Category Archives: Week 3

The Life of Ci Fu

During the course of this summer I have had the pleasure to work under a man by the name of Ci Fu in the Heitman lab. Having him as a mentor has been a challenging yet gratifying experience. I have learned so much over these past weeks than I learned in the classroom my entire freshman year. I can honestly say that I have never met anyone more dedicated and passionate about the field of research then he.

Ci Fu received his undergraduate training at Tiantin University of Science and Technology in China, where he majored in biotechnology. He was eager to find out what his true interest were so he decided to explore a variety of research opportunities. He joined a fungal lab to study genetics which exposed him to the field of microbiology. He was immediately fascinated with microorganisms and from that point on knew he wanted to be a research scientist. He knew he wanted to continue his education as well as feed his passion for research; thus, he decided to attend the University of New York at Buffalo where he majored in Molecular and Cellular Biology. He then received his masters degree and shortly after, joined the Heitman lab.

When asked if he would like to choose any other career, Ci immediately confirmed that research was his only passion. In his own words he said, “I love the challenge of research, it gives me the opportunity to ask the hard questions that I would not be able to ask otherwise.” He believes that through his research he can make profound change. From my time working with him I have been able to observe how his dedication to research work ethic has influenced those around him.

If you have been in the lab as long as Ci you are bound to make mistakes; however, he ensures that you realize that everyone does too. To empathize, Ci described an embarrassing moment he once had while in the lab himself. In his earlier days of research, he accidentally knocked down a full rack of glass tubes in front of his P.I. Looking retrospectively, he realized that its okay to make mistakes because that’s what makes us human. His advice for future researchers and scientist is that they learn to recover form their mistakes. Additionally he advises that all future researchers/scientist learn to ask questions because asking questions is how true and interesting research begins.

I have learned a lot from Ci with my time in the Heitman lab, and I am excited to see what else I gain from this experience. He has been an excellent mentor and it was a very interesting experience getting to know a little more about his background.



Stage Three: Fishy Business

Behind every publication lining the pages of Cell and Nature, there’s a scientist. A tinkering mad(wo)man with an insatiable lust for knowledge and also just being really cool. Sometimes, being cool just seems to run in the family, as it does for my PI, Dr. Carol Colton (or maybe its the self-professed madness slowly taking her). A perky yet wry neurobiologist, she is a pioneer in the immunological field of Alzheimer’s disease with an dignified, open attitude, and I fear the day she reads this.

Belonging to a family of scientists, Dr. Colton has always desired to do STEM research, particularly in Biology. Initially, she planned to enter paleontology at the University College London, but science is never a straight road, and that goes for the scientist too. While excelling in all her studies, there was one occasion that she could only describe as career-ruining. To this day, the trauma and shudders from the experience haunt her, and she still has a bone to pick with fish paleontology. On a fateful lab day for a class, the assignment happened to be to take rotting fish-market rejects, to boil their carcasses, to pick the meat apart, and to piece back together the skeleton and identify the fish. Nauseating.

After a prompt and well-deserved department shift, Dr. Colton found herself in a neurology lab. At the time, neuroscience focused heavily on studying the function of neurons, and so the most lending model to study using patch-clamps was of course the squid giant axon. After continuing her research and career at Rutgers University and the National Institute of Health, she began to discover the voice of dissent among scientists when she became interested in microglia.

Microglia, commonly summarized as brain’s immune cells, not too long ago were considered a myth. The brain was just a brain with many neurons, surrounded by a network of blood vessels. However, Dr. Colton found some research indicating a strange possibility of there being something more. After consulting with a fellow researcher who was centrifuging down brain cells to study, she discovered something strange about the heaviest layer which expressed traits common to those of macrophages. But others disagreed, there was opinion that those were just impurities of the sample from the nearby vascular system, pouring with immune cells. Nonetheless, Dr. Colton ignored symposium introductions “humoring” her microglia work, and studied these cells further, and later contributed to the slow recognition of the existence of microglia. An astonishing amount of work has been done since then on the cells, as it turns out, they are essential in many diseases and neural interactions, controlling many inflammatory and metabolic pathways in the brain.

Since then, Dr. Colton has worked at Georgetown University on one inflammatory factor released by microglia: Nitric Oxide. An important component in many neurological diseases, nitric oxide is used both as a neurotransmitter and a player in Alzheimer’s disease. However, the study of its levels in Alzheimer’s disease was scant because of Alzheimer’s posthumous diagnosis and the inability to collect brain samples from living humans. Therefore, for a long time, mice models were used to simulate human neural pathologies, but after a strange virus kept plaguing Dr. Colton’s mice colonies, she abandoned mice for hamsters. Oddly, her new data matched with none of her previous work and even conflicted with other research done on nitric oxide levels prior. After months of confusion and frustration, she discovered that hamsters actually have a different nitric oxide processing enzyme (known as NO synthase 2 as opposed to NO synthase 1) that actually mirror human immune systems much more accurately. This finding slammed her once again into the neuroscience spotlight, as she began working towards replicating the human neural system more and more accurately within rodent models.

More recently, Dr. Colton’s work has ranged from developing patented mice lines for research to studying various metabolic pathways related to Alzheimer’s disease, piecing together different mysteries found in more general brain tissue scans. Now residing at Duke and working with its Kathleen Price Bryan Brain Bank, she has investigated the various functions of arginine and other immuno-regulated chemicals in cell cultures, mice colonies, and even human samples. Her latest challenge to the field of science: viruses are the missing link to Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, the specifics are confidential, but I am sure she will be both excited and also apprehensive that her theory just recently got the Alzheimer’s field clamoring once more, as a heavily controversial study became published by Neuron last Wednesday supporting the possibility of viruses being a key factor to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I can already see her laughing at everyone’s face next week.

Weekly Highlights

“I’m smart and your minds are decaying. I’m going to tell you why.”-Joan Wilson imitating Dr. Colton at an Alzheimer’s Talk

“I told him about my idea on viruses, and he was like ‘naahhh.’ Well, when we have proof, I’m going to shove it up to him and be like ‘HA. Ha ha. Ha.'”-Dr. Carol Colton

“How was your vacation, Joan?”-Dr. Carol Colton
“Well on Monday a TV fell on me. There’s the bruise right here. I also got my ankle really swollen, that was my Tuesday.”-Joan Wilson, a survivor

“I do EVERYTHING?!”- Hui Fang finally realizing she doesn’t get paid enough for the 6 roles she plays across 2 labs

“The plasmids arrived!”-Dang Nguyen
“Good! We can start tomorrow.”-Hui Fang
“There’s two”-Dang Nguyen
“What.”-Hui Fang, as the next half hour is spent reading through both DNA sequences to find the right one

Episode 3: The Life of Dr. Susan K. Murphy

Susan K Murphy, a phenomenal mentor. Taken from

Susan K Murphy  received her undergraduate degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry from UNC-Charlotte.  She then went on to graduate school at Wake Forest University and studied Virology(study of viruses) , where she received her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology. She initially wanted to focus on vaccine development, but during her time in graduate school her son suffered from a rare form of liver cancer, causing Dr. Murphy to shift gears in her research and pursue a path more relevant to cancer research. Dr. Murphy’s postdoctoral research was done here at Duke, in Dr. Randy Jirtle’s laboratory where she studied genomic imprinting and epigenetics. Because she was studying the imprinting of a gene that was highly expressed in ovarian tissue, she ended up with an offer for a faculty position in Gynecologic Oncology here at Duke, where she studies how epigenetic factors influence early stages of ovarian cancer.

This is not the first time that Dr. Murphy has taught someone. While Dr. Murphy used to “panic at the thought of speaking in front of a group of people”, she found out that she enjoys teaching students and appreciates the curiosity that they display. She has given guest lectures at a number of courses  here at Duke.

Outside of her love for the lab, Dr. Murphy loves animals. Her family has always had pets of one sort or another.  When she was about 12, her brother had  2 boa constrictors, a reticulated python and an Indian python which she took care of.   Her mother raised “teddy bear” hamsters and her family would go to many of the local pet shops every weekend to buy supplies. After high school, she spent 10 years working before she went back to college, where she ended up working as a pet store manager and developed a love for fish and birds, and she still has fish and birds today (a 48-year old parrot, 3 cockatiels, 2 of which she hand raised, and 2 parakeets), She volunteered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium before and after it opened, initially helping to raise sea otters, then as a docent in the aviary and the microscope lab; She also worked as a shelter manager for the Monterey County SPCA; when I moved to North Carolina I worked at a veterinary office for 5 years, assisting with all forms of animal care – including surgeries and cleaning dog’s and cat’s teeth.

 While Dr. Murphy loves how her career in science allows her to come up with questions about the nature of life and things we cannot see, and then figure out how best to go about finding answers to those questions – revealing truths about life, there are some things which she would like to change about the scientific process. Chief among these would be the peer review and the lack of funding for grants. There are many scientists like Dr. Christopher Kontos who can have years of work derailed due to the peer review process, or be unable to pursue projects like through a lack of funding, which ultimately contributes to the next generation of scientists having a very pessimistic outlook on academia. 
In lab, Dr. Murphy constantly stresses the importance of safety. The reason for this was when she was an undergrad, she worked in a lab on a project studying Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium with an LD50 of 1. According to Dr. Murphy,  it is a flesh eating type organism, lives in the ocean and becomes concentrated in shellfish, particularly oysters, such that people with certain underlying risk factor (alcoholism, liver disease, older age) are more at risk of becoming infected with this bug, from eating raw oysters, or going in the ocean when they have an open wound.  Part of the research she was doing involved shucking the oysters that had dined on Vibrio vulnificus that she grew up and fed them.  She would have to shuck a bushel of oysters for each experiment (that’s about 350 oysters).  After a few hundred, I decided that the gloves she was wearing on top of the rubber gloves were too hot and restrictive so I took them off.  Shortly thereafter the oyster knife slipped and went straight into my hand, puncturing the skin.  She had to go admit to my PI that She neglected the safety requirements and now might die!  He took me immediately to the emergency room, with his published papers in his hand showing that tetracycline was the drug of choice for V. vulnificus infections and told the ER doc that he must give me tetracycline immediately!  They did, and obviously all was fine.  However, that very embarrassing incident has made her a much more aware PI and that is why she stresses lab safety to everyone who works in lab.
If you want to learn more about Dr. Murphy, feel free to shoot her an email at
Until Next Time,

Interview with Dr. Charles Gersbach

Dr. Charles Gersbach began his training as a biomedical engineer while he was an undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As the son and nephew of many engineers, he decided to major in chemical engineering and was never exposed to biomedical research. After watching his friends enter the workforce at companies like Doritos, he realized that those jobs never interested him and he searched for other career options. During his last summer as an undergraduate, Dr. Gersbach worked in a lab and fell in love with research. Due to his lack of experience, he had trouble applying for graduate programs, but was admitted to Georgia Tech and got a PhD in Biomedical Engineering.

Now, Dr. Gersbach is a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke where he teaches two classes: one is a requirement for BME undergraduates and the other is a BioDesign elective course. He enjoys teaching the design course because the students are much more engaged. Since it is an elective and the course material includes innovative, cutting-edge methods, the students have a desire to learn which makes teaching it much more enjoyable. His favorite part about teaching though is watching his students go off to do amazing things in science. Watching graduate students that he mentored in his lab earn faculty positions at other universities and publish papers gives him the satisfaction of knowing that he taught them well. Nurturing young students to become contributors in his field is the best part of teaching for him.

Though Dr. Gersbach is well-established in his field, he has no lack of embarrassing stories within the lab. Due to his busy schedule, he has less time to spend in the lab doing actual experiments but is sometimes asked to help when his students go out of town. During one Christmas season, a few of his graduate students asked him to passage their cells while they went home for a few days. He forgot and the students returned to find all of their cells overconfluent and dead. They asked him to help the next year as well, but he accidentally contaminated the cells and again they died. Since then, they’ve stopped asking him to passage their cells and found other arrangements.

When asked about any advice he has for young undergraduates looking to get started in research, Dr. Gersbach told me to take advantage of the many opportunities offered at Duke. Since he was late in entering research, it took him nearly ten years to catch up, so programs such as BSURF are important to take advantage of. He also advises to try many different things and explore the various topics within science. He never thought he would like research until he worked in a lab, so sampling diverse subjects can help young students to learn about the careers they may want in the future. Overall, I enjoyed interviewing Dr. Gersbach and learning about the background of my mentor. It taught me there is always time to change directions as I discover my interests and to take advantage of the multitude of opportunities that Duke has to offer.

An interview with Dr. Michael Boyce

Dr. Boyce has enjoyed science since as early as elementary school, however, he was not sure about a career in science until later on in his life.  As an undergraduate student at Harvard College, he saw the biochemistry major and thought the courses were interesting.  In addition to courses required for the biochemistry major, Dr. Boyce found another interest, art history.  At this point, he realized he liked both art history and biochemistry and he asked himself, “Do I want to stick with biochemistry, or do I want to switch to art history.” To answer this, he pictured himself in both situations, as an art historian, and as a scientist.  He did see himself as a scientist, but he could not picture himself as an art historian.  He joined a lab at Harvard, and decided to get a PhD. with the idea of , “if this does not work out, I will pursue something else”.  Therefore, he was able to go to Harvard Medical School for his PhD. in molecular biology, he enjoyed graduate school, made great connections with students and his Principal Investigator (he even stays connected with them to this day using social media!).  With this experience, he decided that having his own lab is something he might enjoy, so he decided to do a post-doc with the same mentality of, “if this does not workout, I can do something else”.  Therefore, he went to UC Berkeley to do a post-doc in a Chemistry lab.  From the differences of research topics, he met many great friends, and learned new techniques.  Finally, he applied to faculty positions, where he is now an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Duke University School of Medicine.

As a Principal Investigator in the School of Medicine, his primary role is to keep the lab running (through grant writing and mentoring students), to advocate for his science (by attending and presenting at conferences), and to serve the scientific community (by participating on committees, and specifically, by promoting diversity in STEM at Duke, the School of Medicine, and the American Society of Cellular Biology). Dr. Boyce enjoys his students, and he enjoys mentoring. This can be seen in his lab, where his door is always open for students to stop by to ask questions and to chat.  Finally, he feels very lucky for the freedom offered in his position.  He is able to ask his own questions, and if his project does not work out, or if the results lead to a different question, he is able to follow up.  He believes that his position is as close to a blank check as you can get.

After learning about his path, and what he does, I asked him if he had any advice for people interested in pursuing science. He answered “Stay open minded”, he says that there is a lot to learn, so go to more research seminars (even outside of the realm of expertise!).  Additionally, he recommends to read things that sound interesting, and try to be curiosity driven (because that is what science is about!).  Finally, he explained the importance of forming a network, with people in your lab, your peers, or your professors, because you never know what will happen fifteen years from now.

Dr. Boyce. An awesome mentor and scientist. Original photo was posted on the lab page.

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Dr. Boyce about his path, and profession.

On next weeks blog, I will talk about my daily life.



Get To Know Dr. Brennan!

Dr. Richard Brennan began his undergraduate studies at Boston University where he was initially a chemistry major, but eventually transitioned to studying biology. Dr. Brennan fell in love with studying English and communication, leading him to a minor in history. Till this day, he emphasizes the importance of language and communication within science and advocates for all scientists to become trained writers. He noted to me that during his undergraduate years he found that science is just as creative as the arts, furthermore, scientists are creative in a unique way that blends subjects from multiple areas. This passion led him into research the summer before his junior year where he was part of a fellowship research program. The creativity in the lab instantly drew him towards research, and during his junior and senior year he worked in a biochemistry lab. In some sense, Boston had become the perfect place for him to begin his research career as it offered rich history and advanced resources in research.

After his undergraduate studies, Dr. Brennan attended Cornell to start a Ph.D in biochemistry. However, as he went straight into graduate school without a break, he decided to take a year off and research at biochemical genetics lab with the purpose of going back to school in a year. Through this process he came to become very interested in structural biology: throughout his earlier years he had worked on a project involving proteins that centered around the develop of a male birth control pill, and he came to find he interested in being able to see the things he was studying. With that interest, he found a home in the University of Wisconsin which was, and still is, one of the leaders in x-ray crystallography research and biochemistry. Here, Dr. Brennan did a lot of work with creating structures for long DNA and made restriction enzymes. After his work in Wisconsin, he chose to set out to the University of Oregon where he solved a structure of a protein DNA complex (only 3 or 4 other known structure at the time!). He was faced with a decision to take a job in Boston or in Portland. Eventually he chose to work at the Portland Medical School where he would spend 20 years, become an endowed chair, and build a strong program. After some time, he moved to MD Anderson in Houston where he was tasked with strengthen their biochemistry department. Here, his program did extremely well in their research and scientific endeavors; however, due to academic structure, it was difficult to attract students. Then one day, Duke University contacted Dr. Brennan about becoming Chair of Biochemistry. Dr. Brennan has since been the Chair of Biochemistry at Duke as of January 2011, where he continues to do research.

I asked Dr. Brennan what his goals were along the way and whether he experienced any hardship along that way that might have altered them. The over-encompassing question he was interested in figuring out was how things work. His focus in structural biology allows to develop and understanding in how certain functions work and develop a deep understanding in the “why.” Further, Dr. Brennan had a goal on figuring how to see why certain things worked the way they did. This fit the idea of structural biology and how solving a structural allows you to truly understand why it works the way it does. Without the basic information on what something looks like, you cannot do any further experiments or research with this specific thing of interest. His goal was to apply creativity in research in order to answer these questions.

Yet, Dr. Brennan accounted to me that during his Postdoc work, he became curious with the idea of leaving academic science and turning toward a career in scientific writing. And so, he interviewed for the head editor at a science journal. He was selected for job and was forced to make a decision. He evaluated which road would give him the most creative freedom as that was of utmost importance in his research and academic endeavors. Eventually he chose to stick with academic science as it offered him the best route to continue answering his questions, and he could also continue to write within academic science. To this day, Dr. Brennan has continued his work in research and contributing towards the structural biology field. Dr. Brennan is currently interested in studying how multi-tolerant cells work and how activation signals are triggered.

Dr. Brennan has continued to share his perspective in the creativity of science through teaching at Duke University. He enjoys teaching due to the interaction and opportunities there are to inspire future scientists. He believes that individuals should teach at schools with high-end resources as it’s important to share what you’ve learned others.

As one final piece of advice, Dr. Brennan warned against the elitism in science. Very much discouraging this attitude, he cites the stereotyping when it comes to choosing universities and places to study. Often times scientists miss out on opportunities because they make choices with predetermined ideas. It’s important for scientists to adopt an open-mindset and one that truly values everything on the same playing field.


Luke Sang


Episode 3- The Interview (starring Dr. Wray)

His education and topic of interest:

Dr. Wray got his undergraduate degree in biology at William and Mary before arriving at Duke with the mindset of going the MD-PhD route. Though is changed, he always had the intent of going into research, particularly with a focus on biology. After he obtained his PhD from Duke, he completed his postdoctoral training in Indiana University and the University of Washington and later returned to Duke as a faculty member.

How have his interests changed:

When he was a child, Dr. Wray was interested in becoming a marine biologist, though, admittedly, more from the idealized image he had of marine biologists spending time diving around coral reefs than from an the reality of spending long hours in a lab conducting research. Eventually, however, he became an evolutionary biologist with a focus on how gene regulation evolved, and he spoke about the importance of being able to reinvent yourself as time goes on and you become more attuned to what your interests and strengths are.

What he teaches/has taught here at Duke:

Originally, he taught Bio 201 and did so for 4 years. Currently, he does seminars for seniors and graduate students that are about genomics. He also does guest lectures from time to time throughout the year.

What he enjoys about science:

To Dr. Wray, one of the most enjoyable parts about science is its entrepreneurial nature in that there is much freedom to be found in doing research and to make progress, one sometimes has to take risks in what they decide to investigate. However, one should still be mindful and reasonable in the approach taken; safe, but not too safe. He also enjoys this environment because its freedom fosters creativity and is far from the mechanical process that people sometimes consider scientific research to be.

What he dislikes about science:

There really isn’t much that Dr. Wray genuinely dislikes about science. Though he understands and has felt the frustration of how long it can take for research to be done and even then, it may simply fail to work, these things are just part of the process and everything done in research is valuable anyway, success or failure. Really, any dislike that Dr. Wray has that relates to science is the way that society perpetually ignores the life-changing advancements made by using science, and that the majority of people (in the US, in particular) could name 10 professional sports players with no trouble at all, but would hardly be able to name 2 or 3 living scientists.

Disasters in the lab:

Luckily, there have never been any major problems to happen in the lab, though there was one instance when someone left the water on in the lab and upon returning, there was water flowing down to the lower floors, much to the annoyance of the lab below.

How projects make it into his lab:

Generally, projects arrive in Dr. Wray’s lab from students that have ideas about what they would like to investigate. Though those ideas are usually not very interesting or possible to do in his lab, from time to time there will be an idea that seems worthwhile to pursue. Once the project begins, Dr. Wray becomes invested in the student’s topic of interest so that he can provide them with the support they need, but he also tries to allow the student room to make their own decisions about how they approach their research.

Why there are toy dinosaurs on his bookshelf:

One of the classes that Dr. Wray used to teach was a class on dinosaurs that was meant as a way for students in non-science oriented majors to receive their science credit in a fun, easy class as opposed to taking Bio 201 or 202. As a result, he amassed a collection of toy dinosaurs to use as props in the class. Though he is no longer doing  that class, he has kept the dinosaurs. When ask about which species is his favorite, he said that it was impossible for him to choose as there are so many with their own unique qualities that make them fascinating.

Book recommendations:

If anyone happens to be looking for something to read on the general topic of science and how to think about science , Dr. Wray recommended reading Naturalist, an autobiography by E. O. Wilson. Additionally, he also recommended reading Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Randolph M. Nesse as a good novel for those interested in science.

Gregory A. Wray, PhD


Interview with Dr. Ann Marie Pendergast

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with my PI, Dr. Pendergast, about her path in science and the work that she currently does. She developed an interest in research, and particularly in Chemistry and Molecular Biology, during her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She received her PhD in Biochemistry from the University of California at Los Angeles. Dr. Pendergast remained at UCLA for her postgraduate work in Molecular Cancer Biology. It was under the mentorship of Dr. Owen Witte that she developed an interest in normal and oncogenic tyrosine kinases, which eventually led to her focus on the Abelson family of tyrosine kinases. Dr. Witte discovered the tyrosine kinase ability of the ABL protein, as well as the role of the BCR-ABL fusion protein in leukemias. The Pendergast Lab researches the role of ABL in a wider range of cell signaling pathways. Dr. Witte was himself mentored by the great biologist Dr. David Baltimore, who received the 1975 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on tumor viruses.

The Pendergast Lab consists largely of graduate students. I asked Dr. Pendergast what she values most in students looking to join her lab. She emphasized the importance of understanding what scientific questions to ask. What distinguishes the best scientists, she said, is their ability to formulate important and appropriately ambitious questions, and not to lose sight of how each experiment is connected to these bigger picture questions. Although Dr. Pendergast enjoys advising her students and guiding their work to an extent, she understands the importance of giving them the freedom to be creative and design projects without restrictive instructions. Ultimately, she wants her students to gain the ability to formulate and answer scientific questions independently.

I asked Dr. Pendergast for her advice on pursuing a career in medicine versus one in medical research. She suggested that pursuing an MD-PhD gives you a greater range of opportunities than solely an MD (or solely a PhD, for that matter). For one, being qualified in both fields gives you far greater career security, particularly in difficult research funding climates. Additionally, physician-scientists have an edge in that they understand the clinical aspects of medicine to a far greater extent than pure researchers, and the scientific aspects of medicine to a far greater extent than pure doctors. The clinical side gives them an understanding of what scientific questions are most important (in that they can have the greatest impact impact on healthcare), while the scientific side enables them to actually address these questions.

Dr. Pendergast also suggested that researchers have a more exciting job than physicians. While doctors perform the same techniques again and again, researchers ask new questions and explore the scientific unknowns. A similar point was made to me by one of the lab’s MD-PhD students. Having experienced both the hospital and lab environments, he argued that researchers, to a greater extent than doctors, make use of the prefrontal cortex which gives humans our enhanced ability for complex thought.

Week 3 – How Things Came to Be

This past week I had the pleasure of talking to my PI, Dr. Susan Alberts.

As an undergraduate at Reed College, Dr. Alberts was originally a philosophy major. Her interest in biology began during the second semester of her sophomore year, when she had to take a required biology course taught by Dr. Bert Brehm. The knowledge she gained from this course (including the mutualistic relationship between the fig tree and fig wasp) fascinated her, causing her to change into a biology major. After graduating from Reed College, Dr. Alberts earned the Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship for Research and Travel Abroad. During this year of research, she began studying baboons. Over 40 years later, Dr. Alberts continues to do so as a co-director to the Amboseli Baboon Research Project.

Dr. Alberts’s favorite aspect of her career is being able to observe the baboons in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya and figure out why they do what they do. The observable behaviors within the study population leads her to ask questions and understand what problems individuals are trying to solve. Additionally, the research in the Alberts Lab is interdisciplinary, allowing for projects that study the entire population of baboons or the molecular differences between individuals.

Since she studies the wild population of baboons living in the Amboseli, Dr. Alberts travels a few times each year to perform on-site research alongside the field team. With no electricity or water on the field, Dr. Alberts can immerse herself in her work. Each day, she would go with the team to three different baboon groups, take a census on who’s present, record the females’ reproductive state, and observe the behaviors and interactions within the group.

Although Dr. Alberts can’t be on-site at Amboseli year-round because of her responsibilities as a PI at Duke and a mother at home, she values each trip to Amboseli. All of her trips have been memorable to her, and she continues to love watching the baboons. Soon she will travel back to Amboseli for the summer and see what new changes there are and find more fuel for her research.

Interview with Dr. Hammer

As mentioned in my previous post, this summer I have been given the opportunity to work in the Hammer lab within the Department of Immunology. The lab is run by Dr. Gianna Hammer and I had the pleasure to interview her this past week. Before I started the fellowship, I had the opportunity to read about her research and her amazing accomplishments, which include being named a Pew Scholar in 2015. I remember being excited to work with such a talented individual, which is why I was excited to have the opportunity talk to her about her research endeavors.

Dr. Hammer went to Eastern Washington University for undergrad and received her Ph.D. from UC Berkley. She, at first, was interested in microbiology but switched her focus to immunology after taking a class in the subject. She liked how immunology was relevant to the discoveries going on. During her academic studies, people were starting to realize that the bacteria in the body had critical functions. The science is what lead her to the intestines. Throughout her research, she kept questioning all the results she obtained. The questions that she asked in her research led her to investigate the role of the immune system in the intestines.

During our interview, I asked Dr. Hammer what her most memorable experience has been thus far. The experience happened to be when she wrote her first manuscript while in graduate school. She wanted her PI to check over every section of the paper as completed them but they refused to read it until it was complete. When her PI finally read the paper, he had many critiques, but this process ended up being transformative. Dr. Hammer was able to learn the most compelling ways to present research to an audience and how to precisely explain data/results. The tools gained while writing this paper have stuck with her throughout her career.

One of my goals, as mentioned in my first blog post, is to learn what to do after failure. I asked Dr. Hammer “How do you overcome/embrace failure in the research field”. She responded by saying “Failure comes in many forms”. Failure could be an experiment that did not go the way you expected or being rejected for a grant. She said that disappointment comes but its important to keep an open mind. Sometimes the failed experiment allows you to focus on a different aspect of a topic. Dr. Hammer also said to talk to the science with other people because sometimes they will notice something that you didn’t.

Since I am new to research, I asked Dr. Hammer if she had any advice for students like me. The first thing she told me was not to be afraid to diversify. Try out different aspects and types of research. She also said to pursue research because it’s what you love. Research does not always produce rewards immediately, it can take years before the benefits appear. If you do not love what you are doing, then this work can become miserable.

Interviewing anyone who has had success in a field that you’re interested in is always such an eye-opening experience. I am beyond thankful for the chance to talk to Dr. Hammer about her experiences in research.

Dr. Gianna Hammer (Source: Department of Immunology, Duke School of Medicine)

Interviewing Dr.Derbyshire!

Dr.Emily Derbyshire started out as an undergraduate at Trinity College, a liberal arts college in Connecticut, where she studied Chemistry. As an undergraduate, she always knew that she wanted to pursue research; she had gotten some glimpses of it in high school and worked in a lab as an undergraduate (even dedicating her summers to research!). She loved the bench work and problem-solving aspects in research, however, at that point she did not think she would have ended up as a professor.

After her undergraduate studies, she then went on to pursue her PhD in Molecular Biology at UC Berkeley. As a Post-Doc, she realized she wanted to orient her research to a more disease-related area, so she began working in Chemical Biology with a focus on malaria at Harvard Medical School.

When asked about her goals in college and their evolution, Dr. Derbyshire responded that her primary focus as an undergraduate was to graduate and get her degree. She worked three jobs to get herself through college! She decided that she wanted to go to graduate school after an internship in a company one summer where she saw the different degrees of freedom people had with just a Bachelors degree versus a PhD. She wanted a higher level of intellectual stimulation, so she decided in her junior year to get a PhD.

Looking at research specifically, Dr.Derbyshire mentioned that her goals were dictated mostly by the labs in which she worked. In her words, “they were very chemical and molecular.” Her research “zoomed out” over time. Studying the conformational changes from a molecule binding to a protein evolved into diving deeper on how molecules inhibit an organism (which is similar to what we are doing in lab!). So far, her favorite part about doing research has been gathering data to learn something new both personally and in the scientific community.

In terms of teaching, Dr.Derbyshire has enjoyed the experience, describing it as “fun”. As an undergraduate and graduate student, she had done some TA work, but what she did was dictated by the faculty member with whom she worked. As a professor here, however, she has been able to teach topics that really interest her within Chemical Biology. As a professor, she enjoys most when students come to her with a question that lets her know they were thinking about what she said and its application in other aspects. She likes to see students not just memorizing, but taking the time to synthesize what they’ve learned and pushing forward by asking questions.

Science in general has been a focus for Dr.Derbyshire due to its problem-solving nature and thinking involved. It is a path that answers important questions while help others at the same time, as exemplified by studying malaria, a complex disease that affects millions.

For future scientists, Dr.Derbyshire says “follow what excites you and make sure that you’re interested in it. That’s the most important thing!”

Interview with Dr. Gustavo Silva

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to school at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. I majored in biology. Over there the course is very broad. So, we learned everything from zoology to botany to ecology. But I always liked molecular biology. I was doing research looking at the regulation of the proteasome, or how proteins are degraded. I did my Ph.D. at the same institution. This is the best university in Brazil so there was no reason to go anywhere else. It was kind of a follow up of my undergraduate research. When I finished that, I thought I could use a lot of large scale proteomics methods to look at a lot of different questions that were fascinating to me at that time. I did a postdoc at NYU and studied how ubiquitin, a particular protein that is a marker for degradation, can have multiple functions. We were finding this very interesting function now in protein translation. This is the research that I took with me and now in my lab this is one of the goals–to try to understand the multiple functions ubiquitin can have in cell biology and diseases.


Did you always know you wanted to go into science?

No, I don’t think I understood what science was until I made it to college. I think I was always very curious. I was always trying to understand things. Biology wasn’t even my best subject in high school. But I think most of the questions that I had were about how things work and people were always telling me, “You have to go to college to learn that.” My first semester in college I was taking a genetics course and it was a very hands-on course with drosophila and doing a lot of crossing and analyzing data. I thought it was fascinating. It also included a lot of the history of genetics, going back to Mendel, and you started to see how all the knowledge was built. This was fascinating to me. I thought, “Wow this could be a profession. Maybe I want to do that.” So, I started looking for a lab to do some research. Proteins were something I always liked and at that time I was also interested in exploring immunology. But I joined a lab that was looking at protein degradation and I fell in love.


What have been some of your goals for you career and have the changed between the time you were in college and now?

When I was in college I never thought I’d be in a position like the one I am in now. There were a lot of challenges and barriers. I think I always aspired to have my own lab. I thought that it would be really interesting to do your own research and go after your questions. But now I see that in this particular position as a professor especially at an institution like Duke, you can do a lot more than just the bench work. I think it’s important to be a good mentor and to shape the new generation. I think it’s important to open up opportunities for people. Science is a big component of my career and the things that I like to do. But I think I can do much more. I’m still learning. This is still my first year. But I think the goal is always to learn more.


What is it you like about doing science?

I think the coolest thing about science is that it gives me the intellectual freedom to pursue questions that I want to pursue. So, every day that I come into that or that I’m reading research I have my questions that I can challenge and motivate myself to go after. There’s never a routine there’s just stimulation that keeps you on the edge and you’re always learning. I think that’s the coolest thing about science.


What would you change about doing science?

How we communicate science to people outside of the academy a lot of times science becomes a very regional thing that doesn’t get to the people who could actually benefit from it. Some other steps about the profession itself – it’s super demanding in some respects which push people away from science. Also, how science is taught in a lot of different ways. I feel like there is a tendency to push people away from science and away from knowledge. It’s not only because people aren’t interested but also because we are not doing the greatest job in teaching people to see the beauty we see in science and the excitement we feel about a discovery. Those are a couple things that we can hopefully change in the near future.


What are some of your disasters in the lab or most embarrassing moments?

When I was an undergraduate—probably my first month, somebody had a system to cast a gel and somebody couldn’t take it out so it got stuck. They said, “Hey can you try to get it out?” I was young and I was thinking I was strong and could do it. But when I tried to get it out, I broke it in half. I was like, “Uh oh.” I had just broken a system in two and they had to buy a new one. That was like the first big thing. But we still do a lot of small mistakes. I don’t think I’ve ever set anything on fire though.


What lessons do you have for my journey into science?

I think journey is the exact would you have to use because it’s not only about what you do but about what you learn. The science is important but there are a lot of skills you can develop over time that will be applicable to whatever you want to do. If you want to get a Ph.D., go to graduate school, or medical school, I think all those skills can be transferable. As a scientist, we develop so many things that we underestimate that they can be very useful. Keep thinking about teaching, mentoring, and the importance of all of those aspects. Keep your eye on the prize and I think all of that will help you a lot in your future

Interview: In-Her-View

Dr. Kathleen Donohue grew up in New Jersey, but moved to California to attend Stanford. Her family is in the arts field, and she was extremely interested in history and ecology. She loved putting the present in context with the past and was curious about the environment surrounding her, so ecology and evolutionary biology were a natural fit for her. Although Dr. Donohue was fascinated by science, it wasn’t until her undergraduate years that she realized she could express her love for this field thorough research. She completed her B.S., B.A. and M.S., before she went to the University of Chicago for her Ph.D.  


When asked about her experiences with teaching, Dr. Donohue says she loves the job. While she had no formal training, she expressed that she likes working with individuals in small groups and watching them grow. She wants her students to be more aware of the neighbors they are surrounding, and one time she gave a fun quiz to her class that challenged them to match a song to the bird. As much as she loves being a professor, Dr. Donohue also loves learning new things. Her most recent hobby has been glass shaping. Of course, she also loved hiking, biking and exploring the outdoors. Would it be blasphemous if an ecologist didn’t like nature?


I also asked Dr. Donohue about the difference in interdisciplinary collaboration from when she initially started in research to now. To this, she said that biology has always allowed for lots of different fields to collaborate with each other, but she says most of these collaborations have yet cross the bridge between science and humanities. While Dr. Donohue loves the flexibility of biology which allows her to work with various colleagues, she said the hardest challenge she has faced in science is speaking up and voicing her ideas during seminars, group meetings etc. I can relate to her in that aspect, because I also have a hard time asserting my ideas in a group setting.


One of the reasons I find my mentor extremely inspiring is due to her answer/lack of to the question of disasters in the lab. She struggled with an appropriate answer, because she said she doesn’t view anything as a disaster- just natural and another learning experience. Dr. Donohue recalled a field experiment that she spent hours setting up on the beach. Several minutes after the set up, the tide came in and washed away all of her seeds. Although her undergraduates were frustrated, she said just shrugged. She was studying seed dispersal and she just viewed it as nature’s answer to her question. I absolutely love her outlook on life, and can’t wait to spend more time getting to know more about her. 

There’s a Lot to Learn, and from Many Different Avenues

Dr. Volkan is originally from Ankara, Turkey and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. While living in Turkey she received her Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in Molecular Biology and Genetics, and then came to the United States to complete her Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Chapel Hill. Dr. Volkan then went to Los Angeles for 6 years where she did her postdoctoral research at the University of California Los Angeles, and some time afterward found her way to Duke where she is the Principle Investigator of her own lab.

At UCLA, Dr. Volkan wanted to find genes that regulated circuit assembly and gave structural properties to circuits. For example, where is a certain cell body for a cell going to be and where is it going to connect to in the brain? She ended up finding one mutation that shifted her focus from not only the development of the nervous system but also the evolution of the nervous system.

This observation led Dr. Volkan to the question, how is a complex nervous system built? She knew that as well as genes laying one replicable foundation, experience played a key role in how the nervous system is assembled and experience changes the brain, or makes the brain plastic. Therefore, she wanted to explore how experience and the brain are connected and this idea is the basis of what her lab explores today through the unique and powerful system of the Drosophila melanogaster.

Besides working in her lab, Dr. Volkan loves to teach and has been teaching since about 2010. She was a teacher’s assistant at UNC and teaches mostly undergraduate and graduate classes at Duke. She prefers to do a lot of team-based learning and active learning. Currently, she teaches a lab course in the fall and teaches the course Neuroscience 223, “Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology” in the Spring with another professor at Duke.

What I found really interesting about Dr. Volkan was that she was very interested in film, and took a lot of movie critique classes during her academic career. She liked to work with documentaries and independent movies. Dr. Volkan even had a job offer in the film industry, but instead, she decided to continue on with her graduate education! However, throughout all of this she was always been pro-science and knew that she always wanted to be a researcher, despite the fact that she never knew she would be managing a mini-business as she took control of her own lab.

As much as Dr. Volkan loves science, she feels like there are things that can change. She expressed that scientists need to be more open minded and more willing to take a chance on things that can be important or interesting. She says, “Science these days has become like a recipe” and sometimes scientists are too critical to the point where they don’t allow new things to be discovered. Consequently, Dr. Volkan finds herself expanding her interests and learning new things as she goes along in her science journey. She says, “The more [I] learn, the more [science] becomes more interesting”.

Dr. Volkan wants future researchers to know that it is not only a research job, but also has a lot to do with business administration. She says, “You should be very open to learning new things … things are going to change and you have to keep up with that change.”

She ends our conversation with the advice to “Always look for analogies in other systems … there’s a lot of things each science can learn from one another.”

Pelin C. Volkan, Ph.D. (Picture courtesy of

My Work with Crypto

The lab that I work in (Perfect Lab) focuses in further understanding fungal Cryptococcus strains and how it utilizes its genes and proteins to function. My project specifically deals in further studying the fungal strain, Cryptococcus neoformans, that causes meningitis in immuno-compromised individuals. The ability to produce melanin in this fungus is an important factor in determining its extent of virulence. Further, I’m working with a transcription factor, BZP4, that was previously found to be associated with the expression of melanin production. The goal of my project is to demonstrate a relationship between the presence or functionality of this transcription in C. Neoformans and virulence within a host via genome deletions, additions and replacements of BZP4. I will speak more in depth during my chalk talk next week.

Be Confident and Always Mindful

Dr. Richard Mooney

With some of his earliest memories being out in the garden, in the woods, and together with the wildlife around his grandparents’ cabin, Dr. Mooney has a lifelong passion for biology.

In college, Dr. Mooney majored in ecology and evolutionary biology. While textbook learning was one of the core components in college education, he found himself going back to the original experiments and asking why certain popular scientific concepts were supported by observations in the first place. Some experiments, such as that of Meselson and Stahl’s determination that DNA-replication was semi-conservative, struck him with their clarity, but he also realized that many higher-ordered, complex, network-oriented systems such as the brain and the ecosystem cannot be explained by one single reductionist approach.  “I don’t understand so many things that I really have to try to figure them out,” Dr. Mooney shared, “I never thought that I would end up in a place I am now, [but] what wasn’t understood compelled me to get to this point.”

From his childhood to his research career, Dr. Mooney has worked with a variety of animals––leafhoppers, butterflies, moths, frogs, snakes, fish, and songbirds. “Whatever I can see close up, I am really engrossed by,” he said. In terms of neuroscience research on learning, nevertheless, he has a special love for songbirds, an “amazingly powerful system” according to him, where juvenile “pupils” learn to sing by copying songs produced by adult songbird “tutors.” By studying such cultural transmission of vocal behavior from tutor to pupil, he sees insights for understanding how humans transmit various behaviors, including language, speech dialects, art, music, and other cultural idiosyncrasies that are fundamental to being human.

Besides science, another layer to Dr. Mooney’s fascination with bird songs and auditory neuroscience comes from his interest in music. As someone who loves biology and music as well, I was amazed to learn that Dr. Mooney went to San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a few years after college graduation. When asked why he made this decision, he shared that he grew up in a family that really enjoyed music and emphasized music education. The amount of change in the musical spectrum in the US during 1964-68 and his love for Laurindo Almeida’s guitar music drove him to take guitar lessons when he was ten. All through high school and college, he struggled to balance science and music. Thus, he promised himself that he would spend at least a year or two after college dedicating himself fully to music, which he did when he graduated from Yale. During the two years he studied with the renowned classical guitarist David Tanenbaum at the conservatory, he spent every spare moment with his guitar and practiced late into the night. Although he eventually decided that he didn’t want to play music in exclusion to everything else (he really missed science), he played a lot and still views guitar as an important piece of his life.

Having been in science ever since, Dr. Mooney is still very excited when he talks about this discipline. He believes that science can “explain things out of our own experience and our own lifetime.” What is more, he has “increasingly come to enjoy the process of watching people become really proficient, helping them become adept and do sophisticated work that goes beyond what [he] could do [him]self.”

“How much fun to have people working [in neuroscience] with me!” he exclaimed.

Thinking back to his own graduate school career, Dr. Mooney laughed as he shared his most embarrassing lab experience. In 1984, the lab he was in just purchased a very expensive computer monitor. Intrigued by a friend’s trick––distorting the beams on an oscilloscope screen with a magnet–– he tried the same trick on the lab’s new monitor. Not appreciating that the design of the monitor was different from an oscilloscope, he left a huge purple mark on the screen. Luckily, the lab technician managed to remove the mark right before the PI walked in. But still, Dr. Mooney drew his lesson from this incident, “Don’t screw with really valuable equipment until you understand how it works!”

Personally, one of my biggest struggles with biology is killing animals to study them. I asked Dr. Mooney, “A lot of people come into this study out of their love and appreciation for life. But sometimes, experiments require biologists to actively end other animals’ lives. Do you find that upsetting or hard to deal with?” Dr. Mooney gave me the most inspiring response I’ve heard so far, “Yes, it is,” he said, “If there is a way to understand the brain without using invasive or ultimately destructive approaches, then that should be used by all means.” He talked about how it is hard and sometimes impossible to understand the neural level of brain structures without teasing it apart, and how studying bird brains, for instance, can teach us a lot about neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. Yet, he emphasized, “Mindfulness in all things is important. Being a good scientist, one has to be mindful what the cost of the experiment entails.” He believes “the human condition is one in which we are driven to understand the world where we live in, and it is something we can do in a way that other animals can’t. There will be a salvation for our own species that will include pursuing that drive to understand the world…We have to come to value more highly how complicated and amazingly beautiful all living things are.”

To all students who aspire to become scientists, Dr. Mooney encouraged, “Find out what you do like. If you really set your eyes on certain goals, you’ll get there.” If he could, he would tell his younger self, “know that you’ll get where you want to get to in time, although you can’t know that for certain when you’re on that path. Have confidence. By having confidence, you will enjoy where you are instead of  being too anxious about where you will be.”

Where The Mind Matters: Think, Be Creative, Problem Solve

Since January, I have had the privilege of working in the McClay lab on a project involving the transfating of cells in the sea urchin embryo. As I begin my journey into science research with all the possibilities ahead, I felt it to be important to talk to someone who can look back on their research career to share some insight on being a scientist. Who better to talk to about his experiences than my PI, Dr. Dave McClay.

Dr. McClay began his journey in higher education at Pennsylvania State University where his father taught as a professor. He enjoyed many subjects, but biology just seemed to interest him slightly more. However, biology can range from molecular biology to evolutionary biology to ecology. So how did he end up in developmental biology? That would be thanks to his professor who recommended he look into developmental biology which he later fell in love with. He then went to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for graduate school because he was offered a fellowship. After receiving his PhD, he spent 5 months at the University of Chicago working as a postdoctorate associate before getting a phone call to interview at Duke. He flew to Duke, had an interview, gave a seminar presentation, and the rest was history.

One question Dr. McClay often gets asked is why sea urchins? How did he get into using sea urchins as a model organism? He said that when he was in graduate school, he did a research project in Bermuda. This was the gateway to his desire to work at a marine lab every summer and he has worked in one ever since through an NSF grant which allowed him to work in Bermuda for 18 summers, Woods Hole for 12 summers, and France for another 18 summers. When asked which marine lab location he prefers, he says he loves all of them for different reasons: diving for your own animals in Bermuda, interacting with world-class scientists in Woods Hole, and being by the beautiful ocean in France.

One aspect of his job that he really enjoys is teaching. He began teaching anatomy to nursing students which is when he realized he loved teaching. This is the reason he knew he wanted to go into academia, so he could do the two things he loves: research and teach. He currently teaches 2 courses for undergraduates (Cell Biology which I am taking next semester and Developmental Biology) and 3 courses for graduate students (a module on developmental biology, a module on gene regulatory networks, and a developmental biology colloquium).

For my final question, I asked if he had any words of wisdom to share to someone beginning their journey into science research. He said that you should choose something that you love to do but be aware that you need to work hard as well because “it’s not a sprint but a marathon.” There are a lot of difficulties in science research but there are so many benefits as well and you just have to keep pushing through the hard parts for those benefits.

He ended our conversation with a phrase that really resonated with me and I will always keep in mind: “research is a career where the mind matters a lot so think, be creative, solve problems.”

David R. McClay, PhD (aka Uncle Dave)

Week 3 – Describe your research project

Due Sunday, 24 June, 5 pm