“Being a researcher is special because there aren’t many jobs that allow you to spend the majority of your time thinking about the things you find the most interesting in the whole world,” says William Ratcliff, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences and the director of the interdisciplinary graduate program in quantitative biosciences at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta. We talked with Dr. Ratcliff about his career path, research on yeast, and advice to budding scientists.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: My family owns land in Northern California that has been passed down for more than 100 years. When I was a child, my brother and I would spend summers on that land getting lost in the woods. We would really see the forest for its parts: seeing how organisms interacted with one other, tracking stages of development, and listening to birdcalls. My grandmother would identify plants by their scientific names, and we’d discuss their reproduction strategies. We became amateur natural historians during those summers. Perhaps it’s no surprise my brother and I both got Ph.Ds. in biology.
Brenda Andrade, Ph.D., assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she first started community college. Through a program at her high school, she’d participated in Saturday morning science labs on the CSULA campus, and that introduction to science led her to think about pursuing some sort of scientific degree. She recalls flipping through the course catalog to the list of science classes needed to transfer to a 4-year university, and “naively going down the list and taking them.”
When a professor asked her if she’d thought about doing research, she responded, “What’s research?” That professor introduced her to the transfer program between the community college and nearby CSULA, and he encouraged her to apply to the NIGMS-funded Bridges to the Baccalaureate Research Training Program. When she did, she was accepted and began a summer research internship working in the lab of Linda Tunstad, Ph.D., a successful chemist with a similar background to Dr. Andrade’s. “That experience set my career trajectory,” she says. “I saw people like me, other Latinx people and people from underrepresented groups, doing research and thriving, like Dr. Tunstad. It really motivated me.”
Anyone who’s spent time in an academic science lab has probably heard about lab culture. Many labs boast long, rigorous working hours, while others require graduate students and postdoctoral trainees (postdocs) to meet often-unattainable experiment quotas each week. But is sheer quantity really the gold standard we want to hold ourselves to when it comes to training the next generation of scientists?
Neil Garg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Jen Heemstra, Ph.D., Charles Allen Thomas Professor and chair of the department of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, think not. In fact, they both felt so strongly that this mindset of training is so outdated and detrimental to academic excellence and integrity that they joined together to create #MentorFirst, an initiative encouraging academics to embrace mentorship in conjunction with research. “As faculty, both research and mentorship are important,” says Dr. Heemstra. “But it makes a huge difference which one we put first.”
Mentoring is a vital part of training the next generation of scientists. Through a variety of programs ranging from the undergraduate to faculty levels, NIGMS fosters the training and the development of a strong and diverse biomedical research workforce.
To celebrate National Mentoring Month, we’re highlighting a few of the many NIGMS-funded researchers who emphasize being great mentors. Check out the snapshots of our interviews with these mentors to see what they think about mentoring and to access and read their full stories.
Scientist Studies Burn Therapies After Being Severely Burned as a Child Julia Bohannon, Ph.D., inspired by her own experience of being severely burned as a child, researches therapies that could prevent patients with burns from developing infections. Dr. Bohannon also mentors students, particularly those who hope to be both parents and scientists. “I’ve had a lot of women ask me for advice on how to be a mom and pursue a career in academia, and it’s been a really cool experience to be able to share that with students and trainees,” she says.
“I’ve always been interested in science and in lizards. I got my first pet lizard when I was around 4 years old, and it was love at first sight,” says Thomas Lozito, Ph.D., who now studies the creatures as an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery, stem cell biology, and regenerative medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles.
During his childhood, Dr. Lozito turned his parents’ house into a “little zoo” of lizards and amphibians. He sneaked lizards into his dorm room as a college student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. While pursuing his Ph.D. in stem cell biology through a joint program between the National Institutes of Health and Cambridge University in England, he bred lizards and frogs and sold them to earn extra money.
Throughout 2022, we shared the stories of dozens of NIGMS-supported researchers, trainees, and programs. We also highlighted new STEM education resources, tested your knowledge with quizzes, showcased extraordinary scientific images, and more. To celebrate the upcoming new year, we’re highlighting five of our most popular posts from 2022. Check out the list below, and let us know in the comments section which of this year’s posts you liked best!
“I have a hard time envisioning a career more exciting than science. It’s really magical to see an experimental result and, for a moment, be the only person in the universe to know something about the world,” says Markita Landry, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. In an interview, Dr. Landry shares with us her scientific journey, research with nanoparticles, and interests outside of the lab.
Q: What sparked your interest in science?
A: I was indirectly exposed to science growing up because my mom was in computer science, but I think moving to the United States is what made me very interested in it. My mother is Bolivian; my father is French-Canadian; and I grew up mostly in Quebec, Canada. When I was halfway through high school, we moved to the United States, and, for the first time, my classes were taught in English. I really gravitated to math and science because they made sense regardless of the language they were taught in.
Since its creation in 1962, NIGMS has supported the work of the recipients of 94 Nobel Prizes—44 in physiology or medicine and 50 in chemistry. NIGMS-funded investigators perform cutting-edge basic research that is foundational to understanding normal life processes and disease. Such important breakthroughs in chemistry and biology often fuel more focused research that, years later, leads to important medical advances or products such as medicines or biotechnology tools.
The most recent NIGMS-supported Nobel laureates are Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Ph.D., the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University in Stanford, California, and K. Barry Sharpless, Ph.D., the W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. They, along with Morten Meldal, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, are being recognized with the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on a transformative scientific approach known as “click chemistry.” The three scientists will receive their awards during a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 10, 2022.
“Being able to ground your research in questions coming directly from your patients and their families is so meaningful and a huge part of why I’m interested in becoming a clinician-scientist,” says Amelia Wilhelm, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in the NIGMS-supported Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the University of Washington in Seattle. MSTPs prepare students to combine clinical practice and rigorous scientific research in their future careers.
Continuing the Family Tradition in Science
As a child of two scientists, Amelia was exposed to research and medical careers from an early age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and then began working as a lab technician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Watching the principal investigator of her lab, clinician-scientist Lindsey A. George, M.D., interact with patients inspired Amelia to pursue a similar career.
Public health crises often disproportionately impact rural America. Sally L. Hodder, M.D., works to alleviate these disparities, especially regarding the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s the director of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (WVCTSI), the associate vice president of clinical and translational research, and a professor of medicine at West Virginia University.
Dr. Hodder’s work is focused in West Virginia, but her results are valuable assets to researchers across the country. Not only does treating chronic diseases in rural populations contribute to the overall understanding of those diseases, but engaging with and involving people in those communities in research makes science more accessible to them. Dr. Hodder says, “When folks participate in the science, when there is good community discussion about the trial designs and the results, then I think those populations may be more trusting of the results.”