Tackling the Intricacies of Cell Biology

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

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

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

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

Dr. Gustavo Silva (Photo from https://sites.duke.edu/silvalab/people/)

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