Category: Being a Scientist

Studying and Sharing the Big Questions of Biology

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A headshot of Dr. Márquez-Zacarías.
Dr. Pedro Márquez-Zacarías. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Pedro Márquez-Zacarías.

When he started high school in Mexico, Pedro Márquez-Zacarías, Ph.D., wanted to be a politician. However, as he became aware of issues like corruption, he began looking into other fields. Chemistry fascinated him, so he enrolled in a class at his school that was later canceled partway through the year. He then joined a biology class because it included a unit on biochemistry, and through that experience, found that he enjoyed other aspects of biology as well—so much so that he went on to compete in the International Biology Olympiad, a competition for high school biology students.

After graduating from high school, Dr. Márquez-Zacarías majored in biomedical sciences at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and discovered a passion for ecology and evolution. During a class activity where students had to present scientific papers, the work of evolutionary biologist William Croft Ratcliff, Ph.D. riveted him. Dr. Márquez-Zacarías began an email conversation with Dr. Ratcliff that led to visiting his NIGMS-supported lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Bioengineer César de la Fuente

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Headshot of Dr. de la Fuente.
Dr. César de la Fuente. Credit: Martí E. Berenguer.

“Science provides adventure and excitement every single day. When you’re pushing boundaries, you get to jump into the abyss of new areas. It can be scary, but it’s an incredible opportunity to try to improve our world and people’s lives,” says César de la Fuente, Ph.D., a Presidential Assistant Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Our interview with Dr. de la Fuente highlights his journey of becoming a scientist and his research using artificial intelligence to discover new drugs.

Q: How did you first become interested in science?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by the world around me. I grew up in a town in northwest Spain, right on the Atlantic Ocean. As a kid, I would go to the beach to investigate marine organisms and bring home all sorts of different fish to study. My mom wasn’t too happy about that! We’re all born scientists, but we tend to lose that curiosity as we enter adulthood. The key is to not lose our ability to learn every day.

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Training Students and Communicating Science on Capitol Hill

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A headshot of Dr. Bobylev.
Dr. Mikhail Bobylev. Credit: Minot State University.

“I’ve been infected with this enthusiasm for science, and I think that carries over to my students. Essentially, I lead by example,” says Mikhail Bobylev, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at Minot State University in Minot, North Dakota. He researches ways to improve the chemical synthesis of medicinal molecules, and since 2004, he’s has mentored more than 70 undergraduate researchers in his lab with support from the NIGMS-funded North Dakota IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE).

Dr. Bobylev focuses on training students to conduct rigorous, meaningful research and to communicate it clearly to a variety of audiences, including the general public, scientists, and policymakers. He believes that this emphasis on strong communication skills is one of the reasons why his students were often selected for Posters on the Hill—a prestigious annual event where undergraduate researchers presented their work to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Since 2008, 10 of his mentees were chosen to participate.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Organic Chemist Elizabeth Parkinson

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Dr. Parkinson wearing a lab coat and gloves and holding a Petri dish.
Dr. Elizabeth Parkinson. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Parkinson.

“Being able to discover new, unexpected things is why you wake up every day and go to work as a scientist. The other part is hopefully to have a positive impact on human health—through combatting conditions ranging from antibiotic resistance to cancer,” says Elizabeth Parkinson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In an interview, Dr. Parkinson shared with us her path to a scientific career, research on natural products made by soil-dwelling bacteria, and advice for students.

Q: What sparked your interest in science?

A: My high school freshman biology teacher, Mr. O’Connell, first got me interested in science. He’d bring objects to class, and we’d have to guess how they might relate to the day’s subject matter. One time he brought strawberries, and we isolated DNA from them, which I really enjoyed. I also participated in a science fair for the first time that year. My project focused on how the color of light affected plant growth, and that was a very fun experience.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Biochemist Alexis Komor

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A headshot of Dr. Komor.
Dr. Alexis Komor. Credit: Michelle Fredricks.

DNA is an amazingly beautiful molecule, and it’s so important. Each of our cells has only one copy of DNA, and if it gets damaged, that messes up everything else in the cell,” says Alexis Komor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Komor to learn about her scientific journey, research on DNA, and advice for students.

Q: How did you decide to study chemistry?

A: I really enjoyed math and science in middle and high school. When I applied to college, I knew I wanted to major in science over math because I felt like it was more relevant to what we experience on a day-to-day basis. I ultimately went into chemistry for a silly reason, but looking back now, I’m so very grateful that I did. Chemistry has this nice balance because it allows you to not only understand how things work on a molecular level but also see how those molecular workings relate to everyday phenomena—for example, understanding how DNA damage on a molecular level can lead to negative health outcomes.

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Catching Up With ReMARCable Vanderbilt Graduates

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Four students standing in front of a campus building staircase.
Four of the first-cohort MARC scholars in April 2022. From left to right: Cassidy Johnson, Lucy Britto, Hannah Craft, and Sim Plotkin. Credit: Dr. Katherine Friedman.

In 2021, we shared the perspectives of third-year undergraduates who had recently joined the first cohort of the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt’s MARC program provides mentorship and professional development opportunities to third- and fourth-year undergraduates who plan to pursue advanced degrees and are from groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences. In spring 2022, as the cohort prepared for graduation, we followed up on their progress and postgraduation plans.

“I feel really pleased with how well our students have done despite entering the program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and a co-director of its MARC program. Four of the six first-cohort students are entering doctoral programs in fall 2022, and the other two have made preparations to pursue higher degrees at a later date.

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Hunting Disease-Causing Genetic Variants

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A headshot of Dr. Meisler.
Dr. Miriam Meisler. Credit: University of Michigan Medical School.

“In my lab, we’ve been gene hunters—starting with visible phenotypes, or characteristics, and searching for the responsible genes,” says Miriam Meisler, Ph.D., the Myron Levine Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. During her career, Dr. Meisler has identified the functions of multiple genes and has shown how genetic variants, or mutations, can impact human health.

Becoming a Scientist

Dr. Meisler had a strong interest in science as a child, which she credits to “growing up at the time of Sputnik” and receiving encouragement from her father and excellent science teachers in high school and college. However, when she started her undergraduate studies at Antioch College in Yellow Spring, Ohio, she decided to explore the humanities and social sciences. After 2 years of sociology and anthropology classes, she returned to biomedical science and, at a student swap, symbolically traded her dictionary for a slide rule—a mechanical device used to do calculations that was eventually replaced by the electric calculator.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Medicinal Inorganic Chemist Eszter Boros

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Dr. Boros wearing a lab coat and gloves and holding a flask.
Dr. Eszter Boros. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Eszter Boros.

“As a researcher, you get to learn something new every day, and that knowledge feeds more questions. It’s this eternal learning process, and I find that really enticing about being in science,” says Eszter Boros, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. Our interview with Dr. Boros highlights her journey of becoming a scientist and her research on biomedical applications of metals.

Q: What drew you to science?

A: I was born and raised in Switzerland, and I went to a linguistics-focused high school there, but I gravitated to chemistry because I loved that we could understand the world at a molecular level and see the macroscopic consequences of microscopic processes.

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The League of VetaHumanz: Encouraging Kids to Use Their Powers for Good!

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Dr. San Miguel standing in front of a van full of boxes wearing a mask and a cape.
Pink Phoenix, alter ego of Dr. Sandra San Miguel, preparing to pass out Vaccine SuperPower Packs described later in this post. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Sandra San Miguel.

“I’m Pink Phoenix, leader of the Vetahumanz League of superheroes, and it’s the best job in the world.” The League of VetaHumanz is a superhero league for veterinarians, founded and led by Pink Phoenix, the alter ego of Sandra San Miguel, D.V.M., Ph.D. Through support from the NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, the league seeks to diversify the veterinary profession.

Members of the league work with elementary students across the country to give them a sense of belonging to the veterinary profession. “I’m most proud of bringing people together who share the mission and vision with all their heart,” Pink Phoenix remarks. “Nobody can just be a member of the league. You have to earn the cape.” The league has over 400 certified role models throughout the country who are either veterinarians—VetaHumanz—or veterinary school students—VetaHumanz in training.

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From MARC Student to MacArthur Fellow

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Dr. Torres standing in a lab holding a Petri dish.
Dr. Víctor J. Torres. Credit: Keenan Lacey, Ph.D.

“I study the dance between a bacterium and its host. If we can decode the secrets of that dance—how the pathogen causes disease, and how the host fights back—we might be able to take advantage of vulnerabilities to improve our ability to combat infections,” says Víctor J. Torres, Ph.D., the C. V. Starr Professor of Microbiology at the New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

Discovering and Pursuing a Passion for Science

Growing up, Dr. Torres never would have imagined his highly successful scientific career, especially since he didn’t have a strong interest in science. He entered the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, in 1995, planning to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and join the Air Force after graduation. He struggled during his first year of college and had to repeat several courses. In one of those courses, he met a fellow student who was planning to pursue a career in science—his now wife, Carmen A. Perez, M.D., Ph.D., who’s a radiation oncologist at NYU Langone. She shared with Dr. Torres some of the opportunities in science available to him, including the NIGMS-funded Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program at their university.

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