The Start of Something New

I was interested in BSURF because I had never worked in a research lab before, and I was curious about what it was like. I learned some new benchwork techniques and I learned how to use several different machines. Although some parts were tedious, I was never completely bored. A lot of lab work requires vigilance, whether it’s making sure you pipette a certain amount of buffer into each well or making sure the printer does what you want it to do after you run the print program. And when things went wrong, it felt like a puzzle. A frustrating puzzle, yes, but an interesting one as you mentally replay what you did and try to pinpoint what could have gone wrong.

I learned that 90% of the time, experiments don’t run the way you wanted them to, the reagents you need won’t be delivered when you want them to be, and the lab will run out of dichloromethane just when you need it for your experiment. It is easy to get discouraged, and I think in those moments it’s important to remember why you do research. The breast cancer and MRSA D4 assay projects I’m working on can help to democratize access to healthcare in low-resource settings. These projects have the potential to impact many lives, and I’m excited to be a part of that. I can see why people choose a lifelong career in research.

I appreciated my experiences outside of the lab, too. Despite having been in Durham for all of freshman year, I rarely went beyond 9th Street. This summer, I got to simultaneously explore the Durham area and try not to melt in the heat. I tried new restaurants that I can’t wait to return to this fall, I went to the local farmers’ market, and I finally saw a game at the Durham Bulls baseball stadium. I made some new friends in the BSURF program that I don’t think I would’ve met outside this program, and I pretended to be an adult by making dinner for myself and going to bed before midnight.

I want to thank those who made this summer as fun as it was – particularly Dr. Grunwald, Anna, the faculty members and graduate students who spoke to us, and last but certainly not least, Dan and Jake, my mentors. I also want to thank everyone at the Chilkoti Lab who supported and helped me this summer. This post shares the same title as my first blog post because I truly do see the end of the program as a beginning of my adventures in research. I really liked being in a lab this summer, and while my ultimate career goal of increasing worldwide healthcare access hasn’t changed, how I get there might. There are career options that I haven’t considered before, like pursuing a Ph.D. or working in a lab in industry. I look forward to continuing on my adventures in research this fall and beyond.

Navigating Science and Amazing Opportunities!

I started this summer diving in at the deep end with my first lab meeting, where I was taken aback by how much I didn’t know, but excited to begin. Fast forward to my last lab meeting of this summer, and I can’t believe how much I have learned in 8 weeks. At this meeting, I was presenting my work from this summer and I finally began to keep up with (some) of the conversation.

My summer research experience has definitely surpassed my expectations as I have learned more than I could have ever imagined. I have finally got a sense of the literature in my field and worked with my lab mates to learn more about the focus of the lab. I have also learned many new technical skills including western blot analysis and genotyping.

I realized that I want to continue scientific research and thrilled that I will be continuing this project with this lab in the fall. I am very grateful for my lab mates and mentors who helped me develop a passion for what I am studying. Their support and encouragement really pushed me to to be more dedicated to this experience.

In addition, I am so thankful for the bonds and connections I formed with the BSURF community. We had a lot of fun times exploring Durham or even just hanging out at Swift. As a whole, I feel that this summer has been one of immense growth and I am excited to continue navigating this exciting world of science.

So long, farewell!

You really can’t imagine what research is like until you actually do it.  Coming into this summer, I had absolutely no idea what working in a lab would entail.  When my friends and family asked me how I would be spending the summer, I answered that I knew I was working in a biochemistry lab, which was about the extent of my knowledge about what I would be doing.  I obviously didn’t know what I was getting myself into!

That being said, I am so grateful to have had this opportunity this summer!  Transitioning to lab work can be pretty difficult, overwhelming, and scary, but BSURF provided great advising and mentoring and most importantly, a community of other students who were going through the same transition.  I have really loved getting to know everyone, and I hope I have formed connections that will last throughout my time at Duke and beyond.

I have learned a lot about the nature of research and lab work this summer.  First of all, eight weeks is not a lot of time.  By the time I really got a grasp on what I was doing, it was almost time to leave.  I need to devote a lot more time to a project to get rewarding results.  Second, stuff goes wrong.  In fact, sometimes I think it goes wrong more often than it goes right.  There is always some setback or unexpected problem.  Data doesn’t look nice.  I forgot to add ATP to a sample, or I don’t have enough protein to do an important assay.  A machine gives me a crazy error message the one time I’m completely alone in lab with no one to ask for help.  In the words of my mentor, “that’s science.”  Research is not like the lab component of my chemistry class.  It is messy and confusing, and sometimes you have no idea what’s going wrong or right.  However, my final discovery was that research can be incredibly rewarding.  The first time I quantified a protein gel, put the data in Excel, and created a graph that strongly indicated the expected result, I was amazed.  Hours of work had gone into the creation of that data set, and it was an actual result that I could potentially use.  There is really nothing like the feeling of accomplishment that I felt generating that graph or the feeling of seeing my name and results on a 42 x 36 poster.

I am beyond grateful for this experience: this summer was really the perfect time for me to test out the world of research without having to balance the demands of the academic year.  I can’t wait to see where the future takes me, but I am even more excited to keep up with the scientific accomplishments of the friends I have made this summer.  As Dr. G says, science is communication, and I know that the truly amazing people I have met here will have some awesome research to communicate soon!

So goodbye BSURF and thank you!

Opportunity and Community…Thanks BSURF!

This has been a truly amazing summer and an experience I will never forget. I was not expecting to love my lab and the research as much as I do. I was also not expecting to meet so many amazing young scientists and have one of the best summers of my life. It was truly a privilege to be a part of such an amazing program, to be trained by some of the best and brightest, and to be a part of such a tightknit (and better than Huang) community.

When I joined the Sanders lab I knew very little about Parkinson’s Disease and how the mitochondria could possibly play a role in the most common neurodegenerative movement disorder. Now, I know so much about LRRK2 and how the mitochondria can effect the cell in so many different ways. Even though I feel like I know so much, I am excited to keep learning and understanding the science behind the disease in the upcoming fall semester and hopefully for many to come.

I really emjoyed being in lab this semester. I was scared that research would make science feel like a job and would take away my passion for it. In reality, I loved going to lab everyday and I was sad to leave. I was lucky enough to be in a very supportive environment where everyone would help me not only with the physical parts of doing science but also with the deeper understanding. I am very thankful to everyone in the Sanders lab for teaching me so much about the world of science. They taught me to always ask questions, to question my work just as much as the literature, and that communication with other scientists was essential.

At first, I didn’t know why it was important to understand exactly what every reagant or technique we used did. Now, I am so thankful for the small quizzes on what PIC does or where the DNA went in my protein samples. Teaching me about every small step helped me understand the process at large so much better. I believe in the future this knowledge will help me figure out where I made a mistake or maybe even guide my project in new directions.

I am also so thankful for BSURF for providing me this amazing opportunity. I have learned so much in such a short amount of time about research, communicating science, and what the future might hold. The poster session and the lunch was so generous and it was so amazing to see everybody succeed in their labs. If it wasn’t for BSURF I would not have met my amazing peers who I hope to have by my side for the next three years at Duke. We had some amazing times, whether it was at the food truck festival, in the eno, eating in downtown, or simply hanging out at Swift. I’ll miss BSURF, my lab, and my new friends but I’m glad to say I’ll see them all in the fall.

Final Poster Session!

A Reflection Most Cathartic

Hey readers! Well, after 8 short weeks of gratifying summer research, the time has come for me to graduate from the BSURF program. Yesterday I presented the poster I created detailing the research I performed this summer. It felt satisfying to show so many people the work I am so proud of completing. A lot of the people I talked to had little to no experience in cancer research, so it was good practice explaining my project from the most basic level. I also got into some really good conversations with other cancer researchers, and there was one particular PI that I talked to for a while who focused his research on one of the genes I identified as being upregulated in metastasis. It was a lot of fun walking around the poster session and seeing what other students had spent their time researching.

The poster session marked my last day of BSURF, so I think it’s fitting that for my last blog post I will reflect on the summer as a whole. First of all, I am so grateful to Jake (my primary mentor), Ben (another hugely helpful graduate student in the lab), Dr. Pendergast (my PI), Dr. Grunwald (program leader of BSURF), Anna (another program leader of BSURF), and everyone else who helped support my research this summer. That includes the funding provided by the Biological Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program as well as the NIH. So much planning went into creating this opportunity to grow as a researcher this summer, and I am extremely appreciative of it all.

As far as my research in the lab, I think I identified both a lot of answers and a lot of questions. My screen of potentially upregulated genes in metastasis revealed 8 ABL kinase-linked genes that are significantly upregulated in the brain metastatic line. I also determined that 5 of these genes were driven by the transcription factor TAZ, a known downstream target of ABL. Many of these genes were kinases or receptors whose upregulation I believe fit the phenotype of a brain metastasis. However, there are still questions to be answered, such as what is/are the transcription factors responsible for the upregulation of the other 3 genes, and what about these genes promoted metastasis? For my assessment of ABL in the EML4-ALK fusion cell line, I showed that although ABL is a functional part of the signal transduction pathway, knocking out ABL has no impact on cell viability. Although this means EML4-ALK isn’t a great model in which to study ABL, this was really useful information for the lab who had not explored this cancer type previously.

It’s also amazing to see how much I grew as a researcher this summer. I began this research experience with the main goal of becoming more independent in the lab. Through a fairly independent research project, a mentor that trusted me to work on my own, and personal perseverance, I was able to improve in my independence. I also learned multiple new techniques, most notably RT-qPCR which was a large part of my project. I also honed my Western Blot skills to the point where Ben trusted me to perform some of his blots for him (they came out very well). Furthermore, since I had never given a poster presentation before, I learned a lot about scientific communication, a skill repeatedly emphasized by Dr. Grunwald. Synthesizing my research into a single poster, and then a single abstract was difficult at first, but after practice much easier. I grew a lot as a scientist this summer, and although there is a long way to go before I’m ready for my future career as a cancer researcher, I am extremely proud of what I accomplished and what I learned this summer.

This is the end of my summer blog series! I hope you enjoyed following along as much as I enjoyed writing. Although it won’t beunder the BSURF title any more, I’m sure I’ll be writing things in the future, hopefully with the journal title “Nature” or “Cell” in there somewhere. See ya then!

-Brennan

Sometimes Science is a Circle

Over the course of the summer, we have had the privilege of listening to the work and academic/ life trajectories of some of Duke’s most distinguished faculty. These Faculty Talks have been enlightening as they keep us informed about the scope of incredible research happening at this research powerhouse of a University, and have given us a sense of directions we can take as we journey through science. The path to research is not linear, and this has really been highlighted by the different trajectory of each speaker. In this post I will highlight one talk which I found really interesting.

Dr. Jenny Tung completed her undergrad at Duke, and is now an Associate Professor in the Departments of Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology here. Her work centers on the intersection between genes and ecology, specifically investigating how behaviors and environment impact genetic variation, and how differences in genes impact behavioral outcomes. She studies the evolutionary consequences of social relationships and their causal effects on gene regulation. Her work is untraditional in that she spends her time observing primates in the wild – a model system which, albeit fairly uncommon, displays social behaviors similar to that of humans.

Primates, namely Rhesus monkeys, when organize themselves into social categories of dominance – like in humans, every clique has a leader and follows of differing status. The Tung lab has shown that social status within groups effects stress response to an environmental challenge, which then effects the behavior and cell pathogenic response. Those at a higher social status more effectively respond to challenges and those least social were hit harder with the challenge.

Basically, make friends or you will die. (at this point I began quantifying my own social patterns, making note to keep in touch with all my friends)

Dr. Tung knew she had a calling to research and knew she wanted to lead her life partly doing field work while also looking at data and running a research team. Your work will become your life, so it is important to structure your work in the way that you would like to structure your life. And, sometimes, the place where you start is the place where you will end up – with new perspectives created during the time it took to circle back. Maybe if not linear, the serendipitous nature of science is circular. What these faculty talks have taught me is that everything is connected, and everything will fall into its place.

Thank’s for reading, and stay tuned for the final blog post coming up soon.

Your gut bacteria will not be happy if you eat barbecue for 5 straight days

Hey readers! Welcome to another week of my blog. I submitted my poster for printing this afternoon, so for the next week I will be finishing a couple of experiments and practicing for our poster presentation on Friday. For this week’s blog post, I will be reflecting on one of the many faculty talks that I heard this summer through our program. My favorite of the talks has been Dr. Lawrence David’s. I loved hearing Dr. David’s faculty talk. His energy about the bacteria that live in our gut was infectious and his love for his field was clear. I have had a curiosity for the microbiome especially recently as more and more fundamental processes have been shown to be linked to the bacteria that live in our digestive tract. Dr. David is clearly a well-known figure in the field as some of his papers have been published in the top scientific journals.

Dr. David described his research most basically as “designing meals and feeding them to people.” It’s amazing to me that such a simple experimental setup can yield such clinically relevant data. One of the experiments Dr. David described involved feeding participants either barbecue or a plant based diet for 5 days. He monitored the composition of their microbiome throughout the experiment and compared how their microbiome changed. It was amazing to see how the barbecue group’s microbiomes were significantly altered after just 5 days, whereas the plant group’s microbiome hardly shifted and returned to normal levels quickly. Dr. David also mentioned that the participants that had the barbecue were in general more cranky. I probably would be too if I only ate barbecue for a week, and maybe the microbiome is part of the reason why.

Dr. David also talked a lot about the importance of the Human Genome Project and how it impacted microbiome research. After the HGP, the cost of DNA sequencing dropped, and continues to drop, allowing microbiotic sequencing studies to be cost efficient. The decrease in cost vitalized the field of microbiome research, leading to a lot of the discoveries that have since come out. Dr. David also mentioned some of his clinical trials that are currently underway. One of these involves feeding participants fiber supplements to try to strengthen the diversity of the microbiome. He said to us that a lot of the yogurts and other probiotics that claim to be beneficial to our microbiome probably have no effect on our microbiome, but a diet high in fiber likely does. This was news to me, as I had always believed that yogurt (which contains live cultures of bacteria) helps seed diverse populations of bacteria in the gut.

It was a pleasure listening to Dr. David’s talk. In addition to the exciting science, Dr. David shared a lot of his opinions on careers in science, graduate school, and research. His faculty talk was especially enjoyable and memorable. Since this is the last week of my summer research through BSURF, I only have one more blog post which will be a reflection on the summer. See you then!

-Brennan

Trust the Process

Few people are recognized by the HHMI as exceptional scientists who deserve a lifetime of nearly unconditional funding– scientists who are entrusted to do good science no matter what, as long as they have the money to do so. It is not surprising that nobel laureate Dr. Robert Lefkowitz has earned this trust, having spearheaded work on G-protein coupled receptors involved in one-third of all medical drugs today. Despite Dr. Lefkowitz’s impressive list of accolades and contributions to science, his career in scientific research came rather late and unexpectedly. In fact, he could have never imagined a research career in his early days. 

Dr. Lefkowitz was always a physician by training, used to dealing with patients daily and seeing quick results–the antithesis of basic science research. So how did he find himself in the role of one of the most well-regarded research scientists? Dr. Lefkowitz’s first immersion in research was not exactly the product of deliberate will. The US military initiated a draft of doctors to aid in the Vietnam War, and Dr. Lefkowitz decided to instead serve as a Clinical and Research Associate at the NIH to avoid participation in the war. Surrounded by a group of talented colleagues, Dr. Lefkowitz quickly caught a passion for basic science research. 

This ultimately gave way to a dilemma in choosing between medicine and basic science research, one I could imagine left him especially torn because medicine and research are two vastly different, yet intimately entwined fields that build off of each other. Research is a thrilling journey to reinvent medicine, but medicine is often a deep-rooted calling to make humane interactions. Of most humane interactions were the raw and empowering moments of Dr. Lefkowitz with his father. The medical complications of his father only made it increasingly difficult for Dr. Lefkowitz to justify a full commitment to basic science research. But after his time at NIH, Dr. Lefkowitz realized that what he missed was the day to day activity of experimental results. Dr. Lefkowitz would eventually commit to fully pursue research over clinical hours. What I found most interesting was the nature of this trajectory– unconventional and sudden, yet very much fulfilling. It exemplifies the malleability of our interests sometimes and the limitations of planning.

One underlying principle that Dr. Lefkowitz seemed to emphasize throughout his talk was “serendipity”, attributing many of his life events to this elusive force. Dr. Lefkowtiz’s emphasis on the prevalence of serendipity and the importance of being prepared to take chance opportunities that come is, I think, a valuable piece of advice that comes at a critical moment in our lives. It helps find some solace in a daunting future, in the unplanned, but at the same time encourages us to fearlessly tread into the unknown. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

One of my favorite parts of the program this summer has been hearing about the work that so many renown scientists are doing here at Duke. It has been really wonderful getting personable insight into the biological field of research, stories of unique paths into research, and advice for those of us just starting out. I have been able to take away so many words of wisdom and cool stories from every talk, so I want to thank the faculty for their time and willingness to share their stories with us.

A presentation that really interested me was by Dr. Steve Nowicki who talked to us about categorical perception and the evolution of animal signals, focusing in on birds. I feel like as humans, we are so consumed by our own perception and how we view the world that we forget all organisms on the planet perceive the world in their own special way. He talked about how female birds while choosing mates categorically sort out information that is relevant to the fitness of the male birds. It was also really interesting to me how a single note change in song or a slight discoloration in the beak could be consequence of a long combination of environmental stressors and genes that would ultimately affect female choice.

This talk was really interesting to me because the topic intersects a lot of things I enjoyed learning about in class, like sexual dimorphisms and sexual selection in biology and perception and attention in neuroscience. This really unique research shows me how you can find your own niche in biological research and ask questions only you would think to ask, while investigating something you really enjoy. I’m looking forward to learning more from professors in the biology department about their research.

Senator Flake vs Mantis Shrimp (that can punch with a force of 1,500 newtons)

Over the past few weeks of faculty talks, we have learned about innovative research on organisms from archaea to song birds. One particularly fascinating creature, studied by Dr. Sheila Patek, is the mantis shrimp. These crustaceans have club-like appendages which they launch at prey with astounding speed and an acceleration of up to 10, 400 g’s. In fact, the force of their punches is strong enough to create cavitation bubbles in the water. With their collapse, a second explosive force hits nearby prey. From such a small creature, attacking with this magnitude of force and power seams unbelievable and even physically impossible.

With vigor, Patek discussed first what drew her into the field of mantis shrimp study and then the challenges and technologies required to unravel the mechanism for these punches. She discovered how the mantis shrimp wind up its exoskeleton as a kind of spring in order to propel its appendage forward. However, there are drawbacks to generating this much force. Not only does it take time to wind up its exoskeleton, but the shrimp cannot adjust its aim after striking as the motion is too fast for it to register its own movement.

Beyond being a fascinating biological mechanism, the shrimps skeletal spring has important engineering implications many of which Patek has worked on. Not only can mantis shrimp be a model for breaking strong materials, but their eyes can possibly be used to detect cancer. These shrimp have many useful applications; however, when Patek begun her research into shrimp she wasn’t doing it for the purpose of finding an application to help humans. She was driven by curiosity and awe to trying to understand these amazing shrimp. Later, she eventually made a compelling case to a US senator for why her research is useful and important. It was very illuminating to hear her speak about some her doubts about the relevance of her research. While people argue that studying almost everything will have human applications, sometimes it is very unclear what those might be if there are any. Others say that studying something solely for the sake of learning about it is inherently valuable. I often wrestle with these kinds of questions, and it was immensely helpful to hear someone as accomplished as Dr. Patek speak about her experience with research and with finding value in what she is doing.

American Horror Story: Evolution

Out of all of the inspiring faculty talks, I found Dr. Mohamed Noor’s discussion of evolution and species formation to be particularly intriguing. He was an engaging speaker and really dove into the thought-provoking discussion of how the study of evolution interacts with modern society, in both good ways and bad.

Let’s start with the bad first. As Dr. Patek mentioned in her talk, many fields of scientific research are constantly criticized as obscure, pointless, and wastefully expensive to study, but no field faces fiery tirades of hatred as much as the study of evolution. Dr. Noor mentioned that the US shows one of the highest rates of disbelief in evolution at 28%, which is a shocking statistic when considering how developed and educated our society is. One of the main reasons for this is the discussion of how belief in evolution fits in with our religious beliefs, an interconnection that means something different for everyone and cannot be standardized. For some, believing in God and evolution are strictly mutually exclusive, but for others, they can find peace believing in both. But it’s still pretty taboo to talk about evolution in public settings; it’s just one of those topics that’s better left untouched if you don’t want to anger anyone. Dr. Noor described his visits to school board meetings, where representatives would shy away from taking a position one way or another on evolution in fear of backlash from both sides of the debate.

Here in the Research Triangle bubble, we can comfortably walk around and assume that at least 90% of our fellow Triangle citizens believe at least somewhat in evolution. But there are certainly pockets America where this number would be close to 0. This past spring break, I was walking in Charleston, South Carolina when a man came up to me and handed me a cartoony pamphlet “debunking the fake news of evolution”. Yikes! After ridiculing what are actually misconceptions about evolution (the typical “we came from monkeys” is a massive oversimplification), this pamphlet chastised regulations of some school districts that force teachers to teach evolution and claimed that evolution was a bunch of not-worth-studying, phony science. But Dr. Noor pointed out the very real and very important ways studying evolution helps humanity: understanding evolution is crucial for understanding antibiotic resistance and disease control.

Antibiotic resistance is a rapidly growing problem that is weakening the success rate of well-established antibiotic treatments, even rendering some treatments defunct. Take penicillin for example: Alexander Fleming’s accidental wonder cure of the 1940s, used to fight against a variety of bacteria. Penicillin was everywhere, until natural selection began to kill off the non-resistant strains of bacteria, thus allowing the resistant strains to live without competition for resources. Though still used today, penicillin is nowhere near as popular a treatment as it once was, all due to the natural process of species evolution.

On a happier note, the vicious spread of the mosquito-borne dengue virus in tropical areas has the power to be curbed with the understanding of evolution, and it all starts with a seemingly-unrelated bacteria. The Wolbachia bacteria is spread through mosquitoes, but uninfected females who breed with an infected male will produce no offspring. However, if an infected female breeds with an infected male, they can produce offspring normally. So, it pays to be infected, and as a bonus, natural selection quickly favors infected females as they are more able to pass down traits to their offspring. Uninfected females start to become less common as the infected females reign supreme. But here’s the best part: Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes can’t carry the dengue virus. So what if Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were introduced into areas where dengue spread rampantly? The uninfected, dengue-carrying females wouldn’t produce offspring with the Wolbachia-infected males, and natural selection would work towards the gradual killing off of the dengue-carrying mosquitoes and promotion of the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes. Change like this wouldn’t happen overnight, nor is complete elimination of dengue possible using this method, but in tropical climates where dengue spreads like wildfire, this could significantly reduce the number of dengue infections, all thanks to an understanding of evolution.

As you can see, studying evolution is so important to humanitarian crises, and isn’t just a pseudoscience propagated by anti-religion radicals. It’s a shame that “the e word” is still such a touchy topic, but with great scientists like Dr. Noor furthering research and promoting education on evolution, we will hopefully shrink that figure of 28%.

Faster than Fast: Mantis Shrimp and Dr. Sheila Patek

Throughout BSURF, we have had the opportunity to learn about so many different fields of research and have obtained advice from various faculty members here at Duke. Learning about fields different from my own was incredibly fascinating, and hearing advice from researchers of all different backgrounds was super helpful. 

I was especially intrigued by the research that I had not even thought about before. One example of a talk that especially blew me away was Dr. Sheila Patek’s talk about ultra-fast movements. I had never considered research on the fastest movements on the planet. Dr. Patek first talked about the trap-jaw ant, which closes its jaw to capture prey at a speed of nearly 70 mph. She also talked about the snapping shrimp which has a shooting defense system that is super fast. 

But the main event of her talk was the mantis shrimp, which has an incredibly fast small hammer to break snail shells. The mantis shrimp has peak forces 2500 times its body weight, but somehow manages to not break itself. The smashing motion has likely evolved over time to become one of the fastest motions known. Dr. Patek explained how there are principles underlying this biological diversity that proper industry forward. Material scientists and engineers can use research like hers and apply it to a variety of applications. 

But the one thing that really surprised me about Dr. Patek’s research was the fact that she was faced with much opposition regarding the importance of her research. However, Dr. Patek preserved and worked hard to defend why research like hers is necessary, which I really admire. I was inspired by Dr. Patek to always remember to stand up for your passions and what you believe in, regardless of those who may not agree with you. 

Don’t Just Take Advice, Evaluate It

As a component of my summer research experience, I have been very fortunate to hear from faculty researchers from diverse fields. Many of these sessions were filled with learning about not only the research that these faculty members do here at Duke but also how they came to find themselves doing research at Duke, and what opportunities research has afforded them. Personally, I found it very interesting to hear about the somewhat linear and more often then not so linear paths that led them to doing what they love.

One talk that stood out to me in particular was Dr. Mohamed Noor’s presentation on his meanderings on evolution and species formation. The research Dr. Noor conducts is focused on biological evolution that occurs within populations of Drosophila as a result of variances in recombination. More so how these changes in genetic recombination overtime lead to the formation of a new lineage of a species. I really enjoyed learning how phenomenons like antibiotic resistance which pose great threats in the post antibiotic era is a great demonstration of natural selection occurring within our environment and can have real consequences for humans in the long term.

In addition to learning more about his research, Dr. Noor left us with a few pieces of advice that deeply resonated. This advice from his own journey to become a researcher are to take chances and initiative, evaluate the advice given to you, and also, do something you love. As I continue in my undergraduate and research career, I hope to embrace this advice in the future decisions and directions I may pursue.

 

 

All Roads Lead to Research

Very few times in life do we get a chance to hear from people who are at the very top of their field— intelligent, communicative, innovative, paradigm-shifting individuals who have improved the lives of millions with their work. Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, one of Duke’s two active Nobel Laureates, is one of those people. His lab’s discovery of G-protein coupled receptors has led to the creation of nearly ⅓ of all pharmaceuticals in circulation today; nearly all of us know someone who has benefitted from his discovery. This summer, my peers and I had the opportunity to listen to him speak about his life, career, and research.

 

However, if you had asked Dr. Lefkowitz following his undergraduate degree if he dreamed of becoming a nobel laureate, he would’ve emphatically answered, “No, my goal is to become a practicing physician and care for my patients.” Dr. Lefkowitz always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but when he was completing his training in the late 1960s, the United States Military implemented a “doctor draft”, meaning that he would have to spend multiple years in a branch of the military, presumably with a deployment to the war-torn country. Dr. Lefkowitz heavily weighed his options, and realized that he could apply for a position at the NIH to do scientific research, a position at the time considered a branch of the United States Military, and thus eligible to fulfill his military commitment. Coming from the Columbia School of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Lefkowitz was able to secure one of the treasured spots for medical trainees and avoid deployment to a combat zone.

 

It was here at the NIH that Dr. Lefkowitz inadvertently discovered his love for academic research. He completed his obligation and returned to medical training, but while practicing medicine, thought to himself, “I really miss data” and realized that he had to get back involved in research of some sort, which led him to further his academic training and eventually make a Nobel Prize-winning, life-saving discovery later in his career.

 

Dr. Lefkowitz’s research is compelling and highly applicable to everyday medicine, but what I found more interesting from his talk was the unconventional path he took towards becoming a scientist. At the age of 19, as a rising sophomore in college, it’s getting to the time in which I’ll have to declare a major and start preparing for medical school, graduate school, or whichever other path I may take.  Dr. Lefkowitz’s life story was a nice reminder that I don’t have to worry too much— if I work hard and follow what I find interesting, it’s never too late to chase a dream, no matter how lofty it may be.

Take It in Stride

As a veteran scientist and Nobel laureate, Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz had much to share to our group of budding researchers when he came in for a faculty talk a few weeks ago. Heading into our sophomore year, we are intimidated by the looming expectations of choosing our majors, of deciding on a career path that we hope to love. We are burdened by worries, by questions that weigh on our minds that ask if we’ll be happy doing the same work years down the line, if the decision we make will be the right one. These concerns are experienced by everyone at a certain stage in their life, but as valid as they are, Dr. Lefkowitz assures us that there is little they will do to help when the world, or fate, or in his words, “serendipity,”–however you’d like to call it–steps in to take charge. 

Growing up, Dr. Lefkowitz idolized his family physician and was sure he wanted to be a doctor. He went through high school and his undergraduate years doing no research, dead set on heading straight towards medical school and afterwards, residency. But in order to avoid being drafted into the war, he applied and was accepted for a position with the NIH in the U.S. Public Health Service. He wasn’t particularly interested in research at the time, and the initial failure he experienced at the institute worsened his dismay. But as time passed and his project began to come together and succeed, his perspective changed and he was drawn further into the thrill of discovery. He would gradually spend less and less time in the clinic, dedicating more of his efforts in the lab. Eventually, he would transition almost fully towards just research. 

“There is serendipity in science,” Lefkowitz states slowly, contemplative. He says this in reference to his discoveries in the lab, as well as that of his past colleagues at the NIH, who collectively have earned nine Nobel prizes. 

But there’s more meaning behind that, I think. So sure that he was meant to become a physician, so much that he never touched research until it was absolutely necessary, it was a series of life events he had little control over that led him to the NIH and to stay there. Dr. Lefkowitz’s time in research and the moments in his life that led him to learn to love the field, all contributed to his discovering his ultimate passion. I’m a firm believer–as I think Dr. Lefkowitz may be as well–in the idea that, no matter how much you might agonize over your future now, life will eventually lead you to where you’re supposed to be.

Science is Everywhere

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to listen to a variety of scientists speak to us about the amazing research they have been working on in their labs and how they got to where they are today. Hearing about the different paths these faculty took to end up in the same research institution made me realize that everyone has his or her own way to approach opportunities and explore interests. In addition, learning more about all the kinds of research these faculty have been involved in highlighted the endless possibilities of science and how so much is still unknown about life in and around us.

Out of all of the faculty talks, Dr. Lawrence David’s talk about nutrition really resonated with me because it made me realize that is that science really is everywhere around us: in the movies we watch, the foods we eat, and the places we visit. He mentioned that watching Jurassic Park was what initially interested him in scientific research. Who would have guessed that a night out to the movie theater would result in finding a new interest and passion that you pursue as a career? 

Dr. David’s lab focuses on nutrition and how the different foods people eat affects their bodies at the microbiome level. While not everyone consciously monitors their diet every day, nutrition is a concept that is relevant to everyone. Research like this that has such a direct and immediate connection to our everyday lives really makes clear the importance of science and how it can appear anywhere. One really memorable part of Dr. David’s talk is when he mentioned the time he visited Thailand. Although the trip was not originally for work purposes, he tracked the street food that he ate and monitored how this new kind of cuisine affected his body. He brought his research and scientific curiosity with him and created a new learning opportunity for himself. As I continue to explore the different aspects of scientific research, I hope to embrace the unknowns of the scientific world and am excited to see where else science may unexpectedly present itself in my daily life.

The Reward in Research

A component of the BSURF program that sets it apart from just a summer research experience is the opportunity to hear interesting and informative talks given by Duke faculty members. All of them are PIs and were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their research and their career paths. 

One talk that stood out to me was Dr. Silva’s. The Silva Lab studies the ubiquitin-proteasome system and its role in cellular oxidative stress response. I just learned about ubiquitin-proteasome system this past semester in Molecular Biology. We mostly focused on its role in keeping the cell healthy by degrading proteins. It was interesting to learn that this system also has a role in oxidative stress response and that there was a lot of nuance in the mechanisms of this system.

During his talk, Dr. Silva also gave us a lot of advice about what he learned in his journey to where he is now. He earned his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Sao Paolo. He then completed his postdoctoral training at New York University before coming to Duke. He had a lot of advice for us, especially if we were interested in a path that led to a career in academia. He told us what he wished he had known and considered when he was in our position. Some specific advice was about criteria to consider when applying to and choosing a graduate program. He emphasized the importance of connecting with the people you work with, whether that be as a mentor, a friend, or as part of the larger network of people you know in science.

All of the different faculty members’ journeys in science were very different from each other. They studied at different institutions, followed different timelines, and some even earned an M.D. in addition to a Ph.D. Despite none of their paths being the same, there was one unifying trait: they all absolutely love their research. When they talk about it, you can tell that it immediately excites them. I think when you find something that brings so much personal joy and fulfillment, you know that it is what you’re meant to be doing. I am grateful to these faculty members for sharing their joy and passion with us.

Pro Tips and Proteasomes

Over the past seven weeks, we have heard from some of the most amazing professors at Duke. We have not only heard about their groundbreaking research, but also about their personal lives and their path to success. Among all those great stories, Dr. Gustavo Silva’s stuck out to me the most.

Dr. Silva is a very young professor at Duke. He was born and studied biology, both as an undergraduate and in graduate school, in Brazil. He only moved to the United States for his post-doctorate. I was intrigued by Dr. Silva’s accent, youth, and his research.

Dr. Silva studies the ubiquitin proteasome system which marks specific proteins for degradation within the cell. He started his presentation by explaining how oxidative stress can cause molecular damage, which leads to a decline in physiology and the onset of disease, something I have become quite familiar with while studying Parkinson’s these last few weeks.

He has found that ubiquitination and proteasomes are sensitive to too much cellular stress. Dr. Silva has also discovered that there are many different ubiquitin chains that are used to signal proteins for several different alterations, not only cell death. For example, ubiquitination and proteasomes are used to modify ribosomes where tRNA binds, and thus are vital for translation.

One of the most important lessons that Dr. Silva taught us had nothing to do with biology at all. He taught us to dream big and to follow our hearts. He believed that we could do anything we wanted if we put our minds to it. He also encouraged us to look around us at all the amazing peers, professors, and resources we have at Duke. He believes that building a strong support system and large community will help enable us in the future and will inspire us to be the best we can be. Lastly, he told us to make sure we have good mentors who have our best interests at heart.

I am thankful to the BSURF program for providing so many amazing speakers. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about their research, their past, their failures, and their success.