Learning Life Lessons

My mentor is Dr. Nina Tang Sherwood, a kind and caring professor of biology here at Duke! For her undergraduate degree, she went to UC San Diego with a major in BME. While her interests have since changed, she originally chose BME due to inspiration from her older sister along with interests in math and biology. Despite enjoying the classes, she didn’t find her passion in the actual BME research. She shifted to neuroscience after loving 101 in her junior year, and later focused on it for her PhD at Duke. Despite having two parents in science and a definitive love for research, it took her a while to find exactly what she wanted to study. From her first lab in physical chemistry to studying her passion for synapses, Dr. Sherwood’s path wasn’t a direct one. While studying axon guidance, the lab she was in happened to identify the spastin gene in a gain of function screen. Luck was on her side since spastin played a role in her true passion – synapses. Ever since, she has been studying spastins’ role in the synapse, realizing more questions to explore after each finding. In addition to research, she also found a love for teaching. While it was something she initially avoided, she now appreciates both the long term investment in a research project alongside the instant gratification of teaching. I find her journey comforting as someone who isn’t sure about their future. Dr. Sherwood’s path reassures me that we will find our niche, and that life will take us where we need to go. 

I was particularly interested in a funny story from earlier in her scientific career. She worked in a lab that studied arteries by using pig hearts, and it was the first day she got to watch one of the surgeries. However, she got something in between her eye and contact lens, causing her to tear up. Her mentor thought she was crying due to the surgery, making her embarrassed; she knew she could handle it and didn’t want him to think she couldn’t. Eventually crying it out, Dr. Sherwood got through the surgery. While she was telling the story, she was laughing about how it was a silly memory, which gave me some comfort. Even if we fail or feel embarrassed in the lab now, we have to remember that we’ll be able to laugh about it later. 

Lastly, we asked if she had advice for her younger self. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be less self conscious… just caring less about negativity from other sources and just doing the thing.” I think many of us can resonate with this advice. In fact, these were some of my goals before even applying to BSURF. I’m happy to say I have been asking all of my questions to Dr. Sherwood and have grown because of it. It helps that she is open to any question and creates a comfortable lab environment, but I hope to carry this trait into my future, even if the environment is more stressful. I hope we can all do our best to take her advice to heart, focusing on our passions and research, not negativity or self consciousness. 

Interviewing Dr. Sherwood gave me comfort about my future and insightful advice for the present. I’m excited to continue to learn from her, whether it be about science, life, or a life in science!

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