Category Archives: Week 3

Excitement of Scientific Research

This week I had the fortune of interviewing Dr. Bursac and asking him questions regarding his upbringing and exploration of his academic interests. Growing up, Dr. Bursac loved math, physics, biology, and sports which led him to pursuing Electrical Engineering at Belgrade University in Serbia. He later completed his PhD at Boston University and researched at MIT under Dr. Robert Langer. Afterwards, he completed postdoctoral work at JHU under Dr. Leslie Tung and later became a professor here at Duke, where he primarily researches cardiac disease and heart electric phenomena. When asked about what he liked about scientific research, he commented on how it has a greater cause, requires constant learning, and allows him to interact with other researchers; “It’s super exciting and that excitement is still with me after 25 years”. Dr. Bursac told me that as he spent more time in academia he started appreciating teaching and mentoring more, and how he realized that research is more complex than just science and knowledge and requires good management skills, PR, and networking as well.

As I finished up the interview, Dr. Bursac imparted some timely advice: “Follow this journey with passion and always think about the big picture. Be courageous to try something new and patient with failures as scientific breakthroughs never happen over night. Mentor your students thoughtfully. Work hard and try to have fun!”

Open To Opportunity

Aravind Asokan, the principal investigator at Asokan Lab (Synthetic Virology & Gene Therapy), did not grow up knowing or even thinking that he’d become a scientific researcher. In fact, science never particularly interested him until much later in his university years. He grew up in India where the educational system tends to focus less on being well-rounded and more on striving to be at the top of your class and getting into a good college. So although he was taking science courses throughout his middle and high school years, the goal of attending a top university provided him with most of his direction.

He achieved this goal and after four and half years in a dual degree program in India, he acquired a master’s in biology and a bachelor’s in pharmaceutical sciences. This period in his life was very similar to his transition from high school to university, in that he had a broad sense that he wanted to be in BioTech and knew that he needed to go to graduate school in the United States. After his Masters at Ole Miss, his intellectual curiosity led him to an interest in the relatively new field of gene therapy. Now knowing his specific interests, he applied to and finished his Ph.D. program at UNC-Chapel Hill where he worked on synthesizing lipids for DNA delivery into cells. It was after his 3 years of postdoctoral fellowship that he was offered a role as a faculty member with his own lab and full control of his intellectual pursuits. This made all the difference. 

Intellectual freedom is exciting but Asokan finds that bringing in the right people for the lab is equally as exciting. His lab members play a critically important role because his vision can only go so far and it’s the people coming into the lab that extend his vision and begin to build their own. This is why Asokan is inclined to bring individuals with diverse scientific backgrounds ranging from yeast cell biology to tuberculosis in zebrafish. During his years in school, Asokan admits to not really having a precise direction and allowing his excitement and desire to be involved in a field to take him wherever he may go. He looks for similar characteristics in his lab members and loves to take in those who deeply want to be involved and who will make the best of the opportunity. Bringing in people who are curious, driven, but often have no background in synthetic virology or gene therapy is what makes his lab successful. The diversity of perspectives allows challenges to be tackled from different angles, which is often what brings about breakthroughs.

It is also through his lab members that Asokan wishes to leave a legacy. When asked about scientific legacy he said he wasn’t concerned with his own and that he often doesn’t think about it. What he does think about is the impact that his graduate students will have on the world. He knows that these individuals will go and take on opportunities with an optimistic and curious drive. As he pointed to the names of several lab alumni which he had pinned on the wall behind his desk, he asked me to imagine not only the students currently working in the lab right now but also the ones who are to come and go in the future. The impact that these individuals will have when they leave the lab is his legacy. Regardless of what they decide to do after their degrees, whether they continue researching, go into BioTech consulting, or leave science altogether, it doesn’t matter to him because he knows they will make a beneficial impact.

The Tough Questions of Research

Complex questions never have one simple answer. Similarly, the hardest questions never offer the most satisfying answers. Reflecting on my conversation with my PI, Dr. Mooney, I realized this remains true for many questions in the field of research. We spent brief moments discussing the typical “interview” questions: how he received his PhD in Biology from CalTech or how his interest in music and science intersected in the field of neuroscience. 

The majority of our talk, however, was centered around the more complicated questions of research – questions that I believe to have multiple and possibly conflicting answers. A topic that arose in our conversation was related to the pursuit of a research project. Often, science can be unforgiving: experiments fail or data does not reflect a desired conclusion. How do you determine when to move on from a project? At what point do you determine that it is time for a new idea? Dr. Mooney, who acknowledges his tenacity and ability to commit himself to ideas and projects, explained that these are existential questions that researchers constantly grapple with. There isn’t a set “threshold” or set of criteria that scientists can refer to when considering the viability of their projects. He explained that it requires considering the unique factors of that situation – weighing the pros and cons of continuing, or not continuing, a research idea. 

We also discussed the ethics of research. Specifically, how do we as scientists grapple with the ethics and implications of animal research? Dr. Mooney explained that this is one of the most fundamental and challenging questions of research – a question that he finds himself pondering more and more as he moves further in his career. Animals, as he believes, are valuable for their own sake. Each has a unique way of sensing and perceiving the world around them – a fact that makes them valuable in themselves. Yet, he also acknowledges their value in terms of research and better understanding the human condition. Specifically in the field of neuroscience, a general organizational principle, one that is conserved throughout life on Earth, has yet to be discovered. There are simply too many fundamental questions about the brain that have not been answered. Many aspects of terrible diseases and disorders, such as Alzehiemers and schizophrenia, are poorly understood. As scientists, there is almost an obligation to answer these questions – an obligation that necessitates the use of animals. In summation, Dr. Mooney explained that the most important quality researchers must have in animal research is mindfulness. We must always consider the implications and gravity of using animals in our studies. What we must be wary of is dismissiveness – the lack of thought or consideration about the privilege that comes with being able to conduct this form of research.

There are Options

Talking with Dr.Rausher during our interview he made it clear that it is easy to get discouraged in the field of research. Hurdles like competing for grants with your peers, or your experimental plants never germinating make it hard to see the finish line. No student or faculty member at Duke is immune to this. However, that does not mean you do not have a place in research, and you should always remember that there are options.

Dr. Rausher described his path to being a researcher at Duke as conventional, at least conventional for his time. Unlike now, many undergrads in the past did not get hands-on wet-lab experience. Most of Dr. Rausher’s lab experience was in the field working with insects. It is hard to imagine going to grad school without much wet-lab experience. Even starting at Duke my freshman year, I was terrified the first day of Chem Lab, especially experimenting on my own over zoom. However, Dr. Rausher said that it is all a matter of figuring out what you want to do, and then learning the skills to do it after, “The hardest part is coming up with a question that builds off known knowledge in the field, but also advances it.” In grad school, Dr. Rausher decided to make the transition to plants, mostly because they did not run away from you.

There are some downsides to working with plants though, the main one being they are kind of unpredictable ways. You can have a batch of perfectly healthy seeds never germinate, or geminate 3 weeks late. What do you do then when your data is reliant on those plants? This is how Dr. Rausher and I started talking about options. As you spend more time as a researcher, you will realize you do have options. You can try again, or if you realize the project is not feasible you can scrap it. Then, try and figure out the question with different methods. but Dr. Rausher was not just talking about your experiments he also meant in life. All of us as Duke students are good at seeing a goal and then hurdling towards it with all of our time and energy. However, Dr. Rausher encouraged me and all of us to maybe look around and see that there are other things we could be running towards. Even though many of his students started as researchers in his lab, not all of them are researchers now. Some are working in the government, some are working for farms. And all of them are working in fields where there can use the skills they gained in the lab. So when you run into hurdles one option is always getting up and trying again, but sometimes what is best for us is to look around and see what else we could be running towards.

The Best of Both Worlds

On February 14, 1978, a patient with underlying Hodgkin’s disease received a lumbar puncture to collect cerebrospinal fluid for further testing. The doctor working that night examined the fluid and identified the H99 strain of Cryptococcus neoformans for the very first time, which is still being used in various lab work (including my own) today. This physician who isolated this novel strain is none other than my PI, Dr. Perfect, and given his vivid recount of the details from that night, it appears as though for him the historic event feels like it occurred only yesterday, despite it being the start of a nearly 50 year career working with Crypto.

Dr. Perfect described a path into the science community that felt very relatable to my own experiences thus far; a career decision solidified in middle school, summer undergraduate research, inspirations from famous philanthropic scientists, etc. However Dr. Perfect’s overall philosophies were what struck me as both the most valuable and the most intriguing takeaways from the interview. His original idealism and goals of wanting to help or “save the world” grew into skepticism as he emerged into the clinical setting, where politics can make such a feat tricky for even the most optimistic of scientists. However, this has never hindered his commitment to good science. The toughest part about clinical research currently, he suggests, is the cost and ability to afford the necessary infrastructure for a successful system. Aside from the logistics of it all, Dr. Perfect calls attention to the ever growing issue of researcher and patient interface — the trust, or lack thereof — that gets snuffed out quickly in today’s society saturated with misinformation. The ethical concerns on the researchers’ end, combined with mistrust on the patients’ end work symbiotically to hinder the progress of science, but Dr. Perfect’s long and illustrious career indicates that important progress is not halted completely.

The field of infectious diseases is fascinating mainly because it “cuts across all the clinical areas,” connecting inherently to a wide variety of specialties. Dr. Perfect believes that this field will require more attention in the coming years, and the spotlight is well-deserved, as is evident based on the current onslaught of research brought on by the pandemic (Dr. Perfect notes that he has now been alive through two pandemics, HIV being the first). His particular work connects easily from the clinical side to the research lab, and with each side being so intensive, his career is akin to having 2 simultaneous full time jobs. While the lab research is more mechanistic, studying the “in the woods stuff,” its applications are just as exciting in the clinical perspective, offering a “30,000 foot view;” both sides equally “tricky but extraordinarily important.”

The vast depth of his experience cannot be overstated, which is why his parting advice rings so poignantly in the young ears of a prospective graduate student in the coming years. For potential medical school applicants, when faced with that one brutal yet telling question, “why medical school,” Dr. Perfect suggests that the only correct answer should be a desire to help people, and a want to improve their health. For students all across Duke’s campus, he warns not to squander the plethora of opportunities readily available, and to “optimize your time at a research university.” Lastly, to all young and aspiring scientists, he offers his own sentiments as proof that a career in science is a life worth pursuing. Whether you are discovering new strains of fungal pathogens in the Duke Hospital, or pipetting clear liquids into clear tubes for PCR reactions that may (or may not) work, “at times, it’s just excitement!”

Dr. Perfect

On Thursday of last week I interviewed Dr. Perfect in his office. It was really nice to see him in person. Much of what I learned described his position and general motivation behind it. Dr. Perfect is both a physician and a principal investigator, so he spends a lot of his time balancing the two. He’d always wanted to become a physician because the clinical connections and seeing different kinds of patients allowed him to see the relevance in the research he’s doing. Conducting or being apart of research is known to have a point where the purpose becomes a bit fuzzy, so he feels that having both roles really aids him in keeping himself focused.

He also gave some really valuable advice. Making the best of my college experience here at Duke would mean optimizing every opportunity around me to learn more and gain more experiences. This means building relationships with professors, staying productive over the summer, and always asking questions. He also added that going to graduate school or medical school will potentially be apart of my journey, but it is important to note that large motivation should be to genuinely want learn more and to help people. Especially in reference to graduate school, it takes much of your time and having a blurred vision of what you want to do isn’t an optimal mindset to have when entering grad or med school.

A Beacon of Light: Tatiana Segura

Dr Tatiana Segura was raised in Colombia and came to the United States to finish high school and obtain her college education. She always liked science, reading and analyzing text, and wanted to do lab work. It was interesting to me that she reads a lot from text but “always imagines the experiment.” Whenever I read a paper, I just want to know the facts and results, but it’s almost as if Dr. Segura is there with the research team performing with them. Since America is the land of opportunities, Dr. Segura was able to do her undergrad at UC Berkeley in Bioengineering and went to Northwestern for grad school in Chemical Engineering so that she could do experiments of her own.

When I asked Dr Segura how she knew what research to dive into, she responded “some research comes out of luck and curiosity,” claiming that once you know the nuances of a problem, you get excited by it, and if she ended up in another lab at the start of her career, she would’ve found something she loved. I think this applies to BSURF or any REU student matched to a lab (or people in a lab in general). Though many of us make it by chance, or by someone else recognizing us, we fall in love with our research question, bench mentors, other undergraduates as we get rooted into the lab. If you don’t love your work, why do it?

Dr Segura loves teaching students, both in lab and in class. Her students can utilize what is taught right away, and she can help them in a meaningful way. Besides teaching, she loves learning about research and getting excited by new concepts/approaches to problems that her colleagues take on. Her advice to brewing scientists? Get involved! If you don’t have time to do research, read, listen, ask questions and talk to people. Build your network and get connected. However, nothing falls in line without the will to learn things. I hope we all form new wrinkles in our brains by the end of BSURF, even if that’s a myth!


Applying Synthetic Biology to the Real World

If you ever get the chance to meet Dr. Mike Lynch, you might be surprised to hear that he started off his career as an anthropology major at WUSTL,  only adding a second major in biomedical engineering after his parents expressed concern about there being no money in anthropology. This focus on applied science eventually led him into the MD/PhD program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he became interested in primary care and developed an interest in making synthetic biology tools applicable to the real world. By the end of his time in medical school, Lynch had set aside residency and founded his first start-up, OPX Biotechnologies, which used new methods to bring about large-scale production of more sustainable, bio-based alternatives to existing chemicals and fuels. In his own words, the company felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It was this initial gig as an entrepreneur that eventually led Dr. Lynch to Duke. While he enjoyed the super collaborative nature and larger-scale design challenges faced in industry, he felt that academia offered him a great amount of flexibility, enabling him to tackle new questions, pursue the next start-up idea, and mentor the next generation of innovators and investigators, all at once.

Unsurprisingly, this journey from student to entrepreneur to principal investigator was not without its challenges. As an undergraduate working in a wet lab, Lynch was not particularly fond of his graduate student mentor, an experience which led him into the computational space by the time he did his master’s. He reverted back to the wet lab during his PhD, working in a protein lab before one unfortunate incident where one week’s worth of purified protein was lost to aggregation. This led Lynch to switch into a genetics lab, where he stayed for the remainder of his PhD. When I asked him what his advice would be to students who get stuck troubleshooting failed experiments, he recommends “going around the wall”, stepping back to see if there is an alternative pathway to answer the same scientific question.

Of all the esteemed faculty I have interacted with Duke, Dr. Lynch is one of the most down-to-earth and personable ones that I have met. To this day, you can still find him walking around lab, doing the hands-on work of growing E. coli and making LB while also making time to hang out with each of his students. I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing him around on a regular basis and look forward to the continued work ahead.

Two Unique Experiences, One Interview

This summer, I have been working closely with first year graduate students Richard Wong and Katrina DeWitt. I was able to interview them together to discuss their experiences in the science field so far. A shortened version of the interview is posted below.

Where did you complete your undergrad studies and what were your majors/minors?

Katrina: “I went to Rutgers University Camden for my undergraduate and master’s where I earned a B.S. and M.S. in Biology. I also minored in Chemistry.”

Richard: “I studied at University of Massachusetts Boston where I earned a B.S. in Biology and a certificate in Environmental Biology.”

In regard to your goals, how have they changed throughout the years and what do you wish to accomplish?

Katrina: “When I started my undergrad, I thought I was going to enter the medical field. Rutgers had this very specific program centered around cardiovascular technology but it got shut down during my first semester. I actually almost dropped out of college, but eventually the biology department reached out and offered some students shadowing opportunities. I ended up applying to shadow one of the labs and that ended up being the lab I stayed in for both my undergrad and my master’s. Once I started shadowing in the lab, I realized how much I enjoyed it and I just threw myself into the science field. I started applying for grants and participating in internship programs and I quickly became sure that I wanted to earn a PhD. I also discovered that I really love teaching, so I will likely pursue a position centered around teaching once I’ve earned my PhD.”

Richard: “Since I was a kid, I always loved the outdoors so I started my undergrad knowing that I wanted to study ecology. I actually thought I wanted to study marine biology at first, so I pursued aquarium work for a while. I started interning at the New England Aquarium during the summer after my first year, but that evolved into a volunteer position once the internship was over. I kept being involved with the aquarium but I also started interning as a field tech for a research lab at my school. I was working in salt marshes and I realized how much I love field work and how much I love discussing big questions, even if there aren’t any definite answers. I kept working with this lab and eventually decided that I wanted to earn a PhD. I also realized that I love talking about plants even more than I love talking about marine science, so I began to shift my focus towards plants, which is what I’m studying now. I hope to one day establish a lab and mentor students who show a true passion and curiosity towards science.”

What has been your teaching experience so far?

Katrina: “I taught during my master’s program, so I’ve done about 3 years of teaching now. I taught two classes a semester, both of which where always labs. I also had to take over a lecture class for about half a semester, so I’ve done a lot of teaching compared to a lot of other first year grad students and I even helped develop a new course at Rutgers. I honestly thought I was gonna hate teaching. I was pretty scared my first time teaching, but after the first class I absolutely loved it. This actually shaped my career path, because I’m now planning to get a teaching based job in academia.” **Follow-up question: What type of teaching do you prefer?** “I like teaching labs because it’s hands-on and it really helps students better understand what they learn in lecture. I like lecturing but I just think lab is way more fun.”

Richard: “I tutored a little during my undergrad, mostly gen bio, genetics, and ecology, but I’ve never officially taught anything yet. I’ve unofficially mentored some undergrads when I was working as a lab tech, but this is my first time having an official mentee. I really like mentorships and I look forward to having a lab later in my career where I can interact with my students.”

What has been your grad school experience in areas that aren’t related to academics? What is your life like when you aren’t woking?

Katrina: “Well, this past year was really weird, for obvious reasons, and Richard is actually the only grad student here I really know right now. But even putting the Covid situation aside, it can still be pretty hard because a lot of your free time is still dedicated to your work. That being said, we’re here because we genuinely like what we do. We often struggle with a work-life balance, but we’re often still satisfied with this. Of course, there are still times where you can plan ahead and make the effort to get together with other people or even take little trips, but a lot of the time you really are just trying to focus on your work while also finding time for yourself.”

Richard: “I make an effort to set time aside for a bunch of my hobbies. I love rock climbing, fishing, diving, hiking, and also just hanging out with friends. I like talking to other students after all our seminars, but I still feel like this past year we’ve missed a bunch of opportunities to make a lot of the connections we usually would have made.”

What do you love about working in science?

Katrina: “It is very rewarding. You feel a fantastic sense of accomplishment when your research finally works. This really big reward balances out a lot of the lows you experience while conducting research. I also love learning in general, and you’re always learning something knew in the lab.”

Richard: “I like asking questions and trying to figure them out. I just love the search for knowledge, even if you don’t find any answers. It’s like a fun puzzle.”

What would you change about the science field? 

Katrina: “I hate mansplaining in academia. I also wish people were slightly more helpful. A lot of professors feel like they don’t have time to really help, so you often find yourself on your own, which can be very frustrating.”

Richard: “I hate how big people’s egos can be sometimes. I think some people get caught up in trying to make a name for themselves and they can often lose sight of what’s important when it comes to research and just searching for knowledge. They can be very closed minded and reluctant to listen to the questions and ideas of others. The field is also very male dominated and very white dominated.”

What are your most memorable lab moments/disasters?

Katrina: “I was on a trip to the Florida Keys for a marine field ecology class to study sharks, and my professor got bit by a nurse shark. He wasn’t seriously hurt and he kept making jokes about it, but it was definitely memorable.”

Richard: “When I was working in the salt marsh ecology lab, we were out at like 4 am to collect fish during a night time high tide. We finished taking our samples and, the second we were done, we saw lighting strike right above our metal boat, which was loaded with gasoline. We all just dropped everything and started running towards the forest, which was about a mile and a half away. No one got hurt, but we had to wait in the forest for like an hour and a half until it cleared up. That is probably one of my most memorable lab moments.”

Caterpillars, Puzzles, and How Research is Similar to Marriage- with Dr. Nijhout!

On Thursday, May 27th, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. H Frederik Nijhout to ask some questions about his career and research. During the interview, we talked a little bit about his academic background, goals in research, and fun anecdotes. I am aware that this is a very long entry, but please stick around until the end for what I believe is really important advice for anyone looking into doing research as a career!

** I will be paraphrasing his answers due to the fact that I am a slow typer and was not able to record his answers verbatim.

Q: To start off, what schools did you attend for your bachelors, masters, and PhD degrees? 

Dr. Nijhout went to the University of Notre Dame for his undergraduate studies. He then went to Harvard for both his Masters and PhD degrees. Thereafter, he pursued 2 postdocs via the University of Washington and the National Institute of Health.

Q: What did you major in? 

“Biology all the way.”

Q: What was your thesis project for your PhD? (simplified) 

His project tackled questions regarding the control of metamorphosis in insects such as “How are the hormones for this process controlled?” and “How does an animal know when it is time to secrete the hormones to metamorphose?”

Q: What were your goals when you first started research? How does it compare to your goals now? 

In part, Dr. Nijhout is still working on the general question he worked on during his PhD, fine tuning it with other questions that come up along the way. He found that time isn’t a factor into when an insect secretes the necessary hormones for metamorphosis. The defining factor is what researchers call the “critical size” or the certain size the insect needs to reach before entering the changing process. The questions his lab is pursuing now are along the lines of: How do animals grow to their species-specific size? How do they know how large they need to grow and when to stop?

Q: What classes do you teach? 

Entomology (general insect biology course), contains labs and field trips to collect insects and take photos. Capstone seminar for seniors: Physiological Genetics of Disease (unrelated to insects), tracks down the pathway of specific diseases and their mutations.

Q: How has your teaching experience been like so far? 

Dr. Nijhout enjoys teaching and has never seen it as a burden. He really likes being able to convey his knowledge to his students and has found that he always learns something new through this profession.

Q: What is your favorite part of your career? 

He enjoys solving puzzles and working out the mechanisms of what was unknown or not as understood before.

Q: What is your least favorite part of your career? 

We both laughed at this question because he has already told me how he does not like writing applications for grants and trying to find funding for his projects.

Q: Why did you choose to concentrate your research on butterflies and moths instead of any other insect (i.e. beetles, rollie pollies, dragonflies)? 

The main reason is because of his PhD lab, but caterpillars are also easy to rear, are inexpensive, and are large enough for such things as dissections.

Q: What is your favorite thing/ fact about caterpillars? 

Dr. Nijhout needed a second to think about this question, which I found quite funny because of how often he handles them. He ended up telling me that in general, people think the butterfly is the insect researchers know more of, but they spend much more time handling the caterpillars. It’s not the butterfly but rather the caterpillar that has to measure its own size and know when to metamorphose.

Q: Most embarrassing moment in a lab? 

He couldn’t think of anything particularly embarrassing, so he instead told me about an instance where he dropped a large bottle of alcohol on the floor. The lab began to get a little drunk off the vapors- not very fun at all. That plus the high flammability made the situation really dangerous, so they had to call in the emergency cleanup crew.

Q: Favorite memory in a lab? 

One of his grad students figured out how caterpillars know their own size- a question he had been working on for 20-30 years. He was very proud of her that day.

Q: Have you ever been scared in the field? 

No, but one time he was in Kenya collecting animals in an elephant preserve off the coast just south of Mombasa. His group spotted a mother elephant and her calf crossing the field, so they were told to get back in the car to leave the area. When they started to drive, the mother circled around and bellowed to scare them away. It was a thrilling experience!

Q: What is a piece of advice you would give to anyone looking into research as a career? 

Dr. Nijhout and I have had this conversation prior to the interview, and I believe it is a very important thing for anyone to keep in mind. Go into research because it’s the best thing you can imagine yourself doing. Do it because it is inevitable, because you really want it. The decision to pursue research as a career is similar to the decision to get married: you do it because it feels good and right. It is completely emotional.

This was probably my favorite Q&A out of the entire interview. I believe there is a lot to learn from working in a lab and toward your dream job. I am very excited to continue working with Dr. Nijhout and becoming more knowledgable about this field!

Taking a Chance with Research

My PI, Dr. Chilkoti, was introduced to research and science in general a bit differently than others: through necessity. He grew up in India, and after high school he didn’t have many options for higher education. He entered college and began studying engineering, but he found himself lacking passion or interest in his studies. He also worked towards an MBA, which he thought was even more disinteresting, and found business to be “bogus” to him. In the end, he decided he wanted to explore more options, but most importantly outside of India.

Dr. Chilkoti set his sights on the US as the best place to find better opportunities, but he was struggling to find the funds for such a move. He only had enough money for a plane ticket, and so he began searching for other ways to afford living in the US. He was able to find and apply for a PhD program that would pay for his living expenses, and he was accepted to work on his own project. Because of the program, he was able to move out of India and work on his own terms, which he preferred much more over working for a business. He enjoyed exploring hypotheses and asking difficult questions, and in the end began to work towards a postdoc. 

Around this time, he changed his focus to molecular biology, and that was when he believed he found his passion. He enjoyed his work and continued to studying molecular biology at his job at Duke, where he is currently working on the study of proteins for drug delivery. His favorite part about his job is having the chance to discover new aspects of molecular biology and combine them with engineering to further improve the scientific field. 

In the end, I asked Dr. Chilkoti if he had any advice for someone beginning their search for a career. Staying true to his story, he told me to “follow my passion,” and never try to choose a career based solely on money or stability. No matter what path you choose, Dr. Chilkoti suggests “if you are excited, you will do well.” Speaking with Dr. Chilkoti was a great experience, and I look forward to continue researching in his lab this summer.

Meet Professor Daniel Reker

Professor Reker has had a combined passion for chemistry and computer science since his high-school days. He was born in and attended school in Germany. The German school system is slightly different from the American school system. In what would be our equivalent of high school, Professor Reker focused primarily on chemistry and English while also minoring in computer science. At this stage in time, due to the lack of truly interdisciplinary, undergraduate educational programs, Dr. Reker was under the impression that he would have to choose between his two passions of computer science and chemistry. Based on the waves that computing was making in the early 2000’s and the resulting promising job market, Reker decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in computer science at the Technical University of Darmstadt, one of the top three computer science programs in Germany.

While he was accepted into a prestigious program, and was enjoying the computer science curriculum, Reker still felt like he was missing something in his education. Computer science appeared to be a powerful tool that should be applied to other domains to positively impact people’s lives. He was still passionate about biology and chemistry, so in order to stay with these fields he became involved with multiple extracurriculars in the biology department, leaning towards computational-flavored topics, and regularly attended seminars. After undergrad, Dr. Reker graduated with a degree in computer science, with added experience in computational biology. From here, he decided to further explore the overlap between computing and biology and earned a Master of Science from ETH Zurich in computational biology and bioinformatics.

As a master’s student, Professor Reker was especially drawn to the pharmaceutical science department of tETH Zurich and was interested in the application of algorithms for analysis and development of new drug candidates. After his masters, Reker stayed with the pharmaceutical science department and completed a Doctor of Science (equivalent to a PhD) with Dr. Gisbert Schneider in the “Computer-Assisted Drug Design” laboratory. After completing his PhD, Reker was yearning for more than just theoretical development of tools. He wanted to have a more translational impact, and actually use the tools he develops towards improving therapeutic options for patients. This drove him to the lab of Dr. Robert Langer at MIT, where Reker completed a post-doc in drug delivery, a later step in the drug development process with thereby higher chances of translation.

Staying true to his interdisciplinary roots, Dr. Reker’s vision for his lab is one that bridges multiple disciplines. As the lab gets more established in the new Wilkinson building, he aims to have roughly a 50/50 split between computational work and wet lab research with every student being involved in both aspects. The goal is to have a team made of people from a broad expanse of backgrounds. Having all of these different flavors of science working on the same projects greatly enriches the educational enterprise and the science, as there are multiple approaches being taken towards solving challenges in drug discovery and delivery. Professor Reker’s vision is one in which the lab is, “…an incubator space where students can learn to become multilingual in the different aspects of lab work and to come to learn what the hype around machine learning for pharmacology is about.”

Mentorship is also one of the most important aspects of science to Professor Reker. Even on the first day of lab meetings, I felt welcomed as Dr. Reker emphasized that his goal was to mentor students to hopefully surpass him as a scientist, rather than himself being a master of everything. This attitude has been something that has been with Dr. Reker for most of his academic career but was ultimately cemented as one of his core beliefs after his experience being an undergraduate TA for a very difficult computer science course. He ended up mentoring a group of students and the experience was so profound for them that they decided to become TA’s after him.

Wrapping up this interview, I learned a lot about Dr. Reker, and the journey involved with being an interdisciplinarian. Like Dr. Reker, I also find myself called to computer science, but still needing chemistry and biology in my life. Under Professor Reker’s mentorship, I hope to follow in his footsteps at the intersection between these three branches of science and become a “multilingual” student.



On Determination, Drive, and a Little Luck

While I get to learn a little more about her every day, speaking in a more formal sense with my PI and mentor, Dr. Nina Tang Sherwood, was incredibly fulfilling and reassuring for an undergraduate like myself. I am of the lucky few whose PI is also their bench mentor, and I am even more lucky to have such an inspiring person like Dr. Sherwood by my side this summer.

Dr. Sherwood grew up in Hawaii around two parents who were also scientific researchers, to whom she accredits learning to love science and lab research. She fondly recalled going to her mom’s lab after school and getting to speak with the researchers in her lab, both experiences that fueled her passion to pursue research. For her undergraduate years, she went to UC San Diego, where she majored in biomedical engineering. It would be important to recall now that Dr. Sherwood’s lab is a neurobiology lab; as we’ve seen with other professors and PIs, not every career path is so straightforward. In fact, the first research lab she joined at UCSD was a physical chemistry lab!

However, in her junior year, Dr. Sherwood took a neurobiology course so captivating that it totally changed her path and set her up for her work today. This newfound interest also led to her decision to go to graduate school to continue studying neurobiology. She entered graduate school at Duke with the goal of understanding how synapses work, a goal she says has not changed to this day. Her current work on the spastin gene came about out of “total luck,” through a genetic screen that pinpointed a gene that just so happened to be heavily involved in synaptic development. In our conversation, she also reflected on her work specifically with fruit flies as a model system, describing the difficulty of genetics in mice (that she initially worked with) for the purpose of her work at the time she began her research. Her kind heart also made this somewhat difficult, as she found the prospect of hurting mice hard to justify. This lines up well with the fact that, had she not pursued research, she had actually thought about going to veterinary school for some time.

To round out our interview, we asked Dr. Sherwood if she had any advice for her younger self. She told us, ”Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be self-conscious.” Seeing how far Dr. Sherwood has come, her words are of immense value to burgeoning researchers like me and (I’m sure) the rest of us in BSURF. We could all take her advice and start caring less about what others think of us, because at the end of the day, it is only our drive and determination that can get us where we want to be. I want to reiterate how grateful I am to be under the wing of a mentor who understands such fears and worries, and who inspires me to be more confident in myself as a student and scientist.

Showing There’s More than One Path to Success

The PI in the lab that I am working in this summer, Dr. Michael Tadross, has had a bit of an unorthodox experience in academia. His PhD in BME took an extra three years due to a failed experiment. Then, following this, he made his greatest invention, DART (Drugs Acutely Restricted by Tethering) without having his own lab. Today, he has been able to establish a lab focusing on creating tools to target specific parts of the brain in order to monitor their functions and activities. After having a good discussion with him earlier this week, I’ve learned more about his life and the lessons that he has learned throughout it.

I first asked about his academic background and if he was always interested in what he studies now.  He told me that he had developed an interest in discovering more about brains while in undergrad. In addition,  he began with a background in electrical engineering before graduate school, and was originally interested in developing brain-computer interfaces. However, as time progressed, he came to the conclusion that in order to truly study functions of the brain, one should have knowledge and skills in biological, chemical, and electrical processes. As a result, the Tadross lab features projects studying the biological effects of drugs on behavior, the chemical components best suited for particular drugs, the electrical response of neurons targeted by certain drugs, and more. Also, due to his background in electrical engineering, he was able to look at the brain as a circuit. This has allowed him to obtain a better understanding of the mechanisms of the brain.

However, he told me that he hit some trials along the way. In graduate school at Johns Hopkins, he joined a lab whose topic of study he was not interested in because he had in his own words “a crazy idea” and needed to find a lab that would give his resources, so he made a deal with the PI that he would be able to create his own project for his PhD as long as he helped with projects that the lab was currently working on on the side. Unfortunately, after three years, this project did  not succeed, so he had to start all over with a new project that the lab was working on. This project ended up being very successful. After this, he worked in a prefaculty position known as a fellow in which he was able to do research but with limited resources. After around five years, he was able to come up with a method of delivering drugs to specific areas in the brain (DART) and publish a paper on it, and this really helped him become a faculty member at Duke. Since then, he has been working on new ways to improve DART and using this method to see how different drugs and conditions affect different parts of the brain.

From my talk with Dr. Tadross, I have learned that interests change over time, and though success does not always come easy, hard work is worth it if you are truly passionate about what you are doing. Dr. Tadross used lessons that he learned from his failed experiment in order to create DART, and he still loves doing research more than he loves doing anything else. Above all, I have learned that I should never be afraid to be creative. He told me that there is still so much to learn about the brain, so I should never doubt my ability to come up with something new. Overall, I’m very happy that I got to speak with him, as he has helped me see that I should keep my options open and not doubt my abilities.

The Journey Ahead

Currently, Dr. Glickfeld’s work involves the organization of neural circuits in the visual cortex and how they drive behavior, but that wasn’t always her plan.  Although science had always been an interest of hers, she went into her undergraduate at Stanford planning to study genetics.  Actually, her transition into neuroscience was somewhat by accident.  In the first year, Dr. Glickfeld received and responded to an email about an open research position.  She initially thought the lab was studying genetics but, during the interviews, she quickly realized it was more neuroscience based – a field she had virtually no prior knowledge in.  She said that her mentor had to explain even the most basic neuroscientific principles, such as what an action potential is.  This resonated with me because I have also had to have many topics explained to me.  Particularly, I have never taken a physics class, so anything pertaining to electrophysiology (or electrical currents in general) is very new to me.  Nevertheless, Dr. Glickfeld liked the people and the lab environment, so she decided to give neuroscience a try.  She quickly fell in love with neuroscience, stayed in that lab for the remainder of her undergraduate, and has now devoted her career to the field.  

Dr. Glickfeld accredits her mentors to “how [she] thinks about science,” and it’s easy to see how her past experiences are reflected in the work she does today.  In her approach to studying neural circuits, she emphasizes both the microscopic connections at the level of individual synapses as well as a more macroscopic perspective of how the neurons form a network that drives behavior.  The lab she worked in during her undergraduate was primarily focused on mechanisms of synaptic transmission which emulates the former part of the work she’s doing now.  During graduate school at UCSD, there was a shift towards a more holistic approach and viewing neurons as a part of a larger network.  In her postdoc at Harvard, she began working particularly with the visual system.  Thus, it’s easy to see how her current work and interests are a culmination of her background.

I really enjoyed Dr. Glickfeld’s story because it helped me put things into perspective.  Like her, I’ve always known I want to go into science, but I’ve also gone back and forth as to what that actually means for me in terms of specific career paths.  At the end of our conversation, I asked her if she had any tips for upcoming scientists (aka me) and she said that her best advice is that if you’re doing the best science you can do and enjoy what you’re doing, the rest will work itself out.  For me, this was reassuring because it is both tangible and broad.  In a sense, I can create a mental checklist for myself and see that I am accomplishing those two things.  Yet, it still leaves for life to throw in the unexpected.  Also, hearing about how her mentors have influenced her and her career is comforting because it ensures me that research manifests an overall supportive environment where everyone is on their journeys together.  Overall, I’m very grateful to be able to have this experience and I hope that it will shape me in the way that Dr. Glickfeld’s background has shaped her.


Not Only a Researcher, but a Professor, Mentor, and Forever Student.

Similar to me, Dr. Wray (my PI) grew up across the pond, a ways away from where he was originally from. After graduating from his high school in India, he already knew that he would follow a career in biology. Dr. Wray obtained his Md/PhD from Duke studying Sea Urchin development and transcriptional regulation. As a visual learner, he loved that you could watch as the transparent sea urchin embryo matures within a few weeks. After doing 2 postdocs on Australian Sea Urchins at various established institutions, Dr. Wray found himself back at Duke to lead his own lab and become a professor. He teamed up with Dr. Mclay, his former Sea Urchin mentor, and they both lead a cutting edge lab side by side, still supporting and  learning from each other.

When asked about the most rewarding parts of his job, Dr. Wray said that the mentoring and teaching parts of his job are just as rewarding as the research he does at the bench. He mentioned that while mentoring others, you constantly have to learn and adapt to each of your mentees, because everyone requires different support – some people need structure, some people need help troubleshooting, and others may just want to bounce ideas back and forth. Even more rewarding to Dr. Wray was seeing his mentees go on to do amazing things, sometimes even surpassing him in his own accomplishments.

Even though Dr. Wray has stepped away from the bench and is doing more administrative responsibilities in his role at the moment, he hopes that in a few years’ time he will transition back to answering complex questions at the bench. When he started his work on sea urchin gene regulation, the basic lab tools and technology were just at their infancy. Genetics research has made leaps and bounds – such as the use of CRISPR and iPSCs – since he first started, and he is excited about the new questions he can ask and systems he can uncover.

When asked about his current job at Duke, Dr. Wray proudly revealed that he feels like he’s in his dream environment. Duke has a really special culture that is highly collaborative, filled with students and other professors who are eager to learn, discover, and make an impact at all levels. And with the medical school nearby, you can easily collaborate with doctors, a perfect match when focusing your research on helping others and saving lives.

I’ve learnt a great deal working in Dr. Wray’s lab these past few weeks. Not only is the research cutting edge, but the lab culture is collaborative, and the PI is involved and supportive; I look forward to everything I have to learn in the coming weeks. A special thanks to Dr. Wray for all the lessons – outside of Bio203L – he has taught me so far.

Learning Life Lessons

My mentor is Dr. Nina Tang Sherwood, a kind and caring professor of biology here at Duke! For her undergraduate degree, she went to UC San Diego with a major in BME. While her interests have since changed, she originally chose BME due to inspiration from her older sister along with interests in math and biology. Despite enjoying the classes, she didn’t find her passion in the actual BME research. She shifted to neuroscience after loving 101 in her junior year, and later focused on it for her PhD at Duke. Despite having two parents in science and a definitive love for research, it took her a while to find exactly what she wanted to study. From her first lab in physical chemistry to studying her passion for synapses, Dr. Sherwood’s path wasn’t a direct one. While studying axon guidance, the lab she was in happened to identify the spastin gene in a gain of function screen. Luck was on her side since spastin played a role in her true passion – synapses. Ever since, she has been studying spastins’ role in the synapse, realizing more questions to explore after each finding. In addition to research, she also found a love for teaching. While it was something she initially avoided, she now appreciates both the long term investment in a research project alongside the instant gratification of teaching. I find her journey comforting as someone who isn’t sure about their future. Dr. Sherwood’s path reassures me that we will find our niche, and that life will take us where we need to go. 

I was particularly interested in a funny story from earlier in her scientific career. She worked in a lab that studied arteries by using pig hearts, and it was the first day she got to watch one of the surgeries. However, she got something in between her eye and contact lens, causing her to tear up. Her mentor thought she was crying due to the surgery, making her embarrassed; she knew she could handle it and didn’t want him to think she couldn’t. Eventually crying it out, Dr. Sherwood got through the surgery. While she was telling the story, she was laughing about how it was a silly memory, which gave me some comfort. Even if we fail or feel embarrassed in the lab now, we have to remember that we’ll be able to laugh about it later. 

Lastly, we asked if she had advice for her younger self. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be less self conscious… just caring less about negativity from other sources and just doing the thing.” I think many of us can resonate with this advice. In fact, these were some of my goals before even applying to BSURF. I’m happy to say I have been asking all of my questions to Dr. Sherwood and have grown because of it. It helps that she is open to any question and creates a comfortable lab environment, but I hope to carry this trait into my future, even if the environment is more stressful. I hope we can all do our best to take her advice to heart, focusing on our passions and research, not negativity or self consciousness. 

Interviewing Dr. Sherwood gave me comfort about my future and insightful advice for the present. I’m excited to continue to learn from her, whether it be about science, life, or a life in science!

Finding Out is Better

This week I interviewed my amazing mentor Liz Lange. While she originally wanted to be a history teacher, Dr. Lange (who prefers being referred to as Liz) learned during her time at Canisius College that she had a real passion for science and research. She originally focused on researching the bioaccoustics of marine mammals like whales and dolphins. Pretty quickly, though, Dr. Lange learned that, while she liked whales, it was not what she wanted to spend the rest of her life doing. She then went to Clemson for her master’s where she researched fish that internally fertilize. For her Ph.D. she made the move to FSU where she continued her fish research, examining trade offs between long-term survival and short-term fecundity. Now in her PostDoc at Duke, Dr. Lange works with Susan Alberts researching baboon social behavior at the Amboseli Research Group with collaborators at Princeton and Notre Dame.

Something I’d never really considered before was the transience of a career in academia; Dr. Lange had moved from western New York to South Carolina to the Florida Panhandle in a few years. This prompted my next question: did she feel more “adult” in graduate school? The short answer is yes. Moving across the country, further away from family, requires independence and gumption. At the same time, though, other “adult” things, like starting a family and buying a house, were delayed until post-graduate school. Still, Dr. Lange said the prize of being a full-time researcher and researching animal behavior and evolutionary biology was well-worth these short-term sacrifices.

I also talked to Dr. Lange and Georgia Young, a ’24 Duke graduate working in the Alberts Lab who’ll be moving to UC Berkeley for her PhD, about deciding on a graduate school/program and they echoed one another in their support for choosing a graduate school based largely off of mentor and lab culture. Something I’ve noticed, though, in our all-lab meetings is that everyone in the Alberts Lab has a culture of valuing life outside of research, which is really important to me.

In terms of my own takeaways, I think our conversation was incredibly valuable. I’ve already learned that I love research in BSURF, so talking about the other aspects of  a career (life) in academia is most helpful. Mark Twain said “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.” I really enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to talk to Dr. Lange and Georgia and am looking forward to continuing to work with them this summer as well as working towards finding out if research is for me!