Throughout the BSURF, many distinguished faculty members from a variety of biological fields talked about their career paths as scientists and what kind of research they did. These talks helped me grasp the different aspects of different areas and what type of opportunities or problems I would encounter if I decided to become a scientist. Although each seminar was interesting in its own way, I think Dr. Robert Lefkowitz’s talk was quite fascinating.
Dr. Lefkowitz is a cardiologist and Professor of Medicine at Duke University. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012 for his groundbreaking discoveries about G protein-coupled receptors. He decided to become a physician when he was 8. He went to the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, a high school that has 8 Nobel Laureate alumni. He emphasized that only 11 countries in the world have more than 8 Nobel Laureates. After high school, he went to Columbia University where he majored in Chemistry and then got his medical degree. He told us that he loved doing clinical work but he wasn’t interested in doing research at all. During the Vietnam War, he was drafted by National Institute of Health (NIH) and did research for 2 years mandatorily. After that experience, he realized that he really liked working in a lab and delved into research more and more as the years went by. Now, he said to us that he hasn’t seen a patient in 15 years. When asked whether he regretted his medical training and sees it as a waste of time, Dr. Lefkowitz stated that the medical training helped him correlate his basic scientific research to applicable drugs that could treat diseases.
Dr. Lefkowitz told us that we could never foresee the future even though we plan it and go in a direction we decided. If it weren’t for the Vietnam War, he would have become a physician, not a scientist. He also said that most of the experiments, researches in science fail and the important thing is not the give up. As Churchill said, he quoted, “Success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.”. He added that for an average scientist, one percent of his/her experiments succeed; for a world class scientist, that ratio could be as high as two percent!
I was inspired by Dr. Lefkowitz’s great story. I hope that one day, I could also have such an amazing story to share with young scientists.
I thoroughly enjoyed the seminar portion of this program. It was valuable to me to have scientists come in, talk to us about their path through science, and introduce us to their research. It was great to hear about how some ended up in the field accidentally, while others were committed to science from the start.
One of my favorite seminars was delivered by Dr. Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center. As someone working in a biomedical engineering lab, it was awesome to hear about about a completely different field of research. It was interesting to learn that the first lemurs that arrived in Madagascar likely drifted to shore on a “raft” from mainland Africa. From there, evolutionary mechanisms generated the diverse range of lemurs we observe today. Visiting the Duke Lemur Center following this seminar reinforced these concepts. I hope that one day, I can be as passionate about a field as Dr. Yoder is for her lemurs.
Throughout the entirety of our program, we’ve had the privilege of getting to hear several speakers from the Duke faculty describe their lives and their experiences in research. I’ve really enjoyed receiving insight from each faculty member in regards to their life before research and what events or decisions lead them into the world of research. A common theme I noticed was many of the faculty credited excellent mentors with leading them to where they are today; I find that extremely encouraging, in that Duke is an environment full of amazing mentors.
In particular, one faculty member whose research caught my attention Dr. Raphael Valdivia. Dr. Valdivia studies the pathogen Chlamydia trachomatis, which can cause sexually transmitted infections. I’ve always been interested in the study of pathogens, so I immediately found Dr. Valdivia’s work fascinating. I really enjoyed his use of videos describing how the pathogen thrives within membrane-bound compartments in cells (I had never heard of bacterial pathogens doing this!). I also found it very interesting how he described social stigma related to his work (due to the nature of transmission of the pathogen). Overall I found his research extremely exciting, and am very curious to learn more about it.
Every week this summer, we had the opportunity to listen to esteemed Duke scientists share about their current research as well as their career paths. Not only was it fascinating to learn about the diverse projects they’ve dedicated their careers to, but it was very intimate to learn about their personal journeys that have made them the successful scientists they are today. It was comforting to hear their stories and to learn that a lot of them did not follow a linear path to become a scientist. Instead, many of them took non-traditional paths that allowed them to explore many different avenues and discover many valuable experiences.
Though I enjoyed listening to all the faculty seminars, Dr. Raphael Valdivia’s talk caught my attention the most. Dr. Valdivia’s lab studies the pathogen chlamydia, a bacteria that is responsible for infecting thousands of men and women with sexually transmitted diseases as well as causing infectious blindness in humans. His work mainly involves identifying the mechanisms of how chlamydia mediates reprogramming of host cells and investigating how they occur. One of the mechanisms he observed is how chlamydia infections prevent cells from undergoing apoptosis, or cell death. I thought it was interesting how chlamydia uses this mechanism to proliferate in cells.
However, what really drew my attention was how personal he was with sharing his story. Dr. Valdivia grew up in Lima, Peru. He obtained his undergraduate education at Cornell University, attended Stanford for his Ph.D. and Berkeley for his post-doc. It wasn’t an easy road for him, however. After not being able to get into grad school right after college, it was his amount of determination to get in after his gap year that really inspired me. He was also faced with many tough decisions, such as having to decide to work in a lab where he values intellectual stimulation and being outdoors where he loves the adrenaline rush of climbing mountains. His gap year helped him decide that his true calling was with science and discovery. He really emphasized how important hard work is. If you’re willing to put in the work that it takes, you can go far. Ultimately, it was this amount of determination and authentic passion he has for his work that I enjoyed hearing the most.
Hearing about the research and life stores of various Duke faculty members was really enlightening; every speaker took a different path in science, yet all seemed to truly love where they ended up in their research. While some knew from a young age that they wanted to pursue research, it was reassuring to learn about the large number who had to explore a range of possibilities before arriving at their current profession.
One speaker I really enjoyed listening to was Dr. Charles Gersbach. As a biomedical engineering major, I found his story about making the decision between research and industry extremely relatable. Also, the way in which his research combines genomic research and engineering (two fields that really interest me) is fascinating, and the possibilities of using genome editing for gene therapy opens up a number of possibilities nearly unimaginable to me. DNA used to be considered this unchangeable aspect of our selves, and for a long time there was nothing that could be done about life-threatening mutations, even if it was a simple base change. CRISPR-mediated genome editing is truly thinking outside of the box by manipulating a bacterial mechanism in order to potentially treat diseases (such as muscular dystrophy), whose causes are locked within our own genome.
To me, Dr. Gersbach’s research really exemplifies the unique interdisciplinary type of research that occurs at Duke. I first heard about his research while doing an AP Biology project in high school, and I think that was the first time I was really taken aback by how far science has come and the possibilities that are awoken by research. Someday, I hope that I can also find a way to combine my interests in genetics and engineering in a way that not only contributes to scientific knowledge, but also makes me look forward to continuing my work every day.