Category Archives: Week 7

Episode 7: d-cas9

Of all the Nobel Laureates and Basically-Nobel-Laureates that came to talk to us this summer, none stood out to me as much as Dr. Anne West. The main reasons that I found Dr. West’s talk so valuable was because it provided me with clarity on where to go in the study of epigenetics. She outline how it was one thing to show that there is a correlation between environmental stimuli and epigenetic changes, but it is an entirely different thing to show a causative relationship between epigenetic changes and phenotypic changes. Her talk also helped me to think about the practicality of the way that we approach an ever changing field with technologies that are over 20 years old.  When Dr. West started talking about how d-cas9 could be used to provide specific modulations to various epigenetic changes, I was particularly interested because it provided isnight for me into how current technological advancements can provide new insights into what is actually happening epigenetically. For instance, if I noticed signifigant methylation changes at a CpG site in a gene, I could use d-cas9 DNA Methyl Transferase to replicate that change(and ONLY that change) in a controlled cohort of mice to see what the true effects of that change are on an organism. It could also be used to rescue epigenetic damage that could be caused by environmental stimuli, without causing the errant mutations that regular cas9 causes. In short, Dr. West showed me a practical next step that could be taken in order to expand on my lab’s epigenetic research while also pointing out the inherent flaws in our approach.


An honorable mention for favorite talk would of course be Dr. Noor’s, as she showed me how awesome biological research could be even if a lot of people do not feel that way because it does not have any “practical applications” (see: Nobel Prize).

A Reflection on Dr. Lawrence David’s Talk

Over the last two months, we’ve had many different speakers come to give us talks. It was surreal for me to be in the same room as many people who have conducted breakthrough research (even one Nobel Prize winner!) and accomplished so many things in their lives. It was exciting for me to learn about their work and how their projects and questions evolved. But so many of the pressing questions I had for our speakers regarded what paths they took to get to where they are now and how they found their way. It was really encouraging for me to hear about what their experiences were like at my age and allowed me to be less intimidated by them and relate to them more.

One of the talks that will stick with me is Dr. Lawrence David’s. Dr. David is a fairly new professor at Duke and was hired 5 years ago. His lab studies the microbiome in the human gut and how what you eat affects it. He was the only researcher whose work involved humans as tests subjects, which I thought was really cool. But his talk didn’t focus primarily on his research, rather it focused on how he got to where he is today. He talked about his time at Columbia as an engineering student, at MIT as a Ph.D. student, and at Harvard as a junior fellow. His discussion was peppered with funny anecdotes about things like the time he spent two months eating street food in Thailand as part of his Ph.D., seeing how it affected his gut’s microbiome. He also had a very earnest discussion with us about the frustrations of research, questioning the graduate school route you choose, trying to fit into the world of science, the times you feel like you don’t belong and don’t know what you’re doing.

Some of his lessons were:

  1. Research is going to get weird – that means a breakthrough is coming
  2. Not everyone in the room is smarter than you. A third are but aren’t interested in showing it off and want to be your friend. A third are about as smart as you and can be considered friends as well. Another third isn’t as smart as you but want you to think they’re so much smarter than you are.
  3. The moment you think you know what you’re doing is the moment you’re given your next challenge (graduation).

I think self-doubt is something everyone struggles with when they’re trying to find their way and it was really nice to hear him address than and talk about how even now there are times when he wonders if he should have gone to medical school. I felt like I could relate to some of Dr. David’s experiences and that was really exciting to me. His story emphasized the importance of an open mind, trusting yourself, and welcoming change. His talk is definitely something that I won’t forget and his words of wisdom will continue to resonate with me as I continue on my journey into science. I feel so grateful to have had this experience and hear from so many brilliant, fascinating people. I’ve taken so much away from their talks and they’ve given me a lot of perspective.

Dean Klotman’s lessons from a successful career as a physician-scientist

Over the course of the summer we have had the opportunity to hear from a wide range of exciting and inspirational scientists at Duke, from up and coming faculty members such as Dr. Lawrence David and Dr. Amy Schmid to well-established ones like Dean Nowicki and Dr. Lefkowitz. Last week, Dean Mary Klotman of the Duke School of Medicine spoke to us about her career in clinical medicine and research.

One of Dean Klotman’s first pieces of advice was to ensure that you receive the very best training in each field you wish to pursue – something that she has certainly done throughout her career. She completed her undergraduate degree, medical degree, and her clinical residency at Duke, before moving to the NIH in order to be trained in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Gallo. She also spoke of the importance of using your connections to access new opportunities, which reminded me of Dr. Grunwald’s advice to build and maintain a strong network of scientists as you proceed through your career.

Dean Klotman has spent her research career studying HIV-associated nephropathy, the development of kidney disease in association with HIV infection. She demonstrated that the human immunodeficiency virus, although typically only associated with cells of the immune system, caused the disease by essentially ‘hiding’ inside kidney cells and thereby causing focal scarring of the kidney. Her work led to the successful use of antiretrovirals to treat this once-baffling disease.

Dean Klotman emphasized the advantages of being a physician-scientist, which I found particularly interesting seeing as I am considering pursuing an MD PhD. She argued that her medical training gave her an enhanced perspective on how scientific advances can be translated into improvements in the treatment of patients. Additionally, she explained how physician-scientists can use their patients to gather scientific evidence. For example, a significant breakthrough in demonstrating the link between HIV and focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) came when she found a remarkable improvement in the kidney function of one of her FSGS patients upon treatment with antiretrovirals.

Due to her background in infectious disease, I asked Dean Klotman about the threat of antimicrobial resistance. She emphasized the gravity of the issue and laid out several clinical approaches being taken to tackle it. These include a campaign against the unnecessary use and overuse of antibiotics, the improvement of infection control mechanism, and cooperation between healthcare institutions like Duke Health and the pharmaceutical industry to enable the development of new, effective antibiotics. She suggested that bacteriology would be an interesting field to go into given the current threat posed by antimicrobial resistance, and the need for novel methods of treating bacterial infections. Perhaps this is something for me to consider!

To Say they are Remarkable is an Understatement

Sometimes, as students, we forget to take advantage of all the resources provided by this phenomenal institution. One of these resources is the faculty. Twice a week, different faculty members speak to our program about their lives as a researcher. Some of the faculty were well established (including a Nobel Prize winner) and others were new to teaching. Though they were all researchers, their specialties ranged from evolution to HIV to bird song. Each speaker had taken a different path to get to where they are today but none of it could be considered easy. They each worked hard for what they accomplished, occasionally stumbling along the way. Overall, I was thankful that they would take time out of their busy schedules to come and speak to us.

One speaker that I thoroughly enjoyed was Dr. Lawrence David. His research involves looking at what humans eat and how it effects gut microbes. I thoroughly enjoy talking about food, so hearing about his studies were exciting. He also talked about how his research allowed him to travel. Traveling and research are rarely talked about, but it was cool to see how he was able to combine the two. What stood out to me about his talk was the fact that he spent half of the presentation talking about questions he frequently gets asked from students. This really stuck with me because some of the questions were the same ones I have. It was nice to hear his prospective and to hear some of the advice he has gained along the way.

Though each talk was unique in their own way, they all had some similar takeaways:

  1. Nothing in life is going to be easy. Doing research can be hard and frustrating at times. You must work hard in order to accomplish the goals that you have for yourself.
  2. Not everyone will end up where they expect. Just because you plan to do research in a certain topic, does not mean you will end up there. Be open to the changes that may come throughout your education and your career
  3. Find what you love. If you enjoy the topic, it makes the work more interesting.

Again, I would like to thank all the faculty that spoke to us over the summer. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

Much Needed Guidance from Dr. Lefkowitz

One of the things I look forward to the most each week are the faculty talks. I always find it valuable to be able to look into the life of a researcher and hear about their journey through life, especially since I don’t really know if I should take a path similar to theirs. They have all been great, but I think the faculty talk that stood out to me the most was Dr. Robert Lefkowitz’s.

Dr. Lefkowitz, unlike other faculty speakers, right off the bat said he wouldn’t be talking much about his own research, but of his life. That immediately stood out to me. During all of BSURF I have been going back and forth over if I really want to pursue research as a career, and I’ve been looking all over for guidance and advice. Somehow, I knew at that moment that Dr. Lefkowitz would give some to me.

As Dr. Lefkowitz spoke to us, I found myself seeing parallels between him and I. At first, he didn’t even like research and was very sure that he would become a doctor. I can admit that that was my mindset all throughout my freshman year and before I applied to this program. He ended up doing research so he wouldn’t have to serve in the Vietnam War (which is probably something I would do in his shoes too, to be honest) and still wasn’t very fond of research. And yet, after he left he found himself missing research and being in a lab.

My summer doing research has been one I can’t forget. And I think that I will find myself like Dr. Lefkowitz — missing research and wanting to come back. His talk opened my eyes to the fact that it won’t all be great at first. The research you do won’t always be successful. You’re not always going to know what you want to do and sometimes you will think you have your life all figured out, and then it takes a different turn than you expected. Who knows, maybe I’ll only become a doctor, or maybe I’ll be a doctor and do research. The thought of not knowing which path will be mine scares me. But Dr. Lefkowitz’s talk helped me to learn and accept that fact, and it’ll be one of the major things I take out of being apart of BSURF.

The Penultimate Blog-Journeys of scientists

Over the course of the program, my fellow BSURFers and I had the opportunity to listen to various scientists talk about their research and their journey.

All scientists had something amazing, thoughtful, and encouraging to say about their science, and to someone who may consider pursuing science.  One talk by Dr. Lawrence David really stood out to me.

First, he has interesting research by looking at the human microbiome, asking for, and handling human fecal samples.  He also shared ongoing work with prebiotics and the microbiome and even informed us that he is still taking participants.

What stood out was not only his research but how he explained his journey through a series of questions that he asked himself. I enjoyed the stories of not knowing what he wanted to do but he had an it wouldn’t hurt to try attitude. I liked his anecdote of saying graduate school was an amazing experience, and he was even able to get his PI to fund his trip to Asia to eat nothing but street food (and collect and look at his fecal samples) for two months.  Additionally, I found it interesting that he joined new labs (where the PI was within his first year) all throughout his career. I thought it was great how he says even as a professor he doesn’t know what he wants to do, mentioning start-ups, mentioning if it was right not to do med. school, but always follow up with how he enjoys and loves what he does.

Finally, the thing that I thought was interesting was how he became interested in science: Jurassic Park. He mentions how a great advocate for science could also be Hollywood, which I found interesting.

That’s it… on next weeks blog I will wrap up my BSURF experience.


Every Animal Has a Different Reality

One of the many things that I look forward to each week is to hear the faculty talks. While no one can predict what would happen in the future (to quote what Dr. Telen quoted from John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans”), I certainly learned a lot as the speakers shared about the journey they have traveled. Some stories such as that of Dr. Telen, Dr. Kontos and Dean Klotman led me to appreciate a field of biology and the people in that field. Some like that of Dr. Lefkowitz imbued me with so much joy and energy. I was grateful to hear Dr. West saying that never to worry where you will be too much. Nevertheless, through the faculty talk series this summer, I certainly found more strength and excitement as I look forward now.

One talk that particularly fascinated me was Dr. Nowicki’s. Dr. Nowicki’s lab studies categorical perception, using swamp sparrow as one of their models. Among the many interesting studies was the investigation on how female birds see colors. To see if there is a boundary to color perception in birds, the lab trained the female birds to learn that there were only seeds under bicolor pads. By adjusting how close the two colors are on the bicolor pads, the lab was able to find that birds see colors categorically rather than seeing them on a continuum. Nowicki lab cooperates with Mooney lab, which is the lab I’m currently in, to further figure out the neural circuitry underlying bird’s perceptions.

As someone who is very interested in animal behavior and has grown to love neurobiology (thanks to BSURF!!), Dr. Nowicki’s words really stuck with me: “every animal has a different reality”. What we perceive and project onto other animals isn’t necessarily the case for those animals. A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with my mentors on categorizing mice vocalizations. My mentor shared that many people analyzed the differences between mice vocalizations in different contexts. She said yes, they have found some differences carrying certain statistical significance, but how much do these differences weigh to mice? Do mice care about the subtle variations when they communicate to each other? Similarly, after observing a juvenile male vocalizing to an adult female but exhibiting no mounting behavior, I was confused if the vocalization should be counted as courtship-directed. Based on my human thinking, a baby boy speaking to a female adult is for sure not courtship. Yet, how accurate is that projection to mice? Something Dr. Nowicki said during his presentation that I will keep in mind forever studying animal behavior,

“we would be better at entangling the world if we jump out of our worldview”.

The faculty talk series with BSURF ended this past Thursday. But with this end, I’m more sure that it is only a start. Dr. Grunwald said that science is about communication. So is life. Thank you to BSURF and to all the faculty members who talked to us this summer for sharing their insights and for inspiring me to seek and appreciate more opportunities to learn from others.

My Favorite Seminar

Besides the immense amount of training I have recieved this summer, I have learned a lot about what I want for myself in the future. This is in part due to the seminars that I have witnessed in the last two months. I had expected to learn skills and techniques used in molecualr biology research but I didn’t expect to completely change my goals for the next couple of years. Hearing about the multiple paths that some Duke’s accomplished faculty took to get to their careers and the things they had to overcome in life really helped me in understanding the role I wanted to play in research and in the science community. I found all of the seminars intriuging but I believe my favortite was Dr. Bob Levkovitz’s.

Honestly, I was able to pull messages from each faculty member, but Dr. Levkovitz was the most personable in my opinion. What stood out the most to me about him was that he was honest about some of the career decisions he made. For example, he said that he joined the yellow berets solely because he didn’t want to be sent into the Vietnam War to most likely die. Whereas, the nice answer would have been: “I joined the yellow berets because I wanted to use clinical expertise for a greater purpose.” I learned that some of my decisions in life may not all be based in selflessness and I may have to take actions to for  myself one day. In addition, I appreciated that he had spoke with a concise attitude and didn’t “sugar coat” his advice. He talked about the changes in demographics at his school over time, how important the lab you work is and is minimal interest in research initially. It made me realize how vulnerable your goals are for the future. I may set a goal for myself today but as I’m progressing towards it or after I achieve, I may come to find I don’t actually want thing I was chasing. This scares me but at least I know this is a possibility and that I need to be prepared to be wrong.

This speaker was the last clue that I needed to truly figure out what I wanted to exactly. I am still a biology major so that hasn’t changed-if anything, I actually love Biology more because of this program. I realized that in terms of conducting research in the future, it doesn’t matter extensively if I pursue a MD or a PhD. Whether I pursue either one, my work life will be surround by people with varying degrees and level of expertise. These people will be there to bring new ideas and perspectives to the project. Most importantly, others will make up for the things you don’t know, so it isn’t imperative that you have a MD for clinical research or a PhD for general research. So in a way, you aren’t restricted no matter which path you choose. This was my main conscern in terms of figuring what I wanted to do with my life. In short, I am very greatful for these seminars.

Stage 7: I mean, as if PI wasn’t good enough but a Dean…married to another DEAN

After a troubling week in lab (5 inexplicably failed trials, time restraints, and deadlines deadlines deadlines!), it’s certainly nice to reflect on other research being done at Duke, especially when that research involves my favorite buggers: viruses! I introduce Dr. Mary Klotman, Dean and Professor of Duke’s School of Medicine, and HIV specialist who has fought at both the clinical frontlines and the bench operations. For years, I have assumed my interest in STEM and medicine to blossom directly as a physician of some manner, not really considering the entire prospect of researchers even existing, much less being one. Thus, choosing from research and clinical work whenever asked by peers and advisors alike seemed entirely too daunting, but Dr. Klotman is an amazing example of stringing the two fields together through her translational research.

Thoroughly Duke-bred since her undergraduate years, Dr. Klotman entered research in a slightly unconventional route to other scholars. Marked by the concurrent AIDS epidemic, her rotations and residency at Duke drove her to seek more ways to help her bedside patients out of compassion.

After pushing herself into the world of HIV research, she began investigating the mechanisms and properties of the virus as the research remained relatively fresh. Developing techniques at the time rushed to fill the dire gaps of the crisis, leading to major discoveries such as the limited function of failure drugs like AZT as potential treatments and the entire sequencing of the HIV genome. However, Dr. Klotman’s research focuses mostly on a fatal kidney disorder related to the virus targetting the young African-American male community. By studying the behavior of this disease, Dr. Klotman would be able to investigate the infection methods of the virus and potential treatment targets, as the virus is typically associated with infecting T cells, yet the kidney lacked many traditional immune cells. Combined with her continued bedside activity, Dr. Klotman labored tirelessly to resist the terminal diagnoses given to AIDS patients, even leaving Duke to Mount Sinai to work as the chief of the Infectious Diseases division after determining that HIV evolved and behaved distinctly differently in the kidney.

Since the end of the AIDS crisis, Dr. Klotman has persisted and furthered the field of HIV through her work, investigating specific factors of the virus heavily tied to the virus’ pathogenesis in immune cells. Despite the subsiding of the urgency for a cure, her projects have transitioned back to Duke’s Medical School to work with the Viral Vector Core on a potential vaccine for HIV using integrase-defective lentiviral vectors to stimulate the immune system. Since HIV itself is a lentivirus, using a vector with mimicking properties/factors that is unable to reproduce would allow for the development of a vaccine. Now, she juggles both her previous responsibilites to the clinic and laboratory, while adding the administrative workload of a Dean of the School of Medicine, which is simply incredible. Plainly put, Dr. Klotman’s story is inspirational, as it evinces that one doesn’t have to really decide strictly between M.D. or Ph D., as in the end, she never chose to be either but became both out of her passion and interest in her work. It is quite relieving, as I was worried about the practicality of pursuing research if I were to choose the M.D. path, but Dr. Klotman’s extraordinary work in both paths despite technically belonging to one shows how arbitrary those divisions can be in the face of hard work (and probably a whole lot of skill).

Weekly Highlights

“CRISIS CRISIS”-Dang as membranes dry up
“I’ll go get Huifang and take care of what she’s working on so she can help you”-Joan who leaves
*crisis immediately fixes itself*
“What’s wrong, I was feeding mice [an hour task]!”-Huifang
“…so, guess who doesn’t have to feed mice anymore?”-Dang

“Tell me when things are running low so I can buy them before we run out”-Joan
“Oh ok, um can you buy DMEM/F12 [$100], RSAD1 antibody from Novus [$400], West Femto ECL[$350], 6-well plates for cell culturing [$150], Stainless Protein Ladder [$100], anti-tag FLAG antibody [$300], 20x TBST [$100], 10x Tris/Glycine/SDS buffer [$40], BCA Reagant A [$60], and some precast Western gels.”-Dang

“So I put the marker in the well, and I was telling myself not to load the sample in that same well.”-Dang
“And then you did exactly that”-Joan

“Did you remember that you were supposed to present at the lab meeting today?”-Joan
“Yes, save meee.”-Dang
“Are you done preparing?”-Christine
“I mean, not completely…”-Dang
“Good, lab meeting cancelled!”-Joan

“Isn’t there a lab meeting today?”-Kendra who runs Mass Specs so you know these things are a journey
“Just the two of us have been sitting in the conference room for 20 minutes confused.”-Huifang
“Oh, uh, yeah we cancelled it, did nobody tell you?”-Dang
“Really? Oh I guess I didn’t, when?”-Kendra
“5 minutes ago”-Dang


Dr. David and his Diet

Throughout my eight weeks as a BSURFer, we had various faculty members present their research along with their inspiring stories about their journey to a faculty postition. An overall theme in each of their stories was the uncertainty about their path in life. Most of the professors had never thought about entering academia and a few had gone to medical school only to fall in love with research later. Of these faculty seminars, my favorite was Nutrition: the Human Microbiome (and me) by Dr. Lawrence David.

Dr. David’s research focuses on how dietary compounds stimulate growth and metabolism of gut microbes. Previous experiments explored the differences between high-fiber plant-based diets and low-carb animal-based diets through the analyzing of stool samples. Currently, his lab is investigating the most beneficial pre-biotic supplements to feed the microbes in a human gut. Since a large part of staying healthy and preventing disease in a majority of the population is based on diet, the experiments conducted in the David Lab are important for the overall health of the masses.

While his research was amazing to learn about, the advice portion of his presentation is what impacted me the most. He advised us to stay with our undergraduate lab for a long period of time, because good science can’t be done in just a semester. He also discussed his experience with graduate school because though he had some uncertainties at first, he realized that the experiments he was conducting made him happy and he enjoyed the process of scientific research. His final piece of advice was about knowing when to graduate. Once he finally felt like he knew what he was doing and became comfortable, his PI told him it was time to graduate. When he felt comfortable in his understanding of research, he stopped learning new things and stopped growing as a person, so it was time to take on a new adventure and learn something different. This constant sacrifice of intellectual comfort for new experiences is the difference between good and great, so I’ll be sure to carry that piece of advice with me through the rest of my journey in science.

My Favorite Talk!

Throughout the course of the summer we have listened to talks from professionals from all sorts of backgrounds and focuses particularly in the field of science. We were able to here from multiple perspectives as to how these medical doctors, researchers, and some medical doctors/researchers achieved their goals in science and even what they are doing to reach their goal. It was interesting seeing how two people could end up at the same point but take two totally different paths to get to that point and it really helped me to understand that my path is not set in stone it is free to change as I discover my interest and what I want to do in the future.

With all that being said I have to say the my favorite talk was most definitely Lawrence David. He seemed to struggle  with the same problems that I am tackling as an undergraduate currently, which made his talk very relatable. I found his research about “Nutrition and the Human Microbiome” interesting and it may be something that I want to look into in the near future. Through his stories about how his interest change from possibly wanting to go to medical school thank deciding to do research, I realized that my interest may change and I should be open to that change.

I found his advice on how to choose and undergraduate lab very helpful. I was struggling for the longest time trying to decide if I would stay in the lab I am in now, move to a different lab, or try an new experience all together. I realized that no matter what I would be gaining experience and that is what is most important.

I definitely see him as a possible mentor to help me make some important decisions in the near future!


Investigating the Microbiome – Dr. Lawrence David

Over the course of the program there have been many great talks that have given me a glimpse into various topics of research. Speakers have also shared their own personal journey and wisdom so that it might help younger scientists, like myself, to possible get a better understanding of what they might want to do. The talk that stood out the most to me in both topic and experience was that last one given. Dr. Lawrence David recently gave a guest lecture to us about his work with nutrition and his own journey to become the scientist he is today.

One of the things that stood out most to me about this talk is Dr. David’s admittance that many times along his journey he wasn’t sure what the “right” path was or what he wanted to do. Instead, he emphasized a message sticking with something and keeping an open mind to new ideas. When he had to decide whether to go to graduate school and continue to pursue research, he chose the continue on that path because it “wouldn’t hurt.” The idea of undertaking a path because it leaves the most options open is actually something that really resonated with me. Most of the time, we don’t know if we have made the right decision until after situation has been played out. Personally, I am not completely sure what exactly I want to study or what exactly I want to specifically pursue in the future. To receive this type of advice and hear about this type of experience allows me to better be prepared as I move forward and explore my interests. Dr. David sharing his real experience and advice was really helpful to me as I am still figuring out what exactly I want to study in the future and pursue. The concepts of keeping an open mind and sticking with something even if you don’t like it at first are two important concepts he constantly talked about that will definitely be on my mind as I move further into my academic career.

Furthermore, his study on the human microbiome was also very interesting. His work seemed very applicable to real life as people are constantly trying to be aware of what they eat. Dr. David’s work on better understanding how to optimize certain diets and nutritional supplements leads to more research on how humans can better take care of themselves and improve their health. I found his work particularly interesting because of how applicable and just commonly “found” it is. People make these decisions on their diet everyday, and research like his allows people to better improve their everyday life.

Dr. Lawrence David’s guest lecture was extremely helpful in his practical advice he gave about approaching science. Because he was only a few year removed from his schooling, his advice was prevalent and resonated with me. The sharing of his own experience and research definitely encouraged me to continue on the path of research.

What Fruit Flies, Evolution, and antibiotics all have in common

One of my favorite activities of the BSURF program was the opportunity for all of   my classmates and I, along with Dr. Grunwald and Jason, to gather in the early hours of the day to listen to inspiring scientists discuss their research focus and their academic path towards this focus.

From Dr. Schmid’s focus on extremophiles, to Dr. David’s focus on microbiomes,  I learned so much about aspects of science that I had never even heard of before. One faculty talk that really intrigued me was Dr. Noor’s talk on evolution and genetics. In his talk, Dr. Noor explained that evolution is comprised of two processes: changes within a current lineage and formation of a new lineage. He then discussed one of his current research ideas about recombination and what happens to differentiation of species if recombination is stopped. He studies this in Drosophilia (fruit flies). From my understanding, one of his broader goals is to examine how new species are formed and how they are sustained through genetic inheritance.

One thing I really liked about Dr. Noor’s faculty talk is his ability to explain his research project in a fun, interesting, and lively way. He also really brought to light the intersections of science and society through his discussion of the current political climate on evolution. I could definitely understand his concern about the lack teaching of evolution in grade school, having seen this phenomenon in my own high school biology class. Another aspect of Dr. Noor’s talk that I really enjoyed was his discussion of evolution as it applies to other sciences, including medicine. Specifically, he discussed how evolution could explain antibiotic resistance to bacterial diseases/ infections, as well as mosquito-borne diseases. Prior to this, I had never even know that this was a growing problem. Overall, I think it was really interesting to see how Dr. Noor’s research can help increase our understanding of evolution. Hopefully I can have a chance to take one of his classes in the future!


Episode 7- Some Super Summer Seminars

Having all these seminars this summer has really made me appreciate the huge variety of faculty at Duke and how amazing many of the people here are. The fact that I can contact many of them and have a discussion is even more extraordinary. As a result, I find it difficult to select just one presentation that I found the most fascinating, and instead I wanted to focus on my two favorites and how the ideas they presented have overlapped in my mind.

First was Dr. Mohamed Noor’s research on the sister species of Drosophila, D. simulans and D. pseudoobscura, and how they have very similar songs that are slightly modified to avoid interbreeding between the species. This got me rather curious about fruit fly songs and so I took a cursory look around at what had been published. I was really surprised to learn that fruit flies aren’t born knowing what song to sing, but instead they learn it from other flies around them (link). Yes, you know those small things that, no matter how many times you swat them away, will return time and again to annoy you while trying to enjoy your lunch? Apparently, they actually can learn and they’re just terribly rude. But in all seriousness, flies can learn! Something that appears so simple and lacking anything beyond what its genetics programmed for it is actually notably more sophisticated. Perhaps I was just underestimating other animals, but when one is often thinking of organisms at the cellular and genetic level and functioning more as biological machines, sometimes one forgets about the complexities and capabilities of the whole creature.

Secondly, there was Dr. Steve Nowicki’s research on bird song and what it reveals about animal communication and behavior. In particular, I was fascinated by this idea that behavioral responses were caused by stimuli that are sorted into categories as opposed to a linear relationship between the stimulus and the behavior. Like the above, it’s something that I hadn’t ever considered since it always just seemed logical for behavioral responses to be linear. However, reflecting on this new insight, it actually makes sense for it to be categorical since the brain often cut corners where it can and categorization would be an easier system for it to implement compared to having a wide array of responses to a spectrum of intensity of a certain stimulus.

Now, how do those to come together? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how categorization may occur in intraspecies interactions besides in birds and humans. Then I thought back to Dr. Noor’s seminar and began wondering if there was categorization occurring in the sister fly species and if changing the duration, frequency, and order of the “notes” in the flys’ songs could change the females likelihood of accepting or rejecting the male, and if the change would look like the categorization that Dr. Nowicki was seeing or if would be more linear. Whether or not that’s an idea worth looking at, I don’t know, but I find it kind of interesting.

Overall, I really enjoyed all the seminars over this summer, though I must admit that I found myself most interested when our speakers were discussing the work they had done or are currently working on. However, the seminars have gotten me to really consider the idea of pursuing a PhD, and there are a few words of wisdom that were shared that I expect to be keeping in mind as I go through my future career.

Talk Science to Me

Throughout the past 7 weeks, the research fellows have had the great privilege of listening to some amazing faculty speakers. From Dr. Nowicki investigating bird song to Dr. David collecting fecal matter for microbiome analysis, I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to the exciting research Duke faculty are doing and how they ended up doing research. One specific talk titled “Epigenome editing in neurons with dCas9 fusion protein” by Dr. Anne West really caught my interest because of both the science and the life lessons shared during the one hour she had with us.

Dr. West spoke about the changes in gene expression when neurons are fired and how the environment can play a role in DNA methylation which results in a changes in the epigenome. She talked about using the new technology of CRISPR-Cas9 to aid her research and emphasized that research is heavily based on the tools available at the time.

Although I found her science very interesting, her final note was what really stuck with me. She shared with us her lab’s mission statement which is:
“To answer vigorously defined questions,
To reveal something new about the brain,
To enjoy the process of discovery.”

These statements allowed me to reflect on my own choices when doing research. The first statement about answering questions emphasizes both the importance of asking good questions and having the resilience to answer them. The second statement highlights the importance of doing novel research rather than repeat experiments. The third statements underscores the fact that research needs to be fun and it is pointless to do something that isn’t. Research consumes a lot of time, energy, and resources so it is important to enjoy the process. These statements have made me realize that research is probably something I do wish to pursue because I enjoy spending time in the lab and asking and finding answers to relevant questions.

Dr. West was an amazing and inspirational speaker and I hope that I can take the lessons she shared and use them to motivate me in my path to pursuing research in the future.

Week 7 – Fecal Heaven

In my experience, it’s not often you meet someone who works with poop regularly. So when I learned that Dr. Lawrence David studied the microbiome using human stool samples, I was immediately intrigued. But it wasn’t Dr. David’s research that made me choose to write this blog about him. Instead, I appreciated how honest and open he was about his career path.

I felt like Dr. David’s background on his undergraduate career was very relatable in some aspects. During his undergraduate studies as a Biomedical Engineering major at Columbia University, Dr. David was immersed in an environment where majority of his classmates had medical school on their minds. As a prospective biology major with no intention on going to medical school, taking courses alongside pre-med students is something I’m familiar with. With medical school off the table, I plan on going to graduate school. And unlike those who went to medical school, Dr. David decided to attend graduate school, which I think proved to be a great decision for him.

While working towards his PhD in Computational and Systems Biology at MIT, Dr. David studied the microbiome by tracking the bacteria active in the gut. From how he presented his experiences, it seemed like he finessed his mentor to fund his trip to Asia alongside his partner. Since he was eating meals different from meals in the US, this change was reflected in the bacterial activity in his gut, which he was able to track after collecting fecal samples throughout his trip. (And fortunately, he saved an image of his fridge full of samples as proof!)

Despite being a relatively young scientist, Dr. David’s talk was full of insight and helpful advice. He found that making short-term decisions worked out well for him, and what ultimately matters is whether you’re happy in the present moment, not whether you’ll be happy 10 years from now.  A part of being happy is getting to know others while doing something fun. While it’s great to be passionate about your work and dedicate a lot of time to it, it’s just as important to have other hobbies and socialize with others in a non-professional environment.

One of the biggest takeaways from this talk was to do something unique. During your career, you may have some moments that could be weird. But based off of Dr. David’s experience, these weird moments can be monumental and influence how you continue progressing in your career. And even if things don’t turn out like you expect, at least you have unique memories along the way.

Searching for Entropy

While all of the presenters were great, I connected to Dr. Lawrence David’s talk the most. It wasn’t the overview of his science that drew me in, it was his call to be okay in discomfort (and even seek it). I have moved 8 times, so often times whenever I start to become comfortable in the new setting, I have to move to another place. Like Dr. David, I learned to not only embrace this discomfort but also to revel in it. It was funny when he almost questioned if he would stay at Duke long term, because I also find myself bored whenever I stay at a place longer than a couple of years. Afterwards, however, he mentioned something about him being okay with staying at Duke as long as he gets to create discomfort another way. By challenging himself to work with new concepts, new departments, and just being open to new ways of thinking.

That really resonated with me, because for the longest time, my discomfort has been set by external factors- moving to new places, meeting new people etc. During this time, you have all of the motivation to question who you are, who you want to be, and change accordingly.  But this discomfort eventually dies down, and it leads to a phase of being entirely too comfortable with your own self and ideologies. It’s nice, but nice is static. There isn’t any growth. If that phase comes when I am at Duke, I will use his saying and “create discomfort another way”. I will find ways to challenge my views, my morals, and create discomfort within myself so that I don’t have to rely on external factors to motivate my growth.

Aside: My Quora description used to be “college student searching for [insert monotony antonym]”, but now I have changed it to searching for entropy.

Hearing about HIV

In the past couple of weeks, we have had a lot of amazing, accomplished speakers, all at different points in their careers, come talk to us about life and science. Each talk has been fascinating, with a new life story and lens to look at research every time.

Of all the talks, the one that stuck with me most was given by Dr.Mary Klotman, as she gave some really interesting insights into HIV research. Previously, when learning about HIV, I always looked at it from a social perspective, rather than a scientific one. Thus, her talk taught me a lot about the mechanism of the disease. For example, I did not know that the virus uses kidney cells for long term storage. Additionally, I did not realize that the virus actually integrates into a hosts genome, making it difficult to find a cure. It was really fascinating to hear information about the symptoms and pathway of the disease from someone who has seen it in both a clinical setting and laboratory.

I think her experience with seeing patients living with HIV really made her talk stick with me. Her anecdotes about the experiences of patients, from those being taken care of by their mothers to those who killed themselves, made the talk even more impactful. She did research on HIV back when it was a guaranteed death sentence, and hearing how that impacted patients along with the science behind it made the talk a good blend of social and scientific.

Overall, Dr.Klotman’s talk on HIV was fascinating and informative. It was really a privilege to hear from someone with such breadth of experience as both a doctor and a scientist.