Category Archives: Week 7

The Basics

Dr. Anne West’s seminar was particularly intriguing because of its focus on the “basic sciences”. Oftentimes, I hear undergrads who say they want to do research in cancer or immunology “because it’s cool,” and yet many of the major scientific discoveries came from so-called basic sciences that may appear to be separated from clinical implications. In fact, as Dr. Anne West pointed out, a large portion of the discovery of CRISPR came from studies of bacteria in the food industry. I was also fascinated by Dr. West’s desire to write a book of anecdotes designed to bridge the gap between the abstract world of academia and life. Her passion for her work and the reasons for her continued motivation were truly inspiring.

Learning From Others

I have enjoyed the seminar component of this program since it has allowed me to meet many of the faculty here at Duke. These seminars have enlightened me of what makes Duke research so unique and how important it is to get involved in research at this university. I found it interesting to learn about the life pathways of these scientists and a common theme I have seen is that you never know where you might end up in life.

One of my favorite seminars was from Dr. Brian Coggins, Assistant Research Professor of Biochemistry. I was excited to learn about his research since the beginning of this fellowship because his research revolved around Biochemistry which is the area I plan to study while my time here at Duke. His work focused on NMR technology and furthering the potential of this technology. NMR is a topic that was covered in my Organic chemistry I class. I found it difficult to learn but once I started practicing NMR problems it became easier to understand. However, the class didn’t go into detail about why NMR is important and what implication it has in the real world. Learning about Dr. Coggins research gave me a greater insight in that field and allowed me to connect what I learned in class and apply it to ongoing research. Dr. Coggins research around NMR goes well beyond my scope of knowledge of the topic but I am interested to learn more about it once I start taking higher level chemistry courses.

A comment from Dr. Coggins that stuck with me was that he is never satisfied. It’s his curiosity that drives him forward and allows him to want to learn more. It is difficult to choose just one discipline and stick with it for the rest of your life. Dr. Coggins mention how he wishes to have more time to learn about other research since there are so many things fascinating out there. It is interesting to know that even Dr. Coggins, with his years of experience, still doesn’t know what will come next in his career, but his curiosity will certainly lead him in the right direction.

The name is Dr. Anne West.

Did you know that three Duke faculty have the name, Anne West? Anne J. West, Anne E. West, and Anne West. The Anne West who directed the faculty seminar this week is Anne West from the Department of Neurobiology.

Dr. West’s convincing argument for the value of basic scientific research captivated my attention. Last week, another Duke faculty member, Kathleen Donahue, began her discussion by asking us about the value of basic scientific research, which, to the average person, does not seem to have practical, real-life applications. This week, Dr. West followed Dr. Donahue’s intriguing introduction to the topic nicely as she also addressed the value of basic scientific research.

On the long whiteboard located at the front of the classroom, Dr. West drew a timeline. As an example, she told the story of CRISPR, the widely popular genome editing technology. When she marked the year 1987 on the timeline and wrote the word, “Archaea” above the year, I must admit I did not see a direct connection to the gene-editing technology. It turns out that in 1987, scientists studying Archaea noticed repeating sequences in Archaea, but did not know what these clustered, interspersed repeats were. When Dr. West mentioned “clustered,” and “interspersed,” I thought, “ah, CRISPR!” (CRISPR: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Later, CRISPRs were found in bacteria, and in 2005, people trying to make better yogurt recognized CRISPR as a defense system for bacteria to protect themselves against phages. In 2012, CRISPR as we know it today was discovered as a method to target and modify genes in living cells.

Although it may be hard to think of the direct, practical applications of “undirected research” to society, this type of research can change lives in the future. Hence, this type of research has considerable value. The sad part is that basic scientific research is being deprived of funding because many fail to perceive the benefits of this type of research to change lives for the better. The discovery of CRISPR as a method to alter the genome is huge, and without the “undirected research” of Archaea, who knows how long it would have taken to reveal this important discovery.

Dr. West mentioned one of her long-term goals to create a book composed of stories about curing diseases, which would challenge people to consider the value of basic scientific research. After listening to Dr. West’s engaging presentation, that is one book I sure would like to read.

Every week I look forward to the faculty seminars more and more. I love to hear about the various life journeys of scientists at Duke. The inspirational faculty talks not only introduce us to the thought-provoking research of highly esteemed faculty at Duke, but also allow us to discuss life goals and the various journeys through life as a scientist with these wonderful people. What an exciting life of exploration it is to be a scientific researcher.

I never realized bird songs could be so interesting…

I have to say, the seminars have been incredibly interesting and a great start to my mornings. I like that we have been able to listen to a wide breadth of science being done a Duke and learn about all different types of fields and research being done. In our labs, we have been getting a very in depth look into one subject, but through the seminars we have been able to learn about all different types of research.

One of my favorite seminars was on something very unexpected: bird songs. Dr. Nowicki studies how birds communicate and how their songs evolve, and then uses birds as a model system to better understand human language and communication. This lab does not relate to anything I am studying and the field work they do is pretty different from the bench work I do in the lab every day. Quite honestly, I really did not think that bird songs could be very interesting. However, I walked out of Dr. Nowicki’s talk suddenly incredibly interested in bird songs! The way that Dr. Nowicki presented his research was engaging and easy to understand, so I felt like I had a good idea about what was going on in his lab without being overwhelmed. Additionally, I was interested in learning more.

All the talks have been incredibly interesting and got me thinking about all the different types of research out there. I do think the most influential parts of the talks, though, were the parts where the faculty told us about their career journeys and how they got to where they are today. Those stories really gave me a good understanding of what my career path may look like if I choose to go to grad school. They also let me know that there are many ways to get to the same place, and let me know that there is still time for me to figure out what I want to do in the future. Doing lab work right now is really awesome for whatever I may choose to do, but I still have time to explore my interests and find my path.

Looking Ahead

All summer we’ve had the opportunity to meet and learn from distinguished faculty which was super cool. One of my favorite talks I think this summer was from Dr. Christopher Kontos. Dr. Kontos is the director of Duke’s MD-PHD program. I really enjoyed this talk because before the program I was really contemplating striving for a MD-PHD. Listening to him talk really opened my perspective about everything. Especially because I work in a lab where people have all different types of academic backgrounds I think I’ve learned a lot! I really appreciated this talk because we got to ask lots of questions and learn more about the program. This has allowed me to explore my future even more which I was thankful for as BSURF comes to an end.

Science with a Story

Throughout the program we’ve had the opportunity to hear from a variety of researchers at Duke. They have studied everything from CRISPR to bird song varieties, but have all shared one thing: their passion. Everyone who spoke had a clear passion for their work and a true love of science. It was inspiring to hear how so many people made successful careers for themselves that include their personal interests of discovery and innovation.

One talk that really struck me was from Dr. Anne West. Dr. West’s research was interesting to me from the start because it is in my intended field, but she also delivered such a powerful presentation on the importance of basic science research. Her presentation talked about the serendipity of finding CRISPR in archaea in the 1980s and how that discovery has led to a massive revolution in research today. Those findings will be able to alter medical treatment for a myriad of diseases, including Duchene’s Muscular Dystrophy. Dr. West made a convincing, easy to follow, and powerful case for funding basic science research. She communicated with the audience in a way that many people would relate to, by bringing up how a disease affected a child. She gave her audience hope at the end, a clear understanding of how basic science research that was completely unrelated to a disease could become applicable to its treatment, and she did it all without using scientific jargon. I was impressed with her project idea and her future plans to collect these stories and turn them into a book. Her ability to use research that she was working on, science that she knew, personal experiences that she had, and an opinion that she believed in all at once was impressive. I was already planning on getting a Science and Society certificate from Duke, but now I might have an avenue by which to pursue my interests in conveying the importance of science to the general public. I hope that Dr. West’s project turns into a book that educates the public and our politicians about the importance of basic science and how drastically basic science can impact our society.

“I’m Squawkin’ Here!”: The New York Accent of the Bird World

Dr. Stephen Nowicki lied to us. While I’m not a fan of lying, this lie was ~for science~, which made it acceptable. This lie, while small in size, made a big difference. The difference was between “pa” and “da” – a miniscule change of breath. This difference, clear to us, shows our categorical thinking: something is “pa” because its not “da”. Birds also, amazingly, display categorical thinking in their song. If it is not the correct song, the song has no meaning, just like how saying “dause” means nothing to humans (while the word “pause” makes sense). Birds from Pennsylvania do not understand the songs of birds from New York because of these slight changes (who knew birds had accents?). Throughout the faculty seminars this summer, I have noticed a trend: discovering connections in the world. I thought Dr. Nowicki’s research was incredibly cool because it uncovered more interconnectedness in the natural world. Additionally, I have been working in an animal behavior lab and Dr. Nowicki’s research sparked my interest into another side of animal behavior research I had never seen before!

“Why do you do science?”

“To learn stuff…about the world.”

That was the first answer to Dr. Kathleen Donohue’s opening seminar question, given by yours truly. A soft round of chuckles rippled backwards through the seats of the classroom and I lowered my hand sheepishly. Okay, not my most eloquent response given that it was early morning (aka 9am) and I was still processing the much-needed sugar provided by some granola bars.  But still, that was basically the summary of the excited pull I felt in my gut when considering Dr. Donohue’s question. After all, learning new things about the world around us constitutes the very core of science, right?

However, as Dr. Donohue called on other BSURFers, people began giving answers like, “to find cures” or “to solve x problem in society.” Oops. I mean, those are really important too, but I’d be lying if I said they were the first things that came to mind. I felt slightly ashamed. Was I being selfish and, more importantly, impractical with my intentions in research?

It turns out, at a recent convention Dr. Donohue had asked several hundred evolutionary biologists the same question…and many of them had sided with pure curiosity. Dr. Donohue explained that whether you are in basic or applied sciences, it is vital to have the desire to learn things for the sake of learning things, because this is what motivates scientists on a daily basis. “You could be searching for the cure for cancer,” she said, but you’re not going to find it in a single day. Your curiosity and investment in your current tasks, even if what they reveal isn’t the game-changing discovery you ultimately hope to make, is what will carry you in the long run. In other words, pure curiosity is what sustains people who can work years and years on something, and then finally come up for a solution to an important problem. When I heard Dr. Donohue’s words, my shoulders relaxed in relief, and I felt a glimmer of happiness and hope. So I wasn’t going crazy: doing science simply to learn things about the world wasn’t such a bad thing.

However, Dr. Donohue also reminded us of the reality that, while curiosity may motivate scientists, practical applications are what interest most of society—including many funding organizations. So it’s really important to be able to communicate the value of your work to non-scientist contacts. That’s when Dr. Donohue said something that struck me: “whomever you are talking to is perfectly capable of understanding you, if you are perfectly capable of communicating to them.” Communicating science needs to be a dialogue: you need to know what the other party cares about, what they already know (or think they know), what their concerns are, and more. If you know this, you’ll know what to say and do in order to engage them in your work. This was good food for thought for me, because I’m interested in communicating science to the public but am sometimes unsure how to go about it. Understanding where the other party is coming from, and integrating these insights into how I explain science, is a tactic I’ll be keeping in the forefront of my mind from now on.

I know a major aspect of these faculty seminars is learning about each scientist’s specific research topics. But honestly, I think that Dr. Donohue’s more general discussion about the nature of scientific research and communication made one of the strongest impacts on me. It didn’t just reassure me that curiosity still plays a key role in driving science forward, but also acknowledged that the desire for practical solutions cannot be ignored and must also be satisfied. I think a good scientist has to be able to balance both of those motivations when doing research, and I hope that’s what I’ll be able to do in the future.

Happy Accidents

Happy accidents are those moments of sheer luck and coincidence in life that we’ve learned to cherish whenever they should pop up. We don’t really think about them though. We never take the time to reflect on them, to think where we might be in life should they have never occurred. Dr.Mohamed Noor made me think critically about happy accidents and for that reason I’d like to talk about what I gathered from his talk.

Dr.Mohamed’s talk woke me up from a deep sleep. Literally. I was face-down on the table when he walked in rambling about evolution and genetics. He went on to give a riveting talk about his path he followed as a scientist, the theory of evolution in the context of today’s society, and his own work. As a group we discussed possible solutions for communicating the theory of evolution to lay audiences in a way that they could be receptive to. He played us some example recordings of fly courtship ‘songs’ that were part of some of the work hs has done in speciation. However, the part about his talk that I really resonated with was the happy accident that occurred during the research project he was undertaking during graduate school.

Dr.Noor told us about amazing data he was able to produce during a graduate project that put him in the spotlight as an evolutionary biologist. He discussed it with humility and humor as he described how the amazing results were almost all sheer luck, a happy accident if you will. I found it interesting that Dr.Noor was so open about this. Where would he be if it hadn’t been for this happy accident. Would I be calling him ‘Dr.’ today? If someone had not sent me a snapchat of the Duke application two days before it was due, would I even be here today? I don’t have the answers to these questions or how my life would be different today but I do know it doesn’t matter. I’m so grateful for having been able to follow the path that I was set on by a trail of happy accidents. However, even if I hadn’t been ended up at Duke and at this program I would still know my future lies in science. I would have come to this realization in some other way in some alternate timeline. The paths we follow and the lives we live can seem so haphazard and random but what we can control is what we feel and know on the inside. No happy accident can change that.

Breakfast Tunes

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, my schedule revolves around my meals. To me, seminars primarily mean the time of day where I drag myself up ten million flights of stairs to French Family and finally get to reenergize with some granola bars, fruit, OJ, and yogurt (thanks for the new yogurt, Jason!)

While I love having seminars because it means getting to eat, there’s an added bonus of going: learning about other research that faculty members are doing. The seminar that struck me the most was Dean Steve Nowicki’s. Steve is my academic advisor, and I’ve heard a lot of his stories including his research. I’m not sure if it’s because I wasn’t eating when I first heard it, but I never fully understood the research he was doing until he came and presented to us — and wow am I glad I finally understand it!

Steve’s research investigates how birds communicate using various biological approaches. After taking genetics and evolution in the Spring, I was able to have the capacity to fully understand his presentation. It was amazing how he was able to connect how birds learn to communicate with humans. One anecdote that he brought up was the inability to hear certain phonemes and growing up bilingual, I completely understood. I remember my parents trying to pronounce Walmart and not being able to enunciate the l’s and the r’s.

Another interesting point he brought up was the difference between songs of birds from Pennsylvania and New York. I asked a question about how this affects mating, and Steve said that birds in Pennsylvania won’t even recognize the songs of birds from New York. This led me to think about how the Biological Species Concept is applied. If females won’t pick up the courtship songs of males, when are the regional birds considered different species?

Coming full circle

One of the faculty talks that stood out the most to me was Dr. Charles Gerbasch’s talk. After his talk I realized that his name had sounded pretty familiar. It then hit me that back when I was researching universities to attend, Dr. Gerbasch’s lab had struck my interest back then as well. Research like his had been one of the reasons I later decided to attend Duke.

One thing that really stood out to me about Gerbasch is that he places a strong emphasis on the overlap of the various fields of science. Gerbasch emphasized that as science becomes more advanced, the more intermixed the various disciplines of science become with each other. Thus while Gerbasch majored in chemical engineering, he is also well versed in other fields of science such as genetics and molecular biology. Seeing how various fields of science intermingle with each other is something I find very interesting and hope to find in a career.

Cutting-edge research is currently being conducted at the Gerbasch lab. The lab is using various genetic-engineering methods to research ways to improve treatment for patients of an abundance of diseases and disabilities. I really enjoyed hearing how open-minded the Gerbasch lab is to experimenting with various methods.

Overall, I really enjoyed the faculty seminars. Being an undergraduate who has little idea what type of career I want to pursue, it was interesting seeing the journey these various faculty members took to end up in their careers. I also enjoyed hearing all of the life lessons and perspectives on science the various faculty members shared and I learned a lot from the insights they had to share.

Piercing Alarms & Morning Meetings

7:50am… 8:00… 8:10… 8:20… 8:30… 8:35… These are all the alarms my roommate had to suffer through on a daily basis as I tried to convince myself to wake up for our morning faculty seminars. Although dragging myself out of bed and then rushing to get ready because I was running late (again) is not my idea of fun, the speakers made it worth it. Apart from learning about interesting research, it was reassuring to hear about the zigzagging career paths that many of the speakers had taken.

Two talks stood out in particular. The first was Provost Sally Kornbluth’s talk on research misconduct. I’ve grown up loving shows like CSI, Law & Order and White Collar, and the case study of Anil Potti, a former Duke medical researcher, sure felt like the academia version! Her talk also struck a chord because I’ve been thinking a lot about the failings of biomedical research after reading the book Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris (shout-out to Dr. Brian Hare for the recommendation). I’m not saying that basic science research is unnecessary—it has resulted in many life-changing (literally) discoveries. However, it isn’t perfect. The lack of severe repercussions for Anil Potti is a case in point (he is still a practicing doctor and will be allowed to conduct research again after 2020).

The second talk that caught my attention was that of Dean Stephen Nowicki who spoke about learning and mate selection in song birds. Having taken his class last semester, I knew some of the information but listened with newfound appreciation for the evolutionary perspective. It was especially fascinating to hear about his research on geographically comparing song repertoires between groups of male swamp sparrows. Song types varied between groups with groups farther away from each other being more distinct. Females tended to respond preferentially to males singing songs typical of their group with their responsiveness diminishing as songs from groups further away were played. This indicates that females’ notions of a ‘good song’ are learned through experience and exposure. Who would have guessed that songbirds are such an ideal species to study language and learning!

Moist Toilet Paper

Dr. Charles Gersbach wakes up each morning motivated and excited by the thought that he can discover something new and fresh with his passion and hard work.

He didn’t feel he could find such motivation through moist toilet paper, an idea proposed by Kimberly Clark, or through transfecting cells everyday to protect toddlers from RSV infections.

Of course, both moist toilet paper and cell transfections are important in their own ways, but Dr. Gersbach felt like he was simply “one little cog in a bigger machine.”

However, once he tasted the side of academia by experiencing a bone growth product, he found a new love and freedom for lab. His idea of what “engineering” meant shifted, especially for cutting edge research.

Now, Dr. Gersbach works with CRISPR and Genome Editing to decipher the dilemma of muscular dystrophy and attempts to differentiate between gene editing and gene therapy to capitalize, understand, and edit the dystrophin protein holding together muscle cells. As an aspiring engineer fascinated with CRISPR and genome editing myself, I was extremely interested in how he tackled the gene editing portion and how he found the balance between engineering and biology.

Dr. Gersbach fought a dilemma that I find myself facing; industry v.s. academia. His insight into how he felt with his experiences in industry versus the freedom he finds through academia proves extremely helpful as I attempt to figure out what I want from the future. Thank you Dr. Gersbach for a wonderful faculty talk!

Science and More Science

I thoroughly enjoyed these seminars. Not only did I learn more about other research that I might not have thought of exposing myself to, but I also got to know how these researchers became…researchers. To be completely honest, it’s nice hearing from the researchers who didn’t see themselves as researchers from their early undergraduate years.

Out of all of the seminars, it was really difficult to choose only one to talk about, so I’ve decided to pick two! I promise to keep it short-ish.

First up, Dr. Anne West, since her seminar is still fresh in this forgetful brain of mine. One question that she brought up was why she wanted to be a basic scientist. There are so many people who really look for research that will show immediate/direct benefits in real world applications. However, like what Dr. West explained through her captivating storytelling, basic science is so essential. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to progress as much as we have thus far. The fact that CRISPR was essentially discovered 30 years before it became popular in the science world is just mind blowing. Research that might seem pointless at first, might have a very important role in the future. On top of that, her research is really interesting. I wasn’t aware that neurons could change so much so quickly.

She really reminded me of why I like science so much; why I want to become a researcher. My love for epigenetics just keeps increasing!

Next up: Dr. Gersbach. His lab really interested me because he said that even though he’s known to be fiddling around in biomedical engineering, his colleagues don’t really consider him and his lab to be “biomedical engineering”. Instead, his lab and interests lie in many different fields, which is completely relatable. Who is only interested in one very specific topic their whole life? (okay, probably quite a few people, but I rest my case) He doesn’t want to limit himself. Out of all of this research this summer, I’ve kind of learned that each lab is a bit isolating. You could become lost within the narrow scope that your lab focuses on and not know what’s going on in the rest of the researching world. The fact that Dr. Gersbach is so willing to explore other fields and defy, I guess, labels is pretty cool. His research itself is very interesting because, even though I have absolutely no knowledge about engineering, I become completely intrigued whenever gene editing or genetic engineering is brought up (I’m a genome/epigenome freak, what can I say). It’s just so interesting to me, that I’d be willing to read articles upon articles on it (maybe).

Can you sense how interested and excited I am with all of this science? Can you? Because I think I can.

I guess all this proves that…science is cool.