Category Archives: Week 7

Sometimes Science is a Circle

Over the course of the summer, we have had the privilege of listening to the work and academic/ life trajectories of some of Duke’s most distinguished faculty. These Faculty Talks have been enlightening as they keep us informed about the scope of incredible research happening at this research powerhouse of a University, and have given us a sense of directions we can take as we journey through science. The path to research is not linear, and this has really been highlighted by the different trajectory of each speaker. In this post I will highlight one talk which I found really interesting.

Dr. Jenny Tung completed her undergrad at Duke, and is now an Associate Professor in the Departments of Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology here. Her work centers on the intersection between genes and ecology, specifically investigating how behaviors and environment impact genetic variation, and how differences in genes impact behavioral outcomes. She studies the evolutionary consequences of social relationships and their causal effects on gene regulation. Her work is untraditional in that she spends her time observing primates in the wild – a model system which, albeit fairly uncommon, displays social behaviors similar to that of humans.

Primates, namely Rhesus monkeys, when organize themselves into social categories of dominance – like in humans, every clique has a leader and follows of differing status. The Tung lab has shown that social status within groups effects stress response to an environmental challenge, which then effects the behavior and cell pathogenic response. Those at a higher social status more effectively respond to challenges and those least social were hit harder with the challenge.

Basically, make friends or you will die. (at this point I began quantifying my own social patterns, making note to keep in touch with all my friends)

Dr. Tung knew she had a calling to research and knew she wanted to lead her life partly doing field work while also looking at data and running a research team. Your work will become your life, so it is important to structure your work in the way that you would like to structure your life. And, sometimes, the place where you start is the place where you will end up – with new perspectives created during the time it took to circle back. Maybe if not linear, the serendipitous nature of science is circular. What these faculty talks have taught me is that everything is connected, and everything will fall into its place.

Thank’s for reading, and stay tuned for the final blog post coming up soon.

Your gut bacteria will not be happy if you eat barbecue for 5 straight days

Hey readers! Welcome to another week of my blog. I submitted my poster for printing this afternoon, so for the next week I will be finishing a couple of experiments and practicing for our poster presentation on Friday. For this week’s blog post, I will be reflecting on one of the many faculty talks that I heard this summer through our program. My favorite of the talks has been Dr. Lawrence David’s. I loved hearing Dr. David’s faculty talk. His energy about the bacteria that live in our gut was infectious and his love for his field was clear. I have had a curiosity for the microbiome especially recently as more and more fundamental processes have been shown to be linked to the bacteria that live in our digestive tract. Dr. David is clearly a well-known figure in the field as some of his papers have been published in the top scientific journals.

Dr. David described his research most basically as “designing meals and feeding them to people.” It’s amazing to me that such a simple experimental setup can yield such clinically relevant data. One of the experiments Dr. David described involved feeding participants either barbecue or a plant based diet for 5 days. He monitored the composition of their microbiome throughout the experiment and compared how their microbiome changed. It was amazing to see how the barbecue group’s microbiomes were significantly altered after just 5 days, whereas the plant group’s microbiome hardly shifted and returned to normal levels quickly. Dr. David also mentioned that the participants that had the barbecue were in general more cranky. I probably would be too if I only ate barbecue for a week, and maybe the microbiome is part of the reason why.

Dr. David also talked a lot about the importance of the Human Genome Project and how it impacted microbiome research. After the HGP, the cost of DNA sequencing dropped, and continues to drop, allowing microbiotic sequencing studies to be cost efficient. The decrease in cost vitalized the field of microbiome research, leading to a lot of the discoveries that have since come out. Dr. David also mentioned some of his clinical trials that are currently underway. One of these involves feeding participants fiber supplements to try to strengthen the diversity of the microbiome. He said to us that a lot of the yogurts and other probiotics that claim to be beneficial to our microbiome probably have no effect on our microbiome, but a diet high in fiber likely does. This was news to me, as I had always believed that yogurt (which contains live cultures of bacteria) helps seed diverse populations of bacteria in the gut.

It was a pleasure listening to Dr. David’s talk. In addition to the exciting science, Dr. David shared a lot of his opinions on careers in science, graduate school, and research. His faculty talk was especially enjoyable and memorable. Since this is the last week of my summer research through BSURF, I only have one more blog post which will be a reflection on the summer. See you then!


Trust the Process

Few people are recognized by the HHMI as exceptional scientists who deserve a lifetime of nearly unconditional funding– scientists who are entrusted to do good science no matter what, as long as they have the money to do so. It is not surprising that nobel laureate Dr. Robert Lefkowitz has earned this trust, having spearheaded work on G-protein coupled receptors involved in one-third of all medical drugs today. Despite Dr. Lefkowitz’s impressive list of accolades and contributions to science, his career in scientific research came rather late and unexpectedly. In fact, he could have never imagined a research career in his early days. 

Dr. Lefkowitz was always a physician by training, used to dealing with patients daily and seeing quick results–the antithesis of basic science research. So how did he find himself in the role of one of the most well-regarded research scientists? Dr. Lefkowitz’s first immersion in research was not exactly the product of deliberate will. The US military initiated a draft of doctors to aid in the Vietnam War, and Dr. Lefkowitz decided to instead serve as a Clinical and Research Associate at the NIH to avoid participation in the war. Surrounded by a group of talented colleagues, Dr. Lefkowitz quickly caught a passion for basic science research. 

This ultimately gave way to a dilemma in choosing between medicine and basic science research, one I could imagine left him especially torn because medicine and research are two vastly different, yet intimately entwined fields that build off of each other. Research is a thrilling journey to reinvent medicine, but medicine is often a deep-rooted calling to make humane interactions. Of most humane interactions were the raw and empowering moments of Dr. Lefkowitz with his father. The medical complications of his father only made it increasingly difficult for Dr. Lefkowitz to justify a full commitment to basic science research. But after his time at NIH, Dr. Lefkowitz realized that what he missed was the day to day activity of experimental results. Dr. Lefkowitz would eventually commit to fully pursue research over clinical hours. What I found most interesting was the nature of this trajectory– unconventional and sudden, yet very much fulfilling. It exemplifies the malleability of our interests sometimes and the limitations of planning.

One underlying principle that Dr. Lefkowitz seemed to emphasize throughout his talk was “serendipity”, attributing many of his life events to this elusive force. Dr. Lefkowtiz’s emphasis on the prevalence of serendipity and the importance of being prepared to take chance opportunities that come is, I think, a valuable piece of advice that comes at a critical moment in our lives. It helps find some solace in a daunting future, in the unplanned, but at the same time encourages us to fearlessly tread into the unknown. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

One of my favorite parts of the program this summer has been hearing about the work that so many renown scientists are doing here at Duke. It has been really wonderful getting personable insight into the biological field of research, stories of unique paths into research, and advice for those of us just starting out. I have been able to take away so many words of wisdom and cool stories from every talk, so I want to thank the faculty for their time and willingness to share their stories with us.

A presentation that really interested me was by Dr. Steve Nowicki who talked to us about categorical perception and the evolution of animal signals, focusing in on birds. I feel like as humans, we are so consumed by our own perception and how we view the world that we forget all organisms on the planet perceive the world in their own special way. He talked about how female birds while choosing mates categorically sort out information that is relevant to the fitness of the male birds. It was also really interesting to me how a single note change in song or a slight discoloration in the beak could be consequence of a long combination of environmental stressors and genes that would ultimately affect female choice.

This talk was really interesting to me because the topic intersects a lot of things I enjoyed learning about in class, like sexual dimorphisms and sexual selection in biology and perception and attention in neuroscience. This really unique research shows me how you can find your own niche in biological research and ask questions only you would think to ask, while investigating something you really enjoy. I’m looking forward to learning more from professors in the biology department about their research.

Senator Flake vs Mantis Shrimp (that can punch with a force of 1,500 newtons)

Over the past few weeks of faculty talks, we have learned about innovative research on organisms from archaea to song birds. One particularly fascinating creature, studied by Dr. Sheila Patek, is the mantis shrimp. These crustaceans have club-like appendages which they launch at prey with astounding speed and an acceleration of up to 10, 400 g’s. In fact, the force of their punches is strong enough to create cavitation bubbles in the water. With their collapse, a second explosive force hits nearby prey. From such a small creature, attacking with this magnitude of force and power seams unbelievable and even physically impossible.

With vigor, Patek discussed first what drew her into the field of mantis shrimp study and then the challenges and technologies required to unravel the mechanism for these punches. She discovered how the mantis shrimp wind up its exoskeleton as a kind of spring in order to propel its appendage forward. However, there are drawbacks to generating this much force. Not only does it take time to wind up its exoskeleton, but the shrimp cannot adjust its aim after striking as the motion is too fast for it to register its own movement.

Beyond being a fascinating biological mechanism, the shrimps skeletal spring has important engineering implications many of which Patek has worked on. Not only can mantis shrimp be a model for breaking strong materials, but their eyes can possibly be used to detect cancer. These shrimp have many useful applications; however, when Patek begun her research into shrimp she wasn’t doing it for the purpose of finding an application to help humans. She was driven by curiosity and awe to trying to understand these amazing shrimp. Later, she eventually made a compelling case to a US senator for why her research is useful and important. It was very illuminating to hear her speak about some her doubts about the relevance of her research. While people argue that studying almost everything will have human applications, sometimes it is very unclear what those might be if there are any. Others say that studying something solely for the sake of learning about it is inherently valuable. I often wrestle with these kinds of questions, and it was immensely helpful to hear someone as accomplished as Dr. Patek speak about her experience with research and with finding value in what she is doing.

American Horror Story: Evolution

Out of all of the inspiring faculty talks, I found Dr. Mohamed Noor’s discussion of evolution and species formation to be particularly intriguing. He was an engaging speaker and really dove into the thought-provoking discussion of how the study of evolution interacts with modern society, in both good ways and bad.

Let’s start with the bad first. As Dr. Patek mentioned in her talk, many fields of scientific research are constantly criticized as obscure, pointless, and wastefully expensive to study, but no field faces fiery tirades of hatred as much as the study of evolution. Dr. Noor mentioned that the US shows one of the highest rates of disbelief in evolution at 28%, which is a shocking statistic when considering how developed and educated our society is. One of the main reasons for this is the discussion of how belief in evolution fits in with our religious beliefs, an interconnection that means something different for everyone and cannot be standardized. For some, believing in God and evolution are strictly mutually exclusive, but for others, they can find peace believing in both. But it’s still pretty taboo to talk about evolution in public settings; it’s just one of those topics that’s better left untouched if you don’t want to anger anyone. Dr. Noor described his visits to school board meetings, where representatives would shy away from taking a position one way or another on evolution in fear of backlash from both sides of the debate.

Here in the Research Triangle bubble, we can comfortably walk around and assume that at least 90% of our fellow Triangle citizens believe at least somewhat in evolution. But there are certainly pockets America where this number would be close to 0. This past spring break, I was walking in Charleston, South Carolina when a man came up to me and handed me a cartoony pamphlet “debunking the fake news of evolution”. Yikes! After ridiculing what are actually misconceptions about evolution (the typical “we came from monkeys” is a massive oversimplification), this pamphlet chastised regulations of some school districts that force teachers to teach evolution and claimed that evolution was a bunch of not-worth-studying, phony science. But Dr. Noor pointed out the very real and very important ways studying evolution helps humanity: understanding evolution is crucial for understanding antibiotic resistance and disease control.

Antibiotic resistance is a rapidly growing problem that is weakening the success rate of well-established antibiotic treatments, even rendering some treatments defunct. Take penicillin for example: Alexander Fleming’s accidental wonder cure of the 1940s, used to fight against a variety of bacteria. Penicillin was everywhere, until natural selection began to kill off the non-resistant strains of bacteria, thus allowing the resistant strains to live without competition for resources. Though still used today, penicillin is nowhere near as popular a treatment as it once was, all due to the natural process of species evolution.

On a happier note, the vicious spread of the mosquito-borne dengue virus in tropical areas has the power to be curbed with the understanding of evolution, and it all starts with a seemingly-unrelated bacteria. The Wolbachia bacteria is spread through mosquitoes, but uninfected females who breed with an infected male will produce no offspring. However, if an infected female breeds with an infected male, they can produce offspring normally. So, it pays to be infected, and as a bonus, natural selection quickly favors infected females as they are more able to pass down traits to their offspring. Uninfected females start to become less common as the infected females reign supreme. But here’s the best part: Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes can’t carry the dengue virus. So what if Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were introduced into areas where dengue spread rampantly? The uninfected, dengue-carrying females wouldn’t produce offspring with the Wolbachia-infected males, and natural selection would work towards the gradual killing off of the dengue-carrying mosquitoes and promotion of the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes. Change like this wouldn’t happen overnight, nor is complete elimination of dengue possible using this method, but in tropical climates where dengue spreads like wildfire, this could significantly reduce the number of dengue infections, all thanks to an understanding of evolution.

As you can see, studying evolution is so important to humanitarian crises, and isn’t just a pseudoscience propagated by anti-religion radicals. It’s a shame that “the e word” is still such a touchy topic, but with great scientists like Dr. Noor furthering research and promoting education on evolution, we will hopefully shrink that figure of 28%.

Faster than Fast: Mantis Shrimp and Dr. Sheila Patek

Throughout BSURF, we have had the opportunity to learn about so many different fields of research and have obtained advice from various faculty members here at Duke. Learning about fields different from my own was incredibly fascinating, and hearing advice from researchers of all different backgrounds was super helpful. 

I was especially intrigued by the research that I had not even thought about before. One example of a talk that especially blew me away was Dr. Sheila Patek’s talk about ultra-fast movements. I had never considered research on the fastest movements on the planet. Dr. Patek first talked about the trap-jaw ant, which closes its jaw to capture prey at a speed of nearly 70 mph. She also talked about the snapping shrimp which has a shooting defense system that is super fast. 

But the main event of her talk was the mantis shrimp, which has an incredibly fast small hammer to break snail shells. The mantis shrimp has peak forces 2500 times its body weight, but somehow manages to not break itself. The smashing motion has likely evolved over time to become one of the fastest motions known. Dr. Patek explained how there are principles underlying this biological diversity that proper industry forward. Material scientists and engineers can use research like hers and apply it to a variety of applications. 

But the one thing that really surprised me about Dr. Patek’s research was the fact that she was faced with much opposition regarding the importance of her research. However, Dr. Patek preserved and worked hard to defend why research like hers is necessary, which I really admire. I was inspired by Dr. Patek to always remember to stand up for your passions and what you believe in, regardless of those who may not agree with you. 

Don’t Just Take Advice, Evaluate It

As a component of my summer research experience, I have been very fortunate to hear from faculty researchers from diverse fields. Many of these sessions were filled with learning about not only the research that these faculty members do here at Duke but also how they came to find themselves doing research at Duke, and what opportunities research has afforded them. Personally, I found it very interesting to hear about the somewhat linear and more often then not so linear paths that led them to doing what they love.

One talk that stood out to me in particular was Dr. Mohamed Noor’s presentation on his meanderings on evolution and species formation. The research Dr. Noor conducts is focused on biological evolution that occurs within populations of Drosophila as a result of variances in recombination. More so how these changes in genetic recombination overtime lead to the formation of a new lineage of a species. I really enjoyed learning how phenomenons like antibiotic resistance which pose great threats in the post antibiotic era is a great demonstration of natural selection occurring within our environment and can have real consequences for humans in the long term.

In addition to learning more about his research, Dr. Noor left us with a few pieces of advice that deeply resonated. This advice from his own journey to become a researcher are to take chances and initiative, evaluate the advice given to you, and also, do something you love. As I continue in my undergraduate and research career, I hope to embrace this advice in the future decisions and directions I may pursue.



Take It in Stride

As a veteran scientist and Nobel laureate, Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz had much to share to our group of budding researchers when he came in for a faculty talk a few weeks ago. Heading into our sophomore year, we are intimidated by the looming expectations of choosing our majors, of deciding on a career path that we hope to love. We are burdened by worries, by questions that weigh on our minds that ask if we’ll be happy doing the same work years down the line, if the decision we make will be the right one. These concerns are experienced by everyone at a certain stage in their life, but as valid as they are, Dr. Lefkowitz assures us that there is little they will do to help when the world, or fate, or in his words, “serendipity,”–however you’d like to call it–steps in to take charge. 

Growing up, Dr. Lefkowitz idolized his family physician and was sure he wanted to be a doctor. He went through high school and his undergraduate years doing no research, dead set on heading straight towards medical school and afterwards, residency. But in order to avoid being drafted into the war, he applied and was accepted for a position with the NIH in the U.S. Public Health Service. He wasn’t particularly interested in research at the time, and the initial failure he experienced at the institute worsened his dismay. But as time passed and his project began to come together and succeed, his perspective changed and he was drawn further into the thrill of discovery. He would gradually spend less and less time in the clinic, dedicating more of his efforts in the lab. Eventually, he would transition almost fully towards just research. 

“There is serendipity in science,” Lefkowitz states slowly, contemplative. He says this in reference to his discoveries in the lab, as well as that of his past colleagues at the NIH, who collectively have earned nine Nobel prizes. 

But there’s more meaning behind that, I think. So sure that he was meant to become a physician, so much that he never touched research until it was absolutely necessary, it was a series of life events he had little control over that led him to the NIH and to stay there. Dr. Lefkowitz’s time in research and the moments in his life that led him to learn to love the field, all contributed to his discovering his ultimate passion. I’m a firm believer–as I think Dr. Lefkowitz may be as well–in the idea that, no matter how much you might agonize over your future now, life will eventually lead you to where you’re supposed to be.

Science is Everywhere

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to listen to a variety of scientists speak to us about the amazing research they have been working on in their labs and how they got to where they are today. Hearing about the different paths these faculty took to end up in the same research institution made me realize that everyone has his or her own way to approach opportunities and explore interests. In addition, learning more about all the kinds of research these faculty have been involved in highlighted the endless possibilities of science and how so much is still unknown about life in and around us.

Out of all of the faculty talks, Dr. Lawrence David’s talk about nutrition really resonated with me because it made me realize that is that science really is everywhere around us: in the movies we watch, the foods we eat, and the places we visit. He mentioned that watching Jurassic Park was what initially interested him in scientific research. Who would have guessed that a night out to the movie theater would result in finding a new interest and passion that you pursue as a career? 

Dr. David’s lab focuses on nutrition and how the different foods people eat affects their bodies at the microbiome level. While not everyone consciously monitors their diet every day, nutrition is a concept that is relevant to everyone. Research like this that has such a direct and immediate connection to our everyday lives really makes clear the importance of science and how it can appear anywhere. One really memorable part of Dr. David’s talk is when he mentioned the time he visited Thailand. Although the trip was not originally for work purposes, he tracked the street food that he ate and monitored how this new kind of cuisine affected his body. He brought his research and scientific curiosity with him and created a new learning opportunity for himself. As I continue to explore the different aspects of scientific research, I hope to embrace the unknowns of the scientific world and am excited to see where else science may unexpectedly present itself in my daily life.

The Reward in Research

A component of the BSURF program that sets it apart from just a summer research experience is the opportunity to hear interesting and informative talks given by Duke faculty members. All of them are PIs and were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their research and their career paths. 

One talk that stood out to me was Dr. Silva’s. The Silva Lab studies the ubiquitin-proteasome system and its role in cellular oxidative stress response. I just learned about ubiquitin-proteasome system this past semester in Molecular Biology. We mostly focused on its role in keeping the cell healthy by degrading proteins. It was interesting to learn that this system also has a role in oxidative stress response and that there was a lot of nuance in the mechanisms of this system.

During his talk, Dr. Silva also gave us a lot of advice about what he learned in his journey to where he is now. He earned his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Sao Paolo. He then completed his postdoctoral training at New York University before coming to Duke. He had a lot of advice for us, especially if we were interested in a path that led to a career in academia. He told us what he wished he had known and considered when he was in our position. Some specific advice was about criteria to consider when applying to and choosing a graduate program. He emphasized the importance of connecting with the people you work with, whether that be as a mentor, a friend, or as part of the larger network of people you know in science.

All of the different faculty members’ journeys in science were very different from each other. They studied at different institutions, followed different timelines, and some even earned an M.D. in addition to a Ph.D. Despite none of their paths being the same, there was one unifying trait: they all absolutely love their research. When they talk about it, you can tell that it immediately excites them. I think when you find something that brings so much personal joy and fulfillment, you know that it is what you’re meant to be doing. I am grateful to these faculty members for sharing their joy and passion with us.

Pro Tips and Proteasomes

Over the past seven weeks, we have heard from some of the most amazing professors at Duke. We have not only heard about their groundbreaking research, but also about their personal lives and their path to success. Among all those great stories, Dr. Gustavo Silva’s stuck out to me the most.

Dr. Silva is a very young professor at Duke. He was born and studied biology, both as an undergraduate and in graduate school, in Brazil. He only moved to the United States for his post-doctorate. I was intrigued by Dr. Silva’s accent, youth, and his research.

Dr. Silva studies the ubiquitin proteasome system which marks specific proteins for degradation within the cell. He started his presentation by explaining how oxidative stress can cause molecular damage, which leads to a decline in physiology and the onset of disease, something I have become quite familiar with while studying Parkinson’s these last few weeks.

He has found that ubiquitination and proteasomes are sensitive to too much cellular stress. Dr. Silva has also discovered that there are many different ubiquitin chains that are used to signal proteins for several different alterations, not only cell death. For example, ubiquitination and proteasomes are used to modify ribosomes where tRNA binds, and thus are vital for translation.

One of the most important lessons that Dr. Silva taught us had nothing to do with biology at all. He taught us to dream big and to follow our hearts. He believed that we could do anything we wanted if we put our minds to it. He also encouraged us to look around us at all the amazing peers, professors, and resources we have at Duke. He believes that building a strong support system and large community will help enable us in the future and will inspire us to be the best we can be. Lastly, he told us to make sure we have good mentors who have our best interests at heart.

I am thankful to the BSURF program for providing so many amazing speakers. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about their research, their past, their failures, and their success.

Find Serendipity First

Our life is but a vector; time is our scalar. Dr. Lefkowitz was a member of “the Class of 1968”, a cohort that was defined by its times while also being a defining force in itself. 

Dr. Lefkowitz never felt a “calling” towards research. He was certain that his love of medicine would result in him becoming a practitioner, and even when he went to medical school, he avoided research electives in favor of clinical classes. He was steadily making his way towards his residency, but again – we are never immune to the mechanisms of the times we exist in. During his residency, he became a part of the “Doctor Draft”, where he left medicine to join the NIH to fulfill his obligated conscription in the Public Health Service during the Vietnam War. 

There, he met the fellow members of his cohort. He spoke of Dr. Harold Varmus, a friend and colleague who conducted research on oncogenes and ultimately spurred the creation of targeted therapeutic drugs; Dr. Varmus would later become the director of the NIH. He spoke of Dr. Michael Brown, who studied the regulation of cholesterol at the receptor level, leading to the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs. Dr. Lefkowitz’s own research centered on receptor biology, most notably the role of G-protein coupled receptors. The studies conducted on these receptors have led to improved drug development, with almost half of all modern prescription pharmaceuticals being based on Dr. Lefkowitz’s first findings. He mentioned the similarity of hormone receptors to rhodopsin receptors, connecting two points in the research timeline – old and new. 

“The Class of 1986”, therefore, was not describing his undergraduate years or medical school cohort. “The Class of 1986” was the group he entered the NIH with, a group that ultimately won nine Nobel Prizes, a group with mentoring lineages only two or three generations away from Schrodinger, Bohr, and Linus Pauling. He told us, budding practitioners and researchers, to choose wisely. Choose wisely, not regarding the name or prestige of the graduate school or medical school, but choose the mentors whose values and approaches you can learn from. “Serendipity seems to favor one scientist over the other,” he stated, alluding to the fact that research may occasionally be fruitless, that science may not care how many hours you put into it. Yet if you find the right mentors, mentors who have experienced serendipity in some way, you may just have a greater chance of finding it too. 

Life doesn’t wait for you to decide, life doesn’t ask you for your preferences before it chooses a different path for you. When Dr. Lefkowitz was asked if he still felt any longing towards medicine, the calling he ultimately had to leave behind, he straightforwardly answered yes. Yet he acknowledged his love of data, his experiences of overcoming failures in research, and how one day he looked into the mirror and realized: “you’ve become a scientist”. As I continue to journey to adulthood, Dr. Lefkowitz’s story of his path to today was a gentle reminder that we are never immune to what life gives us. While I don’t know what my life will end up becoming, I’ll just try to find serendipity first.

You are what you eat

The most fascinating talk in my opinion was Dr. Lawrence David’s talk about gut bacteria. What most people don’t realize is that their gut bacteria play a gigantic role in many aspects of their wellbeing. From energy levels to mood to thinking capacity, one’s gut microbiome plays a crucial role.

Dr. David explained how the food you eat has a direct effect on your gut microbiome meaning that your microbiome can change corresponding with a change in diet. This would make sense when you think about why those who eat healthy foods feel better than those who don’t. People who eat good have good gut bacteria which effects all other aspects of their biology. The only turnoff was how he conducted the study, he literally sampled stool from people. To quote the great Jeff Goldblum, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. While this made me question the point of the research, Dr. David did a great job with explaining the importance of the research and why it was necessary. His career path was especially interesting seeing as though he was able to eat street food for one whole year as part of his research. The work he does by giving people foods and testing their subsequent stool is interesting and gross at the same thing.  What shocked me was the fact that while he was in his 30’s, he like he was 22. It just goes to show the importance of a good diet on aging.

Stories of incredible strength: mantis shrimp, trap-jaw ants, and Dr. Sheila Patek

I was struck by Dr. Sheila Patek’s talk about her scientific journey, particularly because she faced a completely unexpected challenge that wasn’t something I previously would have considered a roadblock for scientists: politics.  Dr. Patek’s research almost lost funding when it was identified by a senator as something that was an unnecessary use of taxpayer dollars.  Dr. Patek researches extreme movement in animals such as mantis shrimp and trap-jaw ants, which admittedly does sound like something that is not immediately necessary to move the field of science forward.  However, plenty of scientific research seems to be based on learning more about the world for the sake of learning more about the world, not learning for the sake of advancing technology or saving humanity.  Isn’t learning for the sake of learning what science is all about?  That’s what I thought before Dr. Patek told us about how her research was challenged for being unnecessary and how she was told that it was not worth the time or money that she poured into it.  I never considered that this would be a challenge for a researcher, someone who spends his/her life learning about the world.

Dr. Patek’s talk taught me three important lessons that I will remember as I grow as a scientist:

  1. Learning more about the world for the sake of learning more about the world is of the utmost importance. We should study everything, however seemingly insignificant and try to gain as great an understanding of our world as we can.  That’s our job as scientists.  If something gives me a greater understanding of some aspect of the world, it’s worth doing, even if I can’t immediately see the applications or the way that it advances society.  It doesn’t have to solve a human problem to be important.  The study of how mantis shrimp resolve conflict is just as important as the study of neuroscience, cancer biology, or evolution.  Just because one has more obvious implications for humans does not make it more important.
  2. That being said, all research has implications for humans. Although Dr. Patek’s research was challenged for its lack of relevance, she proved that it does have really important applications in engineering and technology and our understandings of evolution and physics.  Although these applications are not immediately obvious, they still exist and are of great importance.
  3. It’s important to stand up for ourselves and what we love and believe. When Dr. Patek was challenged, she did not sit idly by and lose funding.  She met with the senator on Capitol Hill to convince him that her research deserved funding, and she also spoke about the importance of research on PBS.  Dr. Patek’s bravery and perseverance in the face of adversity are truly inspiring to me, and the lesson I learned from her actions about standing up for knowledge and standing your ground is extremely relevant inside and outside of lab.

I highly recommend everyone watch Dr. Patek’s PBS Newshour segment.  She speaks so eloquently about why research is important for its own sake, and it’s a very inspiring message, especially for us as the next generation of researchers:

A Wake Up Call from Dr. Lawrence David

In the past seven weeks, I have been eating irregular things quite irregularly. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to live in an apartment setting away from a dining hall. I have become frugal, questioning every buy from the grocery store. Some days, I eat large breakfasts to skip lunch, or I eat a half portion of lunch to save the other half for dinner. 

It wasn’t until Dr. Lawrence David’s faculty talk that I truly began to question my current eating habits. His research focuses on nutrition and the human microbiome, or the population of bacteria in the digestive tract. I learned that dietary compounds stimulate the growth and metabolism of gut microbes. Dr. David shared one of his projects where he tested participants’ microbiomes after eating either a high fiber plant-based diet or a low carb animal-based diet. Although those who received the five day high fiber plant-based diet showed insignificant changes in their microbiomes, subjects who received the five day low carb animal-based diet had a drastic influx in their microbiomes. I didn’t know that human microbiomes could be so heavily affected by a change in food consumption over five days. This led me to think about my change in food consumption for over the past seven weeks!

In addition to Dr. David’s interesting research, his journey to a research inspired me. Like many college students, he was conflicted on what path to pursue. He decided to head into graduate school to receive his Ph.D., however, he kept peering over down the medical school route at times. Dr. David explained how he reevaluated his time in graduate school and what it was like to be a researcher. In comparison to medical school, his schedule as a researcher was his; it was free for what he wanted to do. In fact, he went to Thailand for a summer as part of a year-long research project to study his own microbiome! His education was not restricted to a classroom or course-driven education system. Instead, he could pave his own path. Dr. David emphasized how he was happy where he was and how he did not have a true reason to attend medical school. I believe that I will reach a similar conflict in the future, and I will take Dr. David’s wise words with me. 

I am thankful to have this amazing opportunity to not only have listened to Dr. David, but several other faculty members as well. They have all opened my eyes to an array of different research focuses, and they have led me to rethink my career path both at Duke and in the future. I look forward to the last two faculty talks in this upcoming, last week in BSURF!

A collection of random thoughts about a film, the microbiome, and the uncertainty of life.

For the past few days I’ve been raving to my friends and family about a documentary I recently watched called Fed Up, which explores the rise of childhood obesity and finds deep roots in the American food industry. The film highlights the ways in which the food industry has sidestepped government efforts to encourage healthy choices–everything from replacing fat with sugars in those appealing “low fat” foods; to aggressively advertising junk food to children and convincing Congress to call pizza a vegetable. 

Since watching this film, I’ve been more conscious about what I consume. It turns out that there are a multitude of reasons to be aware of what you put in your body; Dr. Lawrence David studies one you might not think of–your microbiome.

This Tuesday, Dr. David shared with us his career path and his current research on nutrition and the microbiome, the community of microbes that dwell in your gut. Much of his current research involves feeding people particular foods and studying changes to their microbiomes. How do they study changes to the microbiome? You guessed it–stool samples! While I grimace at the idea of studying other peoples’ stool, Dr. David seemed to think the science is worth it. These are a couple notes I jotted down during his talk:

  1. The microbiome field is the ripe young age of about 15, birthed by the success of the Human Genome Project, which drove down the cost of DNA sequencing. Dr. David pointed out that this new field came about not from a particular hypothesis but from a new technology. Science is full of unexpected surprises!
  2. Dr. David got to go to Thailand for one summer to study his own microbiome during a year-long study. When I got over the initial shock that he took samples of his own stool every day for an entire year, I thought about Dr. David’s actual point when he talked about his experience abroad–his academic path wasn’t confined to a lab or a classroom but took him all the way to Thailand. He got to immerse himself in another culture and indulge in its street food as part of his education and career. Again, science is really full of surprises.
  3. Lady Gaga was at Dr. David’s high school prom! Just thought that was pretty cool.

I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to hear from so many faculty members at Duke–about their successes and setbacks and the windy road that brought them to where they are today. All of their paths are unique, similar only in their promise of unknown adventures and a future that is never certain. And while the idea of uncertainty is daunting, I take comfort knowing that the faculty I heard from embraced uncertainty, took chances and let the currents of life lead them to unexpected places. And despite–or perhaps, because of–all that uncertainty, now they’re all doing what they love, whether that’s studying mantis shrimp, finches–or even stool samples.