Tag Archives: RF2016-Week2

The Adventurous Journey of a Great Scientist: Dr. Chay Kuo

This week, I had the opportunity to interview my Principal Investigator, Dr. Chay Kuo. He went through a very unique path which eventually led him to become a successful medical scientist in the Department of Cell Biology at Duke University. The more I learned about Dr. Kuo’s academic career and his passion for science, the more I was fascinated by his marvelous journey.

Dr. Kuo was born in Taiwan and moved to California at the age of 10. During high school, everyone thought he was going to be a mathematician because he was great at Math and studied for Math Olympiads. After high school, he went to MIT where he majored in Architecture (Yes you didn’t read it wrong, Architecture). MIT had a very liberal grading policy for first-year students where classes were graded either Pass or No Credit. This means that if a student fails a class, it wouldn’t even show up on his/her transcript. Because of this lenient grading policy, Dr. Kuo took the most hardcore and interesting science classes during his first year. He stated that his first year in MIT is why he became a scientist because he didn’t worry about his grades, instead, he devoted his time to learn about subjects he was curious about. He said “In life, what you learn in school can only take you so far. Everything else after that, is what you do with that knowledge. In school exams, I could answer any questions if I had access to the textbooks. Right now I can look up any information I want, but I still don’t know the answers to many of my questions. So, you should worry more about learning than your grades in order to become a true scientist.” He took architecture classes for the same reason and decided to become an architect major afterwards.

After graduating from MIT at 1993, Dr. Kuo worked as a lab technician for several months in the Department of Cardiology at Harvard. Then, he went to the School of Medicine at the University of Chicago and completed his MD-PhD there. He actually wanted to go to an architecture graduate school. But his father told him that he would cover his cost of attendance only if he went to a medical school. Dr. Kuo realized that he hated medical school but he liked to do research as he explained: “There are two different ways to solve problems. One is the medical type of time-dependent probability problems where you have a time constraint and you need to figure out three most probable diagnoses with 90% confidence. This requires a broad but shallow knowledge in a wide range of areas.  Every test in medical school is based on this understanding. The other type of problems is scientific type of time-independent problems where you need to discover the least probable answers. If you try the most obvious solutions, you are going to be wrong. Because someone else tried that path and failed. You need to find a novel way; you need to look at the 10% nobody has researched before. I sucked at the first type of questions but I was really good at the second type. So I did a PhD in Dr. Jeffrey Leiden’s lab and enjoyed every second of it. Then I chose being a medical scientist over being a physician.” He finished his MD-PhD in 2002 and started his post-doctoral fellowship at University of California, San Francisco.

Having completed his post-doctoral fellowship, Dr. Kuo continued his research projects in Duke where he focused on neurogenesis and neural stem cells. When I asked about his goals as a scientist, he told: “I have a two dimensional diagram of where I want to be as a scientist. The x-axis has ‘significant’ on one end and ‘obscure’ on the other. The y-axis has ‘the red ocean’ and ‘the blue ocean’ on its ends. The red ocean is where all the boats, i.e. scientists, are. The blue ocean is where there are no boats. If you want to find funds easily, you should be at the significant end of the red ocean. Because that’s where everybody works and it’s more likely to discover something significant in an area if a lot of people are contributing collectively. However, breakthroughs do not occur in red oceans. They occur in the significant end of the blue ocean. They need to be not only significant but also something totally novel. I like to be in the blue ocean, I’m an adventurous scientist. I want to take an area that’s in the blue ocean where no one works on, and turn it into a red ocean area by making great discoveries and drawing attention of other people. When asked about where the new breakthrough will occur in medicine, David Baltimore, a Nobel Laurate, answers ’If I knew, it would not be a breakthrough.’ Personally, I found his metaphor very interesting and I plan to use his diagram throughout my career.

Lastly, I asked Dr. Kuo whether he had any advice for undergraduate students who want to become medical scientists. He replied: “You need to figure out what type of problems you are good at solving and whether you actually want to do research. To know that, you need to expose yourself to basic science labs and see your capabilities and feasibility of your goals. Also, don’t worry about your grades to an extent that will prevent you from pursuing your true academic interest. In the long term, you will see the benefits.”

Overall. This interview had profound effects on how I view science and research. I quite enjoyed Dr. Kuo’s inspiring story and great advice for students like us who want to have an academic career in medical field. I hope I could be as adventurous as he is when I conduct my own research projects.

Week 2: An Interview with Dr. David Pickup

“I always have been intrigued by how things work.” Dr. Pickup replied as I asked him why he enjoyed being a researcher. He continued to explain that science is an avenue through which to understand how things work; particularly in his field of work, understanding virus and host cell interactions.

Dr. David Pickup first decided to pursue science in highschool; his school had students choose a course of study focused in either the sciences or the arts early on, and he chose to study science. He went on to receive a degree in Botany (specializing in microbiology) from Royal Holloway College, University of London in 1974. Through his study of botany, he learned of plant pathogens and plasmids, which caught his interest. In 1975, he received his Masters degree in General Virology from the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. He then received his PhD in virology from the National Institute for Medical Research, London in 1979.

He received further training with molecular biology and poxviruses during his post-doctoral training at Duke University, in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Following his post-doc work, he joined Duke’s faculty and has since remained with the university as a researcher. His lab studies poxviruses and interactions between the host cell; particularly, he is fascinated by how poxviruses can control and manipulate host functions and immune responses. A deeper understanding of these mechanisms could prove useful for future applications, including some therapies or immunizations.

Dr. Pickup’s advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in research is that they must have a passion for it. Research takes a tremendous amount of time and energy, and without a passion for it, it would be a very difficult field to be in. He suggests exploring a variety of fields in science and finding one that interests you; pursue research in an area that stimulates your interest. He also cautioned that research is often delayed gratification. It can take an extraordinary amount of  time and effort to reach a definitive answer in science; a research project could last several months or years. But with patience and a passion for their field of investigation, an individual can thrive in scientific research.

Interview with Dr. Ken Poss: Discovery, Exploration, and Fearlessness

Ever since he was a kid, Principle Investigator, Dr. Ken Poss, has always had a love for biology and animals. Dr. Poss began his scientific career at Carleton College, a small school in Minnesota, where he studied biology. The first time he experienced research was his junior year, when he worked in a biochemistry lab. His school fostered a highly interactive atmosphere, such as extremely small classes. In fact, he was the only person in his lab besides his mentor! In 1992, he furthered his studies and attended MIT to pursue his Ph.D. in biology. At the time, he was very interested in new technology in mutant mice. There, he worked in Rudolf Jaenisch’s lab where he experimented with mouse technology and cloning. He then joined Nobel Prize winner Susumu Tonegawa’s lab where he studied the effects of a particular enzyme on learning and memory in mice. He thoroughly enjoyed his time at this lab because he was really able to gain a sense of independence in research. After his Ph.D., Dr. Poss switched fields when he started on his postdoc in Mark Keating’s lab at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. He wanted to be able to apply genetics in a field where he could do independently. At the time, regeneration was a highly unstudied field of work. Thus, he started working with zebrafish and regeneration and became one of the first people to apply molecular biology to regeneration. In 2003, Dr. Poss came to Duke where he became a member of the Department of Cell Biology and was named a James B. Duke professor. He continues to study the mechanisms of heart and tissue regeneration in zebrafish.

Dr. Poss’s favorite part of what he does is being able to be a part of the larger scientific community. With so many fields that he is a part of – zebrafish, heart development, regeneration, embryonic development- he is able to connect with all kinds of people. He enjoys being a part of this wide spread international community of fellow talented scientists.

As the P.I. of his large lab, Dr. Poss no longer conducts experiments but instead manages his lab. However, he loves seeing people in his lab get results. To him, it is just as exciting as getting results himself. His current goal, besides learning more about the mechanisms of regeneration, is to see people from his lab succeed and make discoveries. He enjoys being a part of trainees’ development and to see them grow as scientists.

Key advice Dr. Poss would give to people thinking of going down the path of scientific research is to make smart, key decisions. Research isn’t always about being the smartest or knowing a field inside and out. It is more about being able to embody discovery, exploration, and fearlessness. It is important to view the “unexpected” in a positive way. He thinks that unexpected results are often the most fun, the most important, and the most rewarding. Through these unexpected results, one can contribute to the field and make a big impact.

Thank you Dr. Poss for taking the time to talk to me. Listening to your scientific journey has widened my perspectives on research and has allowed me to reflect on my own path in terms of discovery, exploration, and fearlessness.

The Circle of Life: Plant Edition (as studied by Dr. Gabriela Auge)

(My primary mentor, Dr. Kathleen Donohue, has been away from the lab for the past week and a half, so I interviewed my secondary mentor, Dr. Gabriela Auge, instead.)

Whenever I travel to Duke, the four hours of flights make it seem that my home in south Florida is so far away. However, my initial journey to Duke wasn’t even comparable to that of my secondary mentor, Dr. Gabriela (or Gaby) Auge. She spent a significant portion of her life in Argentina, having completed both her undergraduate and graduate education there.

At the Donohue Lab, Gaby works with the seeds of the \Arabidopsis thaliana plant and is currently researching the effect of light quality on their germination patterns. Though the seeds of the Arabidopsis thaliana plant don’t look like much in their dormant stage (in fact, they’re so small that they aren’t much more than a speck, and we need to use a thin probe to place them on the agar), Gaby passionately described their tremendous potential. A seed barely larger than a period can grow several inches tall with dozens of flowers in only a few weeks. Though much of her career has been focused on seeds, she didn’t originally expect them to be such an integral part of her life. She began by studying biotechnology at the National University of Quilmes in Argentina—at which point she knew she wanted to be involved in research—and then started working towards her PhD in 2002 at the University of Buenos Aires. It was during her first post-doc in the School of Agronomy at the University of Buenos Aires that she first began working with seeds, which eventually brought her to Duke University and the Donohue Lab.

Though Gaby’s first post-doc was focused mainly on the effect of temperature on germination and dormancy, she is now expanding the frontier a bit more by considering the lifecycle as a whole. For example, the Donohue Lab contributed to the publication of a paper a few years ago (Chiang et al. 2009) that showed how FLOWERING LOCUS C (or FLC), a gene that repressed flowering in A. thaliana, also plays a role in germination. Therefore, germination and flowering are two steps in the life cycle that are not necessarily two separate units. Though Gaby has made a lot of discoveries at the Donohue Lab here at Duke, she already has a secure position in Argentina (between the level of a post-doc and assistant professor) where she can work on her own project and possibly have her own lab in the near future!

Gaby’s education and scientific career hasn’t all been about performing experiments, though. Her first job was as a TA in Plant Physiology (a course in which she was also a lecturer), then Molecular Physiology, as well as other courses. She wasn’t fond of being a TA at first, since it was a bit of a difficult transition from learning to having to teach classmates that graduated after her. However, once she found the way that she taught best, she began to enjoy it. Though she hasn’t taught any courses at Duke in particular, she does mentor a lot of undergraduate students (including me!) at the Donohue Lab (once she even mentored eight undergrads simultaneously). Through the process of teaching and mentorship, she realized the she really enjoys sharing what she knows with students, especially those that are eager to learn.

After deciding that research was the path for her at the beginning of her undergraduate career, it isn’t surprising that Gaby’s favorite part of being a scientist is the research itself. She enjoys learning in and of itself, and how every day in the lab can be a surprise (on a related note, she described how she once lost several days of work by dropping plants that were cross-pollinated by hand. Next time I lose only a few hours rather than days of work, I’ll have to try to just laugh at my mistake and move on like her). While she said that writing and publishing papers are the most extrinsically rewarding aspect of research, Gaby prefers the experiments themselves (though she just got a paper approved, yay!).

Overall, I really learned a lot from my discussion with Gaby. Though she absolutely knew she wanted to be involved in research when she was at my point in life (whereas I’m ~90% sure I want to pursue research), she didn’t get thoroughly involved with seeds and their lifecycle until she began her PhD work. She seems to have found her calling though, so now I’m a bit more reassured that I have time to decide what I’d like to do with my life. And once I do figure out a future path for myself, I hope to find as much joy in it as Gaby does in hers.

The Life and Career of Dr. Yong-hui Jiang

    I saw only four people during my 20-minute walk to lab on Saturday morning, but Dr. Yong-hui Jiang was already waiting for me in his office when I got there. 9 a.m., in his office, this is how Dr. Jiang starts his weekend every week.
    Dr. Jiang went to one of the top medical schools in China straight from high school (which is still the educational system now in most Asian countries). However, unlike most of everyone else who “wanted to become a doctor since five”, he didn’t choose this path himself. At the time, China was under the Cultural Revolution, during which most of the intellectual population was harassed, attacked, and eventually put to death.  As a result, Dr. Jiang’s parents saw doctor as a safe and stable occupation and urged him to go to medical school. However, Dr. Jiang soon found passion in what started off as an involuntary decision. “A lot of technologies were lacking at that time,” Dr. Jiang explained, “There was no whole genome sequencing. Indeed, the entire field of genetics was still nascent. So a lot of diseases which are now known to have a genetic basis remained undiagnosable. It was just those seemingly mysterious diseases that ignited my passion. I like solving mysteries, so I wanted to tackle those diseases.”
    Opportunity came when he received a UNICEF fellowship for training in the United States. As a visiting pediatrician, Dr. Jiang worked closely with kids with Down Syndrome, which is one of the first identified genetically-related intellectual disabilities. “I became very interested in childhood intellectual disability disorders after my training. You know they are somehow genetically related, but you don’t know the exact cause or the pathophysiology. I was very determined to study those diseases, which meant I would need more training.” So he went on to the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where he both did his pediatric residency and got his PhD degree in Molecular and Human Genetics. That was when Dr. Jiang realized that he enjoyed not only interacting with patients clinically, but also working at the lab bench and coming up with ways to cure the diseases he saw at the bedside. To him, the two are mutually-reinforcing. “My young patients, especially their parents, they look into your eyes. They trust you and are counting on you to help them. This is what motivates me to go back in lab and try to figure out a cure for them. On the other hand, you also want to apply your research and see tangible results. I really enjoy both, and I think my job is very rewarding.”
    Indeed, the Jiang lab sticks to a three-step agenda: for any disease, first, identify the genetic cause (“what”). Second, understand the pathophysiology (“how”). And third, develop a cure and bring it to the bedside. Current areas of research in the Jiang lab focus on the genetics of autism spectrum disorder and epigenetic disorders such as Angelman and Prader-Willis syndrome. Dr. Jiang was very excited when he talked about his research: “Studying the genetic cause of these childhood disorders, I really feel my dream more than twenty years ago coming true. Now I am really tackling those previously undiagnosable and ‘mysterious’ cases, thanks to the development of whole genome sequencing and other resources and technologies. This was unimaginable decades ago, but even decades later, this still really fascinates me.”
    Now, as both a clinician and a researcher, Dr. Jiang himself spent approximately 25% of the time seeing patients in the hospital, and the rest in his office or in lab. “A life as both a clinician and a scientist can be tough and stressful sometimes,” Dr. Jiang admitted, “but as long as you really have the passion, you will deal with the pressure positively instead of letting failures stress you out. Passion for what you are doing also makes you very willing to work hard and devote yourself – otherwise, why do you think I’m here every Saturday morning?” This is also the piece of advice Dr. Jiang gives to all his students. Be a keen observer of the world around you and find your talent and passion inside it. Know what you really like and what you are really good at. How do you know if something is really your true passion then? “Well, you will know it when you find it.”