Category Archives: Week 3

Tackling the Intricacies of Cell Biology

Dr. Gustavo Silva has always enjoyed the challenge of solving difficult problems and asking intriguing questions. His love for this challenge started with math, then with chemistry later in high school. However, during his introduction to the field of biology, Dr. Silva initially felt that the subject was a little out of reach understanding-wise. Introductory biology classes are usually based on the memorization of concepts rather than complete comprehension. Dr. Silva believes (and I agree) that no high school student, not even a Nobel Prize Winner, can really wrap their head around what it means to go from a cell to an entire functioning organism, with trillions of hormones, neurotransmitters, and cell membrane receptors operating in harmony (homeostasis). 

Several faculty in high school urged Dr. Silva to pursue biology at the college level, where some of the big questions he was pondering in high school could begin to be tackled. So, not really seeing himself becoming a mathematician or a chemist, Dr. Silva decided to become a biology major at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Coincidentally, it was around my age where he also joined a lab. The lab was focused on the characterization of antioxidant enzymes and his project as an undergrad was to study the regulation of the proteasome, which is an organelle involved in protein degradation. His time in the lab, similar to our experience in BSURF, was the first time he was exposed to the life of a scientist. He thought, “Oh this is really cool. People are going to pay me to come up with interesting questions and try to answer them.” 

When he finished his undergraduate degree along with his lab project, Dr. Silva knew he wanted to expand beyond the proteasome and look at stress in the context of the whole cell. Once he learned more about ubiquitination and the integration of cell’s stress response, his career became geared towards cell biology. After he received his Ph.D. from the University of Sao Paulo, he went to NYU for his post-doc. Interestingly, staying in the US was never originally planned. When he was finishing his Ph.D., Dr. Silva knew that having international experience would be beneficial for his career. Thus, his original plan was to learn from the experience, grow as a scientist, and then return to a faculty position back home. However, when he arrived in the US, his science took off. His projects were going well and the ideas he had were working. He realized the value of continuing his career abroad. This realization, in combination with the economic crisis in Brazil, led to the decision to stay here.

So what led him to Duke? In short, it was the complete package. Duke had a lot of quality resources his lab could benefit from, a lot of good students at both the graduate and undergraduate level, and the potential for industry connections in the Research Triangle. Reflecting back on the birth of the Silva Lab, Dr. Silva believes the lab has been able to do most of what he originally had planned. Of course, the more you research, the more avenues open up, taking you and your lab on a multitude of different and unexpected pathways. For example, the current work being done in the lab with mammalian cells has already evolved far past the original plans. As the lab continues to explore different avenues of the cellular response to oxidative stress, Dr. Silva hopes to continue to do what he loves most, ask interesting questions about the natural world and seek their answers. 

Dr. Gustavo Silva (Photo from

A Journey through Research

I was able to interview my PI, Dr. Staci Bilbo this week, and while I had met her once before. It was a great experience to learn about her career journey and why she chose to be a scientist in the first place. Dr. Bilbo studied psychology and biology at the University of Texas. The research she partook in focused on the spatial navigation of frogs and lizards and this is where she fell in love with research. It was a clear path for Dr. Bilbo to continue on to grad school because for her it was the best way to pursue a career in science. During her time at school, she became interested in the concept of neuroimmune interactions. It was a novel idea at the time to study the responses we have when we are sick and the idea that the immune system was playing a role in this. After taking a class on neuroimmunology, she learned about macrophages in the brain (microglia are one of them) and how behavioral changes must involve microglia in some way. This was an incredibly new concept because it was believed up until then that microglia only caused problems in the nervous system. Moving forward to the present, Dr. Bilbo runs her lab which focuses on microglia as well as having an appointment at Massachusetts General Hospital and running a lab and retaining employees there as well. 

Besides doing research, I asked Dr. Bilbo, what are other parts of her career she enjoys and she mentioned how much she loves teaching. It is an incredibly fulfilling part of her job at Duke and she gets to teach a neuroimmunology course that no one else does.  

Lastly, I wanted to touch on what she liked about science the least. She said how sometimes there is too much emphasis on how many papers you have published and how high an impact the journal it was published in is. This mindset discourages people from taking risks in their scientific endeavors because there is a chance that your experiment will not work and if that happens you can’t publish a paper. She wishes that there was more of an opportunity to simply conduct science for the joy of it because you do not know what will happen. You are at the forefront of emerging ideas and that is incredibly exciting even if they don’t work out. In summary, Dr. Bilbo wants scientists to have a better capacity for failing and I found this to be really encouraging advice. It’s really nice to hear your PI say that it is ok to fail and that it’s part of the process.

I had such a great time talking to Dr. Bilbo, and it was really cool to learn more about her. I’m super excited to keep working with her and my other mentors in the lab. 


Acupuncture and Anesthesiology?

Although I’ve been working in Dr. Ji’s lab for over a year, I didn’t know very much about him at all. Although he was incredibly friendly and welcoming, there was a part of me that was fairly intimidated: I was an undergraduate student and he was a highly distinguished PI and professor! I’m not sure when I would have gained the confidence and initiative to have a full conversation with Dr. Ji, but this week’s blog forced me to step up to the challenge. However, once we started talking, it stopped feeling like an impossibly intimidating task and I found myself immensely grateful to have stepped out of my comfort zone.

I knew that Dr. Ru-Rong Ji’s research interests include anesthesiology, pain research, and neurobiology, but I had no idea why he chose those areas. With the specificity of his work, I was incredibly curious about how he ended up studying the things he did, and his answer was surprisingly simple: acupuncture. When he was in college, he became extremely interested in acupuncture and how it relieves pain, which set him on the course that led to his current position as a Distinguished Professor in Anesthesiology and Chief of Pain Research. When I asked him why he chose to go into research and how he got to where he is now, he gave me some advice that has been echoing in my thoughts this past week. He told me that the three most important traits you need to have to go into research are commitment, passion, and curiosity. Looking back at everything he told me about his life, it is easy to see that these three traits have been a recurring theme throughout. I left the interview a little overwhelmed, but extremely excited to really think on what I learned and how it might apply to my plans to become a biomedical research scientist. More than anything though, I am so grateful for the opportunities I have to talk with experienced researchers and to participate in a community focused on curiosity and hard work here at Duke.

Life Missions: Accomplished – A Talk With My PI

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing my PI, Dr. Amanda Hargrove, last week. I remember walking into her office very nervous, as I had not been able to meet her yet, but quickly felt comfortable and found Dr. Hargrove to be easy to talk to.

Dr. Hargrove went to college at Trinity University in Texas. She grew up in Houston and wanted to stay near family for college, which I found to be a very endearing detail. She originally wanted to be a doctor, but had a research experience over one summer that changed her mind. She described how she felt that everyone has gifts, and she thought the best way to use hers to help society was be to become a researcher instead of a doctor. I really liked this particular ideology, because I also believe that every person has their own gift. The shift from doctor to scientist also resonated with me because I used to want to be a doctor all throughout middle and high school, but then fell in love with chemistry in my later high school years.

Dr. Hargrove then decided to go to graduate school at the University of Texas, where she continued her research and loved TAing. She then continued on to the California Institute of Technology for her post-doc in chemical biology. Finally, she got a faculty position at Duke where she has been since. Her goal at Duke was to build a lab with undergraduates and graduates students, where everyone feels supported. Based on my experience at her lab so far, I would say Dr. Hargrove has done a great job of accomplishing this goal.

Another goal Dr. Hargrove had was to be a good mother to her children, which she feels she has also accomplished. She described how she chose priorities throughout her life so that not only her research would thrive, but her family life as well. I really like and appreciate that Dr. Hargrove shared this with me, as I also find family to be one of my priorities in life. Hearing Dr. Hargrove share how she was able to accomplish both goals professionally and personally was really inspiring, as I definitely want that for my life in the future as well.

When asked what she didn’t like about science, Dr. Hargrove said she feels that science tends to focus on papers and grants instead of training good scientists or including all good ideas. She also doesn’t like how the people who get grants tend to be the people who have already received grants before, and it’s very hard for those that don’t start of well initially. I thought this was a very interesting answer, and unfortunately, this is true of lots of aspects of society.

On a lighter note, Dr. Hargrove said what she likes about science is discovering things no one knew before or even thought were possible. I share this opinion, as that is also my favorite part of science: the mysteries we have yet to solve. Her favorite part of the job is training students, and her most fun part of the job is helping students realize they discovered something new.

A funny story Dr. Hargrove shared with me was how one time she was working in a lab and she left behind a compound without putting it where it belonged. One of her labmates moved the compound and hid it from her to teach her a lesson about leaving things around. She was very upset when she got back to the lab and couldn’t find it. The funny thing is that when she finally got her compound back, it turns out she hadn’t even made the right compound she needed in the first place and she went through all that frustration for nothing!

All in all, I really enjoyed speaking with Dr. Hargrove. I feel as though I got to know her more on a personal level, and am very excited to keep working with her in the lab.

The Wonder of Tomorrow’s Experiment

A virtual shoo-in at Penn State thanks to his dad’s faculty status, then-young Dave McClay had little certainty about what to study in college. He wandered through five majors and their associated coursework during undergrad, unable to decide what most interested him, until he took a genetics course with an awesome professor which started him down the path to graduating with a degree in biology. The next logical step, then, was graduate school at the University of Vermont. Why? To ski, of course! And, you know, maybe do some research or take courses or something, too. Yet, while he may not have intended it originally, the clear, cold mountain air made helped McClay start asking himself what he actually wanted to do with his life. He had always admired one of his father’s colleagues, who was more of a researcher than his father, an administrator, and McClay could seriously envision himself working in research for the rest of his life. But the slopes of snowy Vermont brought him clarity of a more disturbing, if not motivating, nature: he was never going to succeed at this unless he started putting the work in.

And so it came to be that Dave McClay found himself in his advisor’s office, discussing his transition to the up-and-coming field of developmental biology, when the phone rang, asking for someone who might be able to teach anatomy to nursing students. Dave accepted, and thus began his now long and venerated teaching career. Eventually, he decided that research was the life for him and moved to the University of Chicago to do PhD work on cell adhesion and discovery of molecules that affected cell-cell adhesion under a less-than-ideal (read: tyrannical) mentor. Over time, now-Dr. McClay gained more independence and transitioned his research from discovering particular molecules governing adhesion to the network control of cell adhesion, leading to the McClay lab’s current focus on embryonic sea urchin gene regulatory networks. And along the way, he got his first faculty position job at some university in Durham, North Carolina, where he’s been happily teaching and researching ever since.

Earlier, I said “over time” in describing the evolution of Dr. McClay’s research, but what that really meant was, “over forty years in which the field of biology was radically changed forever.” During that time, RNA suddenly acquired biological meaning, computers started becoming widespread tools for research, and humans figured out how to read and eventually edit our own genetic code –  and Dr. Dave McClay was there for every second of it. When asked how he kept up with these revolutionary changes, Dr. McClay simply said, “The game is fun.” For him, keeping up with the advancing frontier is nowhere near a chore because science easily continues to fascinate him enormously even after all these years. More than that, he gets to learn about these awesome, new wonders of science and then turn around to teach it to the next generation, inspiring them to learn more about it in turn. As great as it is to marvel at the incredible features of life that we now understand, though, Dr. McClay truly loves everything we haven’t learned yet; all the knowledge that remains to be known. To Dr. McClay, the best part of science isn’t the high of figuring out something new (although that can be pretty great), but rather being able to come up with questions that you didn’t even know to ask before, and then getting to set up an entirely new investigation to just begin answering those questions, gladly entering a seemingly perpetual cycle of wonder, inquiry, and discovery. Simply put, Dr. McClay’s favorite part of being a researcher, after dedicating most of his life to developmental biology, is “tomorrow’s experiment.”

Unwavering Curiosity and Pursuit of the Answer

Today, I introduce my very awesome mentor, Tori, and how she came to be the inquisitive researcher she is now. As an undergraduate student, Tori majored in molecular, cellular and developmental biology with a concentration in neurobiology in Yale University. While she entered Yale thinking she may be pre-med, after spending a year working in neurobiology lab, she decided to pursue research. Her main reason for the change was this: she wanted to understand the science behind the treatments and extend the current knowledge by asking questions and answering those questions herself. Tori has always wanted to understand the maladaptations behind neuropsychiatric disorders and continue to do so now. Her current disorders of interest are dystonia(abnormal muscle tone as a resulting in spasms and abnormal posture) and Parkinson’s disease.

What Tori particularly like about Science is the process of pursuing an answer to her question.  What got her into research are the “spark moments” when she finds an answer, or a major revelation to her question. However, part of the difficulty of pursing research is that these “spark moments” seem to come very slowly. Many types of failures deter scientists from conducting successful experiments; there could be technical mistakes, or non-significant results that reveal there could be a fundamental problem with the theory. Troubleshooting will always be a part of a scientist’s life. Furthermore, research in academia has a very slow return rate, and could take anywhere between several months to several years.

There could be four qualities that constitute a successful scientist: unwavering curiosity, independence, self-efficacy and attention to detail. Curiosity may originate from personal motivation, or just simply from the love of a question like Tori. While collaboration in Science is very important, the expectation is that you will be the expert in your field, and conduct your own experiment. Scientists need to be independent. Self-efficacy is necessary to persevere in between the “spark moments”. Attention to detail is needed to do troubleshooting. Ultimately, the life of a scientist is a hard one, but could be one of the most rewarding in the long run.


An Unusual Path: A Sit Down with Dr. Hoffman

How do professors become professors? Why not just ask one and find out? Dr. Brenton Hoffman is an associate professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University. One might think to be a professor, they must tailor their training from day one towards their specific field and career. But would it surprise you to know that his education is entirely in chemical engineering? Or that he never intended to go into academia until midway through grad school? Or that he never even intended to go into research when he entered graduate school? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, let me tell you about the unusual path of this outstanding scientist.

Dr. Hoffman began his career as a chemical engineering undergraduate student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He actually chose this path to avoid being in lab; he was industry-bound from day one. His game plan was to go to grad school and work as a process engineer: as far from a lab as he could get. And he followed this plan… until a chance encounter with a biophysicist the first week of graduate school. While doing some exploratory rounds of different labs at the University of Pennsylvania, he ran into this professor and, simply put, “thought it was interesting.” Joining the lab, he dove headfirst into the world of polymer physics. Along the way, he was introduced to new paths, both in scientific discovery and in career avenues. It was here that he became interested in cell mechanics, the crux of his research today. He stated that for diseases with a chemical basis, because their molecular mechanisms have been studied so well, the scientific community has developed many powerful solutions and cures. But when it comes to diseases with a mechanical component like cancer, our ability to tackle these illnesses will always be lacking until we better understand the mechanisms that govern their mechanobiology. So, he decided to dedicate his professional life to understand these molecular mechanisms which allow cells to understand and interpret their physical and mechanical environment. It was also during this time that he was allured by the path of professorship. In his words, it is impossible to design a way do great science, because if research, we by definition don’t know what we are doing. Instead, the primary goal of being a professor is providing great training, with the byproduct being good and solid science. It was this hope to prepare and train the next generation of scientists to one day be his peers that drew him from industry into the halls of academia. After completing a post-doc in a cell biology lab to bolster his biological background, he accepted a faculty position at Duke University and the rest, they say, is history.

After reflecting upon his career, Dr. Hoffman offered some life advice for young students, both budding undergraduates and wizened post-docs: “Find what you’re interested in and do it.” He stressed that students often fall into a wrought in their studies and passions, getting “locked into a preconceived notion of what’s good and bad and not looking at what makes them happy.” He warned against the common notion that just because a student used to like a subject or because they started in a certain field that they are forced stick with that path, even when it no longer enthralls them. His solution? Just don’t do it. Keep revaluating what you find fascinating and chase after that. Just as his career path turned and twisted when new interests appeared before him, he encourages young scholars to remember their training isn’t a deterministic process and to adapt accordingly. With this, our interview concluded. Before I sign off, I want to break the fourth wall and offer my own advice. If you never get the chance to meet this outstanding professor, researcher, and teacher, I implore you to heed his advice and run through unexpected twists and turns to follow your fascination and study what enthralls you.