The Different Faces of Science

This week, I heard about the amazing research that my fellow BSURFers are conducting while listening to their riveting chalk talks. I learned about neurobiology, plant biology and all the different topics in between. Though all of the presentations were phenomenal, the one that stood out to me was Michelle’s talk. Her project this summer is on knocking out the gene Endo16 in Sea Urchins and whether or not that would affect gut development.

Endo16 is a gene in sea urchins that is fundamental in gut development. Her question is whether knocking out Endo16 will result in reduced gut development in sea urchins. To do this, she will design guide RNAs and inject them along with the Cas9 complex into sea urchin embryos with the goal of causing an indel in that particular gene. With a large deletion or insertion, a frameshift mutation may occur, causing a premature stop codon, and rendering the gene useless thus “knocking it out”. She will then monitor the embryos with a knocked out Endo16 gene to determine if gut development is able to carry on as it normally would or if the lack of the gene prevents the formation of a gut. Determining the function of this gene will aid in understanding how embryonic development works in sea urchins and could lead to information about its interactions with other genes. Her project will expand the Genomic Regulatory Network and she can continue to test other genes with unknown functions.

I enjoyed Michelle’s presentation because I saw the way it related to my own research project. The use of a CRISPR-Cas9 system to knockout a gene and test its function is a real-life application for the technique I am studying. While using CRISPR for medical treatment is what my lab focuses on, hearing about the many other ways it can be used for research makes me appreciate my project even more. I loved hearing about the different methods and aims for her project because I understood everything she discussed. I’ve had to design my own guides and I can relate to the various steps in her procedures. I am amazed by the various ways this genomic tool can be used, as determining the function of a gene is important for understanding its part in genetic diseases. By doing a gene knockout and finding its function, we grow one step closer to unraveling the mysteries of biology.

Episode 4- Chalk the Talk

As interesting as it was to hear about everyone’s projects and learn a thing or two from each one, I think we’re all pretty glad that’s over with. For now, anyway. Hopefully, the posters will be easier since we’ll have everything written down to be presented as is and we’ve already got our thoughts collected.

Out of all the intriguing projects from last week, I believe that the one that caught my interest most was Michael’s investigation on the epigenetic effects in the offspring of mice after the male parent’s usage of THC. In particular, it was curious though concerning that the F1 mice appeared to exhibit some symptoms of ADD and expression of genes associated with ASPD and schizophrenia, though from what I understood, those results are not conclusive.

However, if those current findings prove to be further supported, then that leads one to wonder if THC usage could have similar effects in the children of those who use it. It’s already well-known that women shouldn’t use a variety of drugs or consume fish with high mercury content while pregnant, but it could also be that men should avoid certain substances before planning on having a child, outside of certain drugs that are known to lower sperm count (unless the transgenerational effects of other drugs have been studied and shown to be detrimental?). That also makes me wonder how long the effects of THC on sperm lasts, though I would imagine it would be about however long it takes to produce new sperm.

But anyway, everybody’s projects were pretty cool, and I’m curious to see how the posters turn out at the end of this program!

Week 4 – Mating Galore

Thank you my fellow BSURFers for sharing your projects this past week during the Chalk Talks. It was interesting to see the wide range of research going on this summer and learn about the different topics and techniques used in your research. One of the Chalk Talks that caught my attention was Melissa’s project on the genes underlying neural circuits in male fruit fly courtship behavior.

In her project, she will be looking at how environmental factors affect the expression of the genes Fruitless (Fru), Doublesex (DSX), and Choline Acetyltransferase (ChAT), which have been tied to sexual behavior in male fruit flies. More specifically, ChAT is a gene involved in the production of the acetylcholine and neural circuits involved in courtship behavior. Fru is involved in all courtship behaviors in males, while DSX is expressed at varying levels depending on how much courtship experience male flies have. Male flies with either the wildtype or mutated versions of these genes will either be put into group houses or isolated. While observing how the males respond in the different environments, Melissa can determine what changes were made during gene expression using ChIP, an immunoprecipitation method that tracks interactions between DNA and proteins.

A big reason why I am fascinated by Melissa’s project this summer is because it looks at a behavior in a non-human species. When learning about DNA and genetics in high school, I looked forward to learning more about how environmental changes affect gene expression, which would in turn influence a human’s behavior. Since coming to Duke, I surprisingly became more and more interested in understanding behavior in non-human species, along with the various ways we can study it. Therefore, Melissa’s project appeals to my interest in behavior and genes, and I’m excited to see how her project culminates at the end of the program!

We Love Sea Urchins

This week, everyone presented their chalk talks about their projects. It was fun and interesting to see what everyone was working on! I liked that a lot of the same areas of interest and methods (e.g. epigenetics, use of gRNA, mice etc.) could be seen across projects. But even then, there were still key differences among projects and I could clearly see the contributions they would make to science.

With that being said, I was particularly interested in Michael’s chalk talk titled “To Transfate or not to Transfate: Recognition of Skeletal Cell Presence”, specifically in sea urchins. My lab and I would always walk past the sea urchin lab and think about how cool it would be to work with them, so I was excited when Michael started to present.

Michael’s project looks at PMCs (primary mesenchyme cells) in sea urchins, which become the skeleton of  the sea urchin later in development. However, a previous study found that the skeleton still forms without PMCs because of NSMs (non-skeletogenic mesoderm). This led Michael’s project to focus on how the sea urchin embryo knows that the PMCs are missing and what signals are given after this is determined. He will determine the PMC genes, clone these genes through PCR, and look at them using in situ hybridization (ISH). He will also determine the signaling molecules through ISH as well as using drug treatments. Michael’s project is important to science because his project results are important for just general knowledge about the skeletal system, and could potentially be used to help skeletal diseases in humans in the future.

Expo® Manifesto

Can we really call the presentations last week a chalk talk? I would say it’s more like a Expo® manifesto.


All (bad) jokes aside, I think the talks given were amazing. Everyone explained their projects extremely well, and I was surprised by the variety of biology topics presented. There wasn’t one project I wasn’t amazed by, and I am excited to in a cohort of such amazing individuals. One of the common themes was the world of epigenetic. As my project deals with these markers as well, I think a project that stood out to me was Michael’s “Differential Methylation of Shank 1 and DLG4 in THC exposed F0 -> F1 mice.” His project focuses on the transgenerational effects of THC on the methylation of the the Shank 1 and DLG4 genes.

THC is found in marijuana, and the doses that he uses on the mice are relevant to the doses that an average user of marijuana consumed. The two genes he is focusing on are important in the post synapsis, so this project can help us to see if THC can cause harm on the gametes that are exposed to THC. He studies male mice gamete, because it is extremely painstaking to see the effects on the female gametes. He will expose mice to chemically relevant doses of THC and measure the effects on the methylation of the gametes by using pyrosequencing and rt-PCR. With the movements to legalize marijuana in the US, it’s important to assess the risks of the THC in it.

Everyone gave an amazing chalk talk

This week, I had the opportunity to listen to everyone give a chalk talk about their project.  It was nice to understand details about their project,  such as Alzheimer’s, and DMD instead of thinking, okay he works in an x,y,z lab.  Additionally, I enjoyed how everyone was able to present such complex topics in a short amount of time in a way that was easy to follow.

As someone who attended the NC Zoo school, I had the opportunity to go into the zoo on a daily basis.  If time allowed me to, I enjoyed going to the African side of the NC Zoo to watch the chimpanzees and baboons.  When Christine presented the idea that both the highest ranking (alpha) and lowest ranking baboon experiences the same amount of stress, but it might be due to a different kind of stress I was all for it.  Over the summer she is planning to answer the question, “Do alpha baboons and low ranking baboons experience different stressors?”.  She is planning to look at energetic stressors, so she will analyze a thyroid hormone(1), T3, in a wide range of baboon fecal samples. Another thing that caught my attention about the presentation, was the fact that there was a significant decrease in stress from the alpha to the second rank baboon (beta).  Finally, it was great to learn the behind the scenes of this research project.  She talked about how they have an area in Kenya and scientists in Kenya watching the baboon’s behavior (looking for changes in rank), collecting the samples, and shipping them back to Duke for analysis.

This is an amazing project and I can not wait to see the outcome of this project and other projects on July 27, during the poster presentation.

Next week, I will provide a glimpse into my daily routine (A day in the life).

1-thyroid hormones allow you to indirectly measure energetic stress because it is based on changes in metabolism.

Alphas and Betas and Low-Ranked, Oh My!

I would like to start this post off by saying that all of the chalk talks given this past week were absolutely amazing! They all dived into complex topics like genetics and neurobiology in a simple way that made understanding them much easier. Seeing the research drawn as a visual tool made the talks more dynamic and really simple to follow. As someone with extremely limited biology experience, I really enjoyed that I could follow along and learn so much.

As someone who loves animals and grew up watching documentaries on their behavior, I found Christine’s talk extremely interesting. I knew that there were dominance hierarchies in baboons, but I had no idea there were distinctions between the types of stress that a baboon experienced depending on where was in the hierarchy. It was really interesting to learn about the distinction between energetic stress (more dominant in Alphas) and psychosocial stress (more dominant in low rankings males). I think the most fascinating thing for me was that stress levels could actually be quantified through measuring glucocorticoids in the feces. (Who knew poop could be so useful?) It is also really fascinating to think that you can tell what a dominant source of stress for a group of baboons is by measuring certain hormone levels and not just observing their interactions in the wild; I had no idea the level of T3 secretion indicated a certain type of stress (energetic) experienced. Additionally, it surprised me that just by moving down one rank– from an Alpha to a Beta– a baboon’s stress levels would decrease significantly! Overall, the talk gave a really interesting insight into the stressors of baboons in hierarchies from a hormonal standpoint. Christine did a great job in explaining her project in a clear, fascinating way. 

All the chalk talks this past week allowed me to dive deeper into fields with which I was unfamiliar. I really enjoyed learning more about each of the projects everyone else was working on and seeing common threads that linked them together. So far, BSURF has taught me so much and the talks really enriched my learning in a fun, simple, and visual way. Thanks everyone!

The Life of Ci Fu

During the course of this summer I have had the pleasure to work under a man by the name of Ci Fu in the Heitman lab. Having him as a mentor has been a challenging yet gratifying experience. I have learned so much over these past weeks than I learned in the classroom my entire freshman year. I can honestly say that I have never met anyone more dedicated and passionate about the field of research then he.

Ci Fu received his undergraduate training at Tiantin University of Science and Technology in China, where he majored in biotechnology. He was eager to find out what his true interest were so he decided to explore a variety of research opportunities. He joined a fungal lab to study genetics which exposed him to the field of microbiology. He was immediately fascinated with microorganisms and from that point on knew he wanted to be a research scientist. He knew he wanted to continue his education as well as feed his passion for research; thus, he decided to attend the University of New York at Buffalo where he majored in Molecular and Cellular Biology. He then received his masters degree and shortly after, joined the Heitman lab.

When asked if he would like to choose any other career, Ci immediately confirmed that research was his only passion. In his own words he said, “I love the challenge of research, it gives me the opportunity to ask the hard questions that I would not be able to ask otherwise.” He believes that through his research he can make profound change. From my time working with him I have been able to observe how his dedication to research work ethic has influenced those around him.

If you have been in the lab as long as Ci you are bound to make mistakes; however, he ensures that you realize that everyone does too. To empathize, Ci described an embarrassing moment he once had while in the lab himself. In his earlier days of research, he accidentally knocked down a full rack of glass tubes in front of his P.I. Looking retrospectively, he realized that its okay to make mistakes because that’s what makes us human. His advice for future researchers and scientist is that they learn to recover form their mistakes. Additionally he advises that all future researchers/scientist learn to ask questions because asking questions is how true and interesting research begins.

I have learned a lot from Ci with my time in the Heitman lab, and I am excited to see what else I gain from this experience. He has been an excellent mentor and it was a very interesting experience getting to know a little more about his background.



Social Hierarchy’s Affects on Male Baboon Stress Levels

The entirety of this past week’s BSURF meetings were dedicated to giving Chalk Talks, giving everyone in BSURF an opportunity to learn about and engage with each other’s research. My eyes were opened to the range of topics being investigated. Previously I had some concept of what my fellow BSURFers were studying using blanket labels like “neurobiology” or “plant biology” and what I had learned from their blog posts. But with time having passed and projects having progressed and evolved, Chalk Talks gave a new opportunity to understand the various research projects in a deeper way and have lingering questions answered. As someone who is very much a visual learner, the emphasize on drawings and schematics in these presentations really helped to develop my understanding.

A project I found really interesting was Christine’s. Her project was a little different from the other research being conducted in BSURF. Her research focuses on studying baboons and hierarchal stress amongst males. Her main question was, “Do alpha and low-ranking baboons experience different sources of stress?” I found the infrastructure involved in this research and the previous findings to be really interesting. Previous research has found that the alpha males experience high levels of stress due to energetic costs, while the beta males experience significantly lower levels of stress. Interestingly, as you move down the social hierarchy, relative levels of stress increase due to increased psychosocial stresses. I found this distinction between stress sources as they relate to social hierarchy surprising and fascinating.

Additionally, I was intrigued by the large scale, international logistics involved in this research operation. The population of baboons being studied is Kenya and monitored by a team of people that analyze social interactions to determine social hierarchy and collect fecal samples for analysis. These samples are sent to Duke and the relative stress levels of the baboons is determined by analyzing cortisol levels. The amount of coordination and cooperation between those in Durham and Kenya is truly remarkable.

I think Christine did a great job in her presentation. I learned a lot about an area of research I know very little about and I’m excited to learn about her findings  and their possible implications.

So Baboons are like really cool!!

I really enjoyed listening to everyone’s talk this week! I learned a lot about neural circuitry, oxidative stress, and even the work that goes into gRNA design! One project that really stood out to me was Christine’s, titled: Identifying differences in Stress between Alpha and Low-Ranking male Baboons. Specifically, Christine is looking at whether or not the alpha and the low-ranking male baboons experience different sources of stress. I think what I really like about this project is the fact that it incorporates both a psychological and a biological perspective in addressing this question. Furthermore, I can really see the direct application this study will have on humans in terms of understanding stress and factors that cause it.

From my understanding, Christine’s hypothesis is that the alpha and the low-ranking male baboons do experience different forms of stress: with the alpha experiencing energetic stress and the low-ranking baboons experiencing psychosocial stress. When comparing the two baboons, she expects the alpha male to have lower levels of triiodothyronine because energetic stress suppresses this hormone. Last spring, I took an introductory neuroscience class, and we learned about the hormonal response to stress, and I think that it is awesome that Christine is applying her knowledge of this response to stress to understand how it is affected across different types of stress (psychosocial, energetic, etc.)

I think Christine was very clear in her explanation of her project, which I find to be really important in presenting a project because if you can’t convey your message in easy-to-understand words, what’s the point? She delivered her presentation in such a way that someone who is not in her field would understand it perfectly.

Life in the Perfect Lab

My work in the Perfect Lab varies from day to day. The day may start with me immediately working because at this point I know what I’m expected to do. Nevertheless, on days where I have no idea what I’m supposed to do, I sit and talk with my mentor, Jenny, about the next experiments I need to complete to finish my construct*. Most days consist of me performing PCR’s on particular segments of gDNA to make the constructs for biolistic transformation. However, every week I learn something new in order to move further in the project. Jenny primarly introduces different techniques and approches to solving problems in experiments. Besides performing PCR’s and gel electrophoresis, I have learned to cut bands out of gels, extract DNA from gels, innoculate microbes, isolate DNA from cells and a plethora of other tips and procedures. I’m usually doing 2-3 of these things in a single day.

In addition to this, I have also learned from my mistakes and through those mistakes learned more about myself. For example, I have noticed that around 4 or 5pm, I am more prone to making simple mistakes compared to the beginning of the work day. Nowadays, I avoid performing complicated procedures at that time of the day and simply prepare to do it the next day. In doing this, it forces me to be more congnicent of time and prioritize my responsibilities for the day.

Fortunately, I have been able to produce sufficient yeilds with my PCR’s and DNA extractions to be able to transform the C. neoformans fungi. The next couple of weeks will be a little more stressful because my mentor will be leaving and I have to prepare/start mice experiments.

*construct: DNA that is to be put into an organism’s genome

Big Is Small, and Small Is Big

Thank you to everyone for sharing their projects this week! It felt like looking through a kaleidoscope: so many different colors, angles, combinations in biology and in people’s attempts to understand life. One thing I learned from all of your talks is to remember to zoom in and out on this kaleidoscope.

By zooming in, big questions come down to acute focuses. Hsp70 is one of the many things that Bio201 hammered into my head this past spring. Nevertheless, I was still fascinated when Tamanna shared in her talk that the Hsp70 family can facilitate parasite survival by mitigating the effects of temperature change as the parasite enters from cold-blooded mosquito into the warm-blooded human host. Many of the malaria studies that I have read before relate to genetic modification in mosquitoes or massacre of mosquitoes, and Tamanna’s chalk talk directs me to look at malaria from a new perspective. Her zooming in from the big question that Plasmodium falciparum results in falciparum malaria, to the moment this parasite getting transmitted from mosquito to humans through a bite, to finally the C-terminal LID domain of PfHsp70-1 binding with PI3P turned this giant ball of problem into a sharp focus. With her clear delivery, it really became clear to me why her lab is doing what it’s doing (wow that’s some cool stuff) and how a big mystery can be teased apart bit by bit. By zooming back out and looking at the broader applications, one can also see clearly that the small dots on the ITC curves can link together something of great significance.

This applies to every single chalk talk that I had the great pleasure listening to this week. As we become more and more familiar with our lab schedules and more and more at ease carrying out each step after rounds and rounds of repetition, I believe it is important to keep thinking why we’re doing what we’re doing and how everything comes together (eventually). Big can be small, and small can be big.

Hot topic and cool project: Sweta looks into epistability of plants

This past week, I listened to multiple people talk about their amazing projects. From using CRISPR/Cas9 to alleviate symptoms of muscular dystrophy to stress between male baboons, I have thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the research my peers are doing.

The one project that really peaked my interest was Sweta’s project titled “Epistability: Transgenerational and Environmental Effects on Plant Development.”

Sweta is looking at early plant development in the model organism Arabidopsis (which she called Dobby) and how the epigenetic changes can be inherited (which is very much a Lamarckian idea). Sweta is looking at the effects temperature has on growth, knowing that Dobby grows better at 22°C compared to 10°C. She has two aims: looking at the stability of the transgenerational effects and looking at the stability of the genotype. She is mainly working on her first aim the summer in which she is looking at 3 generations of plants treated at both hot and cold temperatures (see figure 1). When I asked her what she expects from her data, she said that she expects the parental environment to have the most effect on the offspring compared to the grandparents.

I found this topic extremely interesting because it seems very much like Lamarckian evolution rather than Darwinian evolution. I entirely believe that the environment has a strong effect that can be passed on from parent to offspring, especially after doing a field work experiment with a graduate student in the Donohue lab (the lab Sweta works in) on niche construction as a method to cope with drought. The idea that a phenotype in addition to a genotype can be passed down is very exciting considering we all express genes differently, although we have many of the same genes.

I final thing I was very impressed by was Sweta’s use of the board and presentation because she clearly knew what she was talking about and was able to demonstrate it well using only a section of the already limited space.

Figure 1

Slave to my experiments AND to my urchins

“Does anyone else need eggs?” “Why is this not working?” “Should I use the other set of primers?” Questions, questions, and more questions. These are the phrases that indicate a lot of the things I am doing in lab. Performing experiments, analyzing results, then troubleshooting problems that occur.

My average day consists of me arriving to lab at 8AM to thaw solutions, start PCR reactions (since they take up to 2.5 hours to run), or check on experiments or embryos that were going or incubating overnight. After coming back from faculty talks or group meetings, I usually do the rest of my experiments which may include in situ hybridization experiments, gel electrophoresis and gel extractions to purify DNA, and drug treatments.

In situ hybridization experiments take 3 days and consist of washing embryos in a multitude of solutions. Gel electrophoresis requires me to run a gel to separate out DNA by size. Once that happens, I determine if the DNA is purified or not by checking the number of bands. If there are multiple bands, I need to purify the DNA through gel extraction and run the gel again until I end up with one single band. Drug treatments require more planning because of the timing. I usually spawn and fertilize eggs of a sea urchin and I will come in at different times (sometimes as late as midnight) to change the artificial sea water or put in a drug to inhibit signaling molecules. I would then have to fix the embryos and store them until I perform in situ hybridization experiments.

Aside from doing wet lab experiments, I also need to take and process images on a microscope and computer. This requires me to be in a dark room for a few hours and burn my eyes out looking at a screen. Luckily I am able to listen to music while doing so. Once I have the images, I need to process them so they become .jpg files.

Sometimes other things happen. For example, a pleasant surprise that happened this last Wednesday was that my mentor, Ray, baked cupcakes for my birthday.

All in all, my lab days are jam packed with experiments which I am super thankful for because of all the experience I am getting working first-hand on a research project. To end this weeks post, I want to highlight Dr. Grunwald’s prediction that we (research fellows) are slaves to our experiments. In my case, I have become a slave to my urchins.

My birthday cupcake baked by the one and only Ray Allen!

Stage Three: Fishy Business

Behind every publication lining the pages of Cell and Nature, there’s a scientist. A tinkering mad(wo)man with an insatiable lust for knowledge and also just being really cool. Sometimes, being cool just seems to run in the family, as it does for my PI, Dr. Carol Colton (or maybe its the self-professed madness slowly taking her). A perky yet wry neurobiologist, she is a pioneer in the immunological field of Alzheimer’s disease with an dignified, open attitude, and I fear the day she reads this.

Belonging to a family of scientists, Dr. Colton has always desired to do STEM research, particularly in Biology. Initially, she planned to enter paleontology at the University College London, but science is never a straight road, and that goes for the scientist too. While excelling in all her studies, there was one occasion that she could only describe as career-ruining. To this day, the trauma and shudders from the experience haunt her, and she still has a bone to pick with fish paleontology. On a fateful lab day for a class, the assignment happened to be to take rotting fish-market rejects, to boil their carcasses, to pick the meat apart, and to piece back together the skeleton and identify the fish. Nauseating.

After a prompt and well-deserved department shift, Dr. Colton found herself in a neurology lab. At the time, neuroscience focused heavily on studying the function of neurons, and so the most lending model to study using patch-clamps was of course the squid giant axon. After continuing her research and career at Rutgers University and the National Institute of Health, she began to discover the voice of dissent among scientists when she became interested in microglia.

Microglia, commonly summarized as brain’s immune cells, not too long ago were considered a myth. The brain was just a brain with many neurons, surrounded by a network of blood vessels. However, Dr. Colton found some research indicating a strange possibility of there being something more. After consulting with a fellow researcher who was centrifuging down brain cells to study, she discovered something strange about the heaviest layer which expressed traits common to those of macrophages. But others disagreed, there was opinion that those were just impurities of the sample from the nearby vascular system, pouring with immune cells. Nonetheless, Dr. Colton ignored symposium introductions “humoring” her microglia work, and studied these cells further, and later contributed to the slow recognition of the existence of microglia. An astonishing amount of work has been done since then on the cells, as it turns out, they are essential in many diseases and neural interactions, controlling many inflammatory and metabolic pathways in the brain.

Since then, Dr. Colton has worked at Georgetown University on one inflammatory factor released by microglia: Nitric Oxide. An important component in many neurological diseases, nitric oxide is used both as a neurotransmitter and a player in Alzheimer’s disease. However, the study of its levels in Alzheimer’s disease was scant because of Alzheimer’s posthumous diagnosis and the inability to collect brain samples from living humans. Therefore, for a long time, mice models were used to simulate human neural pathologies, but after a strange virus kept plaguing Dr. Colton’s mice colonies, she abandoned mice for hamsters. Oddly, her new data matched with none of her previous work and even conflicted with other research done on nitric oxide levels prior. After months of confusion and frustration, she discovered that hamsters actually have a different nitric oxide processing enzyme (known as NO synthase 2 as opposed to NO synthase 1) that actually mirror human immune systems much more accurately. This finding slammed her once again into the neuroscience spotlight, as she began working towards replicating the human neural system more and more accurately within rodent models.

More recently, Dr. Colton’s work has ranged from developing patented mice lines for research to studying various metabolic pathways related to Alzheimer’s disease, piecing together different mysteries found in more general brain tissue scans. Now residing at Duke and working with its Kathleen Price Bryan Brain Bank, she has investigated the various functions of arginine and other immuno-regulated chemicals in cell cultures, mice colonies, and even human samples. Her latest challenge to the field of science: viruses are the missing link to Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, the specifics are confidential, but I am sure she will be both excited and also apprehensive that her theory just recently got the Alzheimer’s field clamoring once more, as a heavily controversial study became published by Neuron last Wednesday supporting the possibility of viruses being a key factor to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I can already see her laughing at everyone’s face next week.

Weekly Highlights

“I’m smart and your minds are decaying. I’m going to tell you why.”-Joan Wilson imitating Dr. Colton at an Alzheimer’s Talk

“I told him about my idea on viruses, and he was like ‘naahhh.’ Well, when we have proof, I’m going to shove it up to him and be like ‘HA. Ha ha. Ha.'”-Dr. Carol Colton

“How was your vacation, Joan?”-Dr. Carol Colton
“Well on Monday a TV fell on me. There’s the bruise right here. I also got my ankle really swollen, that was my Tuesday.”-Joan Wilson, a survivor

“I do EVERYTHING?!”- Hui Fang finally realizing she doesn’t get paid enough for the 6 roles she plays across 2 labs

“The plasmids arrived!”-Dang Nguyen
“Good! We can start tomorrow.”-Hui Fang
“There’s two”-Dang Nguyen
“What.”-Hui Fang, as the next half hour is spent reading through both DNA sequences to find the right one

Episode 3: The Life of Dr. Susan K. Murphy

Susan K Murphy, a phenomenal mentor. Taken from

Susan K Murphy  received her undergraduate degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry from UNC-Charlotte.  She then went on to graduate school at Wake Forest University and studied Virology(study of viruses) , where she received her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology. She initially wanted to focus on vaccine development, but during her time in graduate school her son suffered from a rare form of liver cancer, causing Dr. Murphy to shift gears in her research and pursue a path more relevant to cancer research. Dr. Murphy’s postdoctoral research was done here at Duke, in Dr. Randy Jirtle’s laboratory where she studied genomic imprinting and epigenetics. Because she was studying the imprinting of a gene that was highly expressed in ovarian tissue, she ended up with an offer for a faculty position in Gynecologic Oncology here at Duke, where she studies how epigenetic factors influence early stages of ovarian cancer.

This is not the first time that Dr. Murphy has taught someone. While Dr. Murphy used to “panic at the thought of speaking in front of a group of people”, she found out that she enjoys teaching students and appreciates the curiosity that they display. She has given guest lectures at a number of courses  here at Duke.

Outside of her love for the lab, Dr. Murphy loves animals. Her family has always had pets of one sort or another.  When she was about 12, her brother had  2 boa constrictors, a reticulated python and an Indian python which she took care of.   Her mother raised “teddy bear” hamsters and her family would go to many of the local pet shops every weekend to buy supplies. After high school, she spent 10 years working before she went back to college, where she ended up working as a pet store manager and developed a love for fish and birds, and she still has fish and birds today (a 48-year old parrot, 3 cockatiels, 2 of which she hand raised, and 2 parakeets), She volunteered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium before and after it opened, initially helping to raise sea otters, then as a docent in the aviary and the microscope lab; She also worked as a shelter manager for the Monterey County SPCA; when I moved to North Carolina I worked at a veterinary office for 5 years, assisting with all forms of animal care – including surgeries and cleaning dog’s and cat’s teeth.

 While Dr. Murphy loves how her career in science allows her to come up with questions about the nature of life and things we cannot see, and then figure out how best to go about finding answers to those questions – revealing truths about life, there are some things which she would like to change about the scientific process. Chief among these would be the peer review and the lack of funding for grants. There are many scientists like Dr. Christopher Kontos who can have years of work derailed due to the peer review process, or be unable to pursue projects like through a lack of funding, which ultimately contributes to the next generation of scientists having a very pessimistic outlook on academia. 
In lab, Dr. Murphy constantly stresses the importance of safety. The reason for this was when she was an undergrad, she worked in a lab on a project studying Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium with an LD50 of 1. According to Dr. Murphy,  it is a flesh eating type organism, lives in the ocean and becomes concentrated in shellfish, particularly oysters, such that people with certain underlying risk factor (alcoholism, liver disease, older age) are more at risk of becoming infected with this bug, from eating raw oysters, or going in the ocean when they have an open wound.  Part of the research she was doing involved shucking the oysters that had dined on Vibrio vulnificus that she grew up and fed them.  She would have to shuck a bushel of oysters for each experiment (that’s about 350 oysters).  After a few hundred, I decided that the gloves she was wearing on top of the rubber gloves were too hot and restrictive so I took them off.  Shortly thereafter the oyster knife slipped and went straight into my hand, puncturing the skin.  She had to go admit to my PI that She neglected the safety requirements and now might die!  He took me immediately to the emergency room, with his published papers in his hand showing that tetracycline was the drug of choice for V. vulnificus infections and told the ER doc that he must give me tetracycline immediately!  They did, and obviously all was fine.  However, that very embarrassing incident has made her a much more aware PI and that is why she stresses lab safety to everyone who works in lab.
If you want to learn more about Dr. Murphy, feel free to shoot her an email at
Until Next Time,

Interview with Dr. Charles Gersbach

Dr. Charles Gersbach began his training as a biomedical engineer while he was an undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As the son and nephew of many engineers, he decided to major in chemical engineering and was never exposed to biomedical research. After watching his friends enter the workforce at companies like Doritos, he realized that those jobs never interested him and he searched for other career options. During his last summer as an undergraduate, Dr. Gersbach worked in a lab and fell in love with research. Due to his lack of experience, he had trouble applying for graduate programs, but was admitted to Georgia Tech and got a PhD in Biomedical Engineering.

Now, Dr. Gersbach is a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke where he teaches two classes: one is a requirement for BME undergraduates and the other is a BioDesign elective course. He enjoys teaching the design course because the students are much more engaged. Since it is an elective and the course material includes innovative, cutting-edge methods, the students have a desire to learn which makes teaching it much more enjoyable. His favorite part about teaching though is watching his students go off to do amazing things in science. Watching graduate students that he mentored in his lab earn faculty positions at other universities and publish papers gives him the satisfaction of knowing that he taught them well. Nurturing young students to become contributors in his field is the best part of teaching for him.

Though Dr. Gersbach is well-established in his field, he has no lack of embarrassing stories within the lab. Due to his busy schedule, he has less time to spend in the lab doing actual experiments but is sometimes asked to help when his students go out of town. During one Christmas season, a few of his graduate students asked him to passage their cells while they went home for a few days. He forgot and the students returned to find all of their cells overconfluent and dead. They asked him to help the next year as well, but he accidentally contaminated the cells and again they died. Since then, they’ve stopped asking him to passage their cells and found other arrangements.

When asked about any advice he has for young undergraduates looking to get started in research, Dr. Gersbach told me to take advantage of the many opportunities offered at Duke. Since he was late in entering research, it took him nearly ten years to catch up, so programs such as BSURF are important to take advantage of. He also advises to try many different things and explore the various topics within science. He never thought he would like research until he worked in a lab, so sampling diverse subjects can help young students to learn about the careers they may want in the future. Overall, I enjoyed interviewing Dr. Gersbach and learning about the background of my mentor. It taught me there is always time to change directions as I discover my interests and to take advantage of the multitude of opportunities that Duke has to offer.

An interview with Dr. Michael Boyce

Dr. Boyce has enjoyed science since as early as elementary school, however, he was not sure about a career in science until later on in his life.  As an undergraduate student at Harvard College, he saw the biochemistry major and thought the courses were interesting.  In addition to courses required for the biochemistry major, Dr. Boyce found another interest, art history.  At this point, he realized he liked both art history and biochemistry and he asked himself, “Do I want to stick with biochemistry, or do I want to switch to art history.” To answer this, he pictured himself in both situations, as an art historian, and as a scientist.  He did see himself as a scientist, but he could not picture himself as an art historian.  He joined a lab at Harvard, and decided to get a PhD. with the idea of , “if this does not work out, I will pursue something else”.  Therefore, he was able to go to Harvard Medical School for his PhD. in molecular biology, he enjoyed graduate school, made great connections with students and his Principal Investigator (he even stays connected with them to this day using social media!).  With this experience, he decided that having his own lab is something he might enjoy, so he decided to do a post-doc with the same mentality of, “if this does not workout, I can do something else”.  Therefore, he went to UC Berkeley to do a post-doc in a Chemistry lab.  From the differences of research topics, he met many great friends, and learned new techniques.  Finally, he applied to faculty positions, where he is now an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Duke University School of Medicine.

As a Principal Investigator in the School of Medicine, his primary role is to keep the lab running (through grant writing and mentoring students), to advocate for his science (by attending and presenting at conferences), and to serve the scientific community (by participating on committees, and specifically, by promoting diversity in STEM at Duke, the School of Medicine, and the American Society of Cellular Biology). Dr. Boyce enjoys his students, and he enjoys mentoring. This can be seen in his lab, where his door is always open for students to stop by to ask questions and to chat.  Finally, he feels very lucky for the freedom offered in his position.  He is able to ask his own questions, and if his project does not work out, or if the results lead to a different question, he is able to follow up.  He believes that his position is as close to a blank check as you can get.

After learning about his path, and what he does, I asked him if he had any advice for people interested in pursuing science. He answered “Stay open minded”, he says that there is a lot to learn, so go to more research seminars (even outside of the realm of expertise!).  Additionally, he recommends to read things that sound interesting, and try to be curiosity driven (because that is what science is about!).  Finally, he explained the importance of forming a network, with people in your lab, your peers, or your professors, because you never know what will happen fifteen years from now.

Dr. Boyce. An awesome mentor and scientist. Original photo was posted on the lab page.

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Dr. Boyce about his path, and profession.

On next weeks blog, I will talk about my daily life.