relate to has experienced what she did, and made it to where she is now…that inspires hope in me that I can do the same, and has given me a greater awareness about how I may approach my own future. I’m honestly so glad I’ve been given the chance to work in her lab this summer!

The Artistic Side to Science

From a young age, Dr. Collier has always been curious. This curiosity was not solely confined to the sciences but ranged many fields including writing and art. In fact to this day, Dr. Collier’s wide range of interests have provided him with a unique perspective on the sciences: science is an art.

Dr. Collier’s interests led him to attend Rice University where he pursued a degree in materials science. During his first year of his undergraduate career, Dr. Collier enrolled in a design class where he was able to use his creativity to complete a variety of projects. Dr. Collier later began research for the Mikos Lab where he not only applied his knowledge in the sciences to various projects but also used his creativity to take advantage of every opportunity presented, thus taking his research to the next step. Dr. Collier knew he had a passion for creating from a young age, but he soon discovered that through pursuing a career developing medical materials he would be able to use his skills for the betterment of people.

However, before Dr. Collier went to attend graduate school he pursued a manufacturing career with Motorola due to his willingness to go out of his comfort zone to explore other fields he was curious about, thus further expanding his perspectives on the world.

Dr. Collier is currently a professor here at Duke where he continues to encourage all members of his lab to take a creative approach to conducting research. Dr. Collier not only takes great value in his research but also cares deeply about the personal development of all members of the lab. During our interview, Dr. Collier pointed out that behind every published paper, there is a person with a story.

Throughout my interview with Dr. Collier, I was reminded of the value of trusting the pursuit of my curiosities. After hearing about Dr. Collier’s personal journey with the sciences I have gained a unique new perspective of the sciences.

Don’t Pigeonhole Yourself

Pigeonhole: (verb) 1. the act of placing someone in a category as narrow and confined as a literal pigeonhole is

Advice from Dale to adventurers like myself in science: “Don’t pigeonhole yourself.” There is always a tendency and social stigma to stay relatively fixed on a path, but the path can change. “Be free, science is all about freedom.” Dale briefly recounted the story of the cosmic microwave scientists who won the Nobel prize after simply stumbling upon a noise that was actually radiation from the universe! It proves that life is full of twists, turns, and surprises; including his own.

Dr. Cameron ‘Dale’ Bass, PI to the fabulous Bass Injury and Orthopaedic Biomechanics Laboratory, grew up not only in North Carolina, but also in Belgium, where he attended the International School of Brussels before returning to earn his Bachelor’s and Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia. Even though there always existed the dream of becoming an astronaut, Dr. Bass decided to stray from his seemingly set path and received his postdoc in Biomechanics. The big dream is to one day discover the cause and genesis of brain injury. He discusses a scenario where somebody is punched—in the 200 milliseconds after the punch, where does the brain switch from the conscious to the unconscious? Dale also shared with me a time in lab when he was at the University of Virginia. Their team had ran their impact test on thousands and thousands of dummies and even several cadavers in preparation for a huge showcase for an automobile company. On the day of the display, hundreds of spectators, including the automobile company, showed up to see the cadaver impact test, but one at a time, different aspects of the set-up began to fail and nobody knew why! His experience simply confirms the ideas of luck, failure, and persistence within science.

While Dr. Bass would love to have dinner with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, I was simply lucky to sit down and talk with him for a few precious minutes. I am always smiling and laughing while talking to Dale, but just as important, always learning and ready to learn more in his lab!

Dale Bass!

New Perspectives

Dr. Pelin Volkan

Dr. Pelin Volkan. It all began in Istanbul, Turkey for her where she attended Bogazici University as an undergraduate and received her B.S. and M.S. in molecular biology and genetics. She knew early on that she wanted to have a career in academia (kind of similar to me!). She became fascinated in the development of organisms and how complexity is generated, which is why she stuck with the nervous system (one of the most highly complex systems). “It’s a system that scans our environment and can determine behavior,” she told me. The more she researched, the more addicting it became to her. She cultivated a love for hypotheses, testing ideas, and of course getting answers. She then came to the U.S. and attended UNC Chapel Hill for her Ph.D. in biology, mainly concentrating in genetics and developmental biology. Afterwards, she attended UCLA for her postdoc, where she studied the development of neural factory circuits in Drosophila.

Although her life revolves around science, she does not only focus on the science aspect. She finds art within biology, which many scientists may not. She told me that there are creative processes needed for science to happen. For example: creating experiments. I certainly had not thought of that before.

After asking Dr. Volkan what she would change in the science community she replied by saying she believes that the science community has a bit too much ego and sometimes this ego leads to faking data. She believes that science should be more collaborative and have more communication between different labs and even different disciplines. There are so many things to learn from everyone. She told me that every lab has a very narrow, specific topic that they research, so it’s easy to become isolated in a way. This is why she likes teaching, especially general courses. She ends up learning a lot. Teaching allows her to leave her comfort zone and branch out into other disciplines.

Currently, Dr. Volkan is working with Drosophila. I was curious why, of all organisms, Drosophila? She simply stated, “because they’re easier” – you can ask questions and almost immediately get some answers. Also, in one of her previous labs she worked with rats. They’re not exactly her favorite.

It has only been two weeks, but I have already learned so much from Dr. Volkan, from just her viewpoints on the world and science in general. She casually just slips in words that I have never heard before and concepts I have never thought of before.

From Pen to Pipette

I recently served on a panel to prospective Duke students, and one of the questions I received was “What’s your major?” I didn’t think much of it until we were at a reception afterward, and Dean Sue said, “Unless if you’re doing engineering or nursing, your major doesn’t matter,” and I immediately thought of Dr. Di Giulio.

Dr. Di Giulio attended the University of Texas at Austin and did a Plan II (very similar to Program II at Duke) in comparative literature. This made me wonder… why the change from pen to pipette?

“After I graduated, I wasn’t sure of what to do. I thought maybe law, but it didn’t really interest me. My girlfriend at the time said, ‘You really like the outdoors, nature, wildlife… why not do that?'”

This led him to pursue his Masters of Science at Louisiana State University and eventually his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. Around that time, Duke received a grant to initiate an ecotoxicology program, and Dr. Di Giulio applied and has been here ever since.

Most of Dr. Di Giulio’s work uses fish models; however, he had no experience with fish until he got to Duke! Now, he’s an expert in the field and a Sally Kleberg Professor of Environmental Toxicology. At Duke, he teaches an environmental toxicology class and an environmental health class with other ecotoxicologists.

Dr. Di Giulio loves science. When asked what he would be doing now if he weren’t at Duke, he hesitated. A few moments later, he said, “Probably trying to work in a government lab or the EPA/US Fish & Wildlife Service”; however, if he were able to start again, he would go to UC Davis to study enology (winemaking).

Dr. Di Giulio is passionate about food. He’s a wonderful cook (his favorite type of food is Italian) and has a modest wine collection. He also likes to read and watch movies in his free time.

An interesting guy comes with interesting stories, and this story is one of Dr. Di Giulio’s most embarrassing moments. Recently, a student was running an experiment using the swim tunnels. The water ran out and the system caught on fire, causing the emergency sprinklers to go off. This resulted in extensive water damage all the way to the first floor of LSRC (our lab is located on the third floor)! A restoration disaster cleanup crew had to come to repair the damage.

After hearing Dean Sue talk, I realized Dr. Di Giulio is the perfect example of how life actually is. I can study whatever I want and pursue whatever I want. I can make mistakes and be awarded a prestigious professorship (or another award). There are no protocols in life like there are in science.

You can go from pen to pipette. So for now, I choose the pipette, but I might find myself holding another weapon of choice one day… and that’s okay.