On Determination, Drive, and a Little Luck

While I get to learn a little more about her every day, speaking in a more formal sense with my PI and mentor, Dr. Nina Tang Sherwood, was incredibly fulfilling and reassuring for an undergraduate like myself. I am of the lucky few whose PI is also their bench mentor, and I am even more lucky to have such an inspiring person like Dr. Sherwood by my side this summer.

Dr. Sherwood grew up in Hawaii around two parents who were also scientific researchers, to whom she accredits learning to love science and lab research. She fondly recalled going to her mom’s lab after school and getting to speak with the researchers in her lab, both experiences that fueled her passion to pursue research. For her undergraduate years, she went to UC San Diego, where she majored in biomedical engineering. It would be important to recall now that Dr. Sherwood’s lab is a neurobiology lab; as we’ve seen with other professors and PIs, not every career path is so straightforward. In fact, the first research lab she joined at UCSD was a physical chemistry lab!

However, in her junior year, Dr. Sherwood took a neurobiology course so captivating that it totally changed her path and set her up for her work today. This newfound interest also led to her decision to go to graduate school to continue studying neurobiology. She entered graduate school at Duke with the goal of understanding how synapses work, a goal she says has not changed to this day. Her current work on the spastin gene came about out of “total luck,” through a genetic screen that pinpointed a gene that just so happened to be heavily involved in synaptic development. In our conversation, she also reflected on her work specifically with fruit flies as a model system, describing the difficulty of genetics in mice (that she initially worked with) for the purpose of her work at the time she began her research. Her kind heart also made this somewhat difficult, as she found the prospect of hurting mice hard to justify. This lines up well with the fact that, had she not pursued research, she had actually thought about going to veterinary school for some time.

To round out our interview, we asked Dr. Sherwood if she had any advice for her younger self. She told us, ”Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be self-conscious.” Seeing how far Dr. Sherwood has come, her words are of immense value to burgeoning researchers like me and (I’m sure) the rest of us in BSURF. We could all take her advice and start caring less about what others think of us, because at the end of the day, it is only our drive and determination that can get us where we want to be. I want to reiterate how grateful I am to be under the wing of a mentor who understands such fears and worries, and who inspires me to be more confident in myself as a student and scientist.

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