Exciting Questions

As we sat in the dark room behind the great and powerful Olympus microscope, I decided it would be a good time to ask my mentor, Dr. Katie Baldwin how she had gotten to this point. Starting college at the University of Michigan, Katie had first wanted to study biochemistry. When confronted with the obscene mathematics of this field, however, Katie made the sensible choice of switching to Cell and Molecular Biology. After completing her undergraduate degree, Katie went on to study stem cells as a graduate student at U Michigan. She was most interested in how the body could repair itself and started work in a lab to study stem cells in the spinal cord, an organ notorious for its inability to repair. Late in her grad school career, Katie went to a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories conference to learn about the cool and exciting things going on in the world of stem cells. The problem was that there “wasn’t much cool and exciting”. Katie found many of the questions being asked in the field to be subtle variations of those asked in the early days of stem cells a decade ago. She then decided for her postdoctoral work to head in a different direction.

Enjoying her work with the spinal cord and being intrigued by the role of microglia in its repair, Katie searched for laboratories that were studying the poorly understood glial cells of the brain and how these cells could be playing a much greater part than previously recognized. This led Katie to ask Dr. Cagla Eroglu to meet with her at a conference they were both attending. Katie said she knew from that first meeting that Cagla was a “person she could work with” and that she was fascinated by the “simple questions [in glial biology] that had not so simple answers”. This led Katie to the Eroglu lab where she is currently working on studying proteins expressed by astrocytes to see how they are affecting neuronal synapses in the brain.

After tracking her path in science, our conversation began to shift to more general advice about the profession. Katie mentioned how she enjoyed being in a smaller lab with good mentoring and how she enjoyed being able to take risks in her work to answer the tougher questions that no one knew hardly anything about. She described the best part of her job as the moment of discovery when she’s able to find something new and interesting. She then said a lab proverb that stuck with me: “If you do everything right, every time you’re not learning”. This idea that failure was an inherent part of success made my own efforts in the lab seem more meaningful. It takes a large body of work to make a breakthrough, and much of this work goes into figuring out what doesn’t work.

With these themes in mind, we looked at the computer screen to set up for the next picture and saw an interesting morphology that seemed to only be present in one of our conditions. It seems the next discovery was before us.

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