Category: Being a Scientist

Exploring Ribosome Assembly and RNA Modification: Q&A With Eda Koculi

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Dr. Eda Koculi standing in a lab with an old chemistry textbook lying open on the bench behind her.
Dr. Koculi standing in her lab next to her childhood chemistry book that changed her life. Credit: Luis Miranda, UTEP Media.

“Being a scientist is thrilling, and it’s also tremendously fun,” says Eda Koculi, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). “In my opinion, science is the only profession that allows a person to simultaneously express their creativity, quench their intellectual curiosity, and serve society.” We spoke with Dr. Koculi about how she became a researcher, what she’s uncovering about how ribosomes are built and modified, and how she encourages students to pursue scientific careers.

Get to Know Dr. Koculi

  • Coffee or tea? Coffee
  • Favorite music genre? Classical
  • Salty or sweet? Salty
  • Early bird or night owl? Night owl
  • Washing glassware in the lab or dishes in your kitchen? Glassware
  • What was your childhood dream job? A scientist or a teacher—and I have both my dream jobs.
  • Favorite hobby? Hiking
  • Favorite piece of lab safety equipment? Geiger counter
  • Favorite molecule? RNA
  • A scientist (past or present) you’d like to meet? Marie Curie

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The Third Product of Cell Division: Q&A With Ahna Skop

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A headshot of Dr. Ahna Skop.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Ahna Skop.

“Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed studying topics that no one else seems to care about. I always tell people that I like searching through the scientific garbage bin for inspiration,” says Ahna Skop, Ph.D., a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We talked with her about the backyard experiment that helped her gain confidence in her scientific abilities, her career-long pursuit to better understand a detail about cell division that others had written off as unimportant, and her desire to build an accessible scientific community.

Q: How did you first become interested in science?

A: Middle school and high school science fairs had a big impact on me. I would develop my ideas, and with the help of my dad, build the experimental setup I needed to answer the scientific question. One of my experiments studied whether ants preferred to eat salt or sugar, so I poured small piles of both all over the backyard and took daily measurements of the height of the piles to figure out which type was shrinking faster. (Spoiler alert for those of you who might try this at home: They liked both but preferred the sugar to the salt.)

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Glenn Gilyot: Molecular Sensors and STEM Education

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Dr. Glenn Gilyot wearing safety glasses and gloves while pipetting a liquid from a tube.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Glenn Gilyot.

Glenn Gilyot, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry at Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia, studies how to use fluorescent sensors to detect certain disease biomarkers in the body. He credits two NIGMS training programs that he participated in as an undergraduate and graduate student with helping him launch a successful career in research. Outside the lab, Dr. Gilyot is passionate about science outreach and encouraging future researchers to follow their curiosities.

An Early Introduction to Chemistry

Working in chemistry runs in Dr. Gilyot’s family: His grandfather was a pharmacist at a small pharmacy in New Orleans, Louisiana, and his father was a criminalist for the New Orleans Police Department. “When I was a kid, I’d visit both my grandfather and father at work. My grandfather would tell me about the medicines he had in the store and explain what they did in the body. My dad would show me the instruments, such as a mass spectrometer that helped him find out the chemical composition of samples from crime scenes,” says Dr. Gilyot.

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Bryan Dickinson Designs Molecules to Solve Biological Mysteries

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A portrait image of Dr. Dickinson.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Bryan Dickinson.

“Being a researcher gives you the opportunity to have an impact on the world. It’s a privilege to be able to answer questions that can make a difference in people’s lives,” says Bryan Dickinson, Ph.D. He first fell in love with science as an undergraduate student, and now, as a professor of chemical biology at the University of Chicago, Dr. Dickinson still finds excitement in even the most challenging research questions.

Where Chemistry Meets Biology

Dr. Dickinson majored in biochemistry at the University of Maryland (UMD) in College Park, but he didn’t know what it meant to be a researcher until he started working in labs. His experiences in an analytical chemistry lab at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and then a biophysics lab at UMD helped him realize that research isn’t like science taught in the classroom, with a list of facts to learn. “The reality is that science is a set of guiding principles that we test under different conditions to learn when they apply in the world,” says Dr. Dickinson. He enjoyed the freedom in asking scientific questions and in how research could be like solving a puzzle.

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Motor Proteins and Microscopy: Q&A With Morgan DeSantis

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A portrait image of Dr. Morgan DeSantis.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Morgan DeSantis.

“I remember thinking in my first cellular biology class how impossibly beautiful it is that there are tiny machines in our bodies doing work,” says Morgan DeSantis, Ph.D., an assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We talked with Dr. DeSantis about how her career in science almost didn’t happen, how happy she is that it did, and what she’s learning through her research on molecular machines.

Q: How did you become interested in science?

A: I wasn’t remotely interested in science in high school—I was a self-identified artist. I went to the College of Wooster in Ohio with the sole purpose of studying art and doing pottery. But one day during my freshman year, a box with all the pieces I made throughout the year fell, and everything inside broke. It’s hard to describe the emotions I felt that day, but something changed in me, and I realized pottery wasn’t for me. I couldn’t start the projects over, and I didn’t want to drop out and move back home. So, I decided to become a medical doctor.

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Advancing Endometriosis Research With Caroline Appleyard

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A headshot of Dr. Appleyard.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Caroline B. Appleyard.

The job opening at Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU) in Ponce, Puerto Rico—home to great coral reefs—seemed like a perfect fit for Caroline B. Appleyard, Ph.D., given that scuba diving was one of her favorite hobbies. She only intended to stay for a short time, but now, more than 25 years later, Dr. Appleyard is a professor of physiology and pharmacology and program director of the NIGMS-funded Graduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (G-RISE) at PHSU.

An Interest in Inflammation

Growing up in Scotland, Dr. Appleyard was captivated by a children’s show with science demonstrations that helped kids and teens understand the world around them. She enjoyed studying biology and chemistry, and in high school, joined a lab at a local university that studied pharmacology. Her lab project studying the medicine aspirin ultimately solidified her interest in a career in research.

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Analyzing Aggression in Female Fruit Flies: Q&A With Caroline Palavicino-Maggio

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A headshot of Dr. Palavicino-Maggio.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Caroline Palavicino-Maggio.

“Turning personal grief into a relentless drive for answers and action has been a big part of my life,” says Caroline Palavicino-Maggio, Ph.D., the director of the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Aggression Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. Her sister’s death played a large role in her decision to study the biological mechanisms of behavior and do advocacy work in mental wellness. We spoke with Dr. Palavicino-Maggio about what her path was to becoming a researcher, what she’s learning about the cellular basis of aggression, and why she believes a career in science is exciting.

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Martin Burke: Replacing Lost Proteins to Treat Disease

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As a medical student, Martin Burke, M.D., Ph.D., helped care for a young college student with cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disease that affects the body’s ability to make sweat and mucus. Dr. Burke had just studied CF in class, so he relayed what he had learned to her. He had a lot of information to give—doctors and researchers know the exact amino acid changes in an ion channel protein called cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) that cause CF.

A portrait shot of Dr. Martin Burke standing in front of complex machinery.
Credit: UIUC News Bureau, Fred Zwicky.

“At one point in the conversation, she stopped me and said, ‘It sounds like you know exactly what’s wrong with me, so why can’t you fix it?’” Dr. Burke, now the May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), never forgot this question. In fact, it’s inspired his career-long search for new ways to develop therapies for diseases without effective treatment options.

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Investigating the Primary Cilium: Q&A With Xuecai Ge

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A headshot of Dr. Xuecai Ge.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Xuecai Ge.

The brain is a large and complex organ, but some very small structures guide its development. Xuecai Ge, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Merced (UC Merced), has devoted her career to understanding one of these structures called the primary cilium. In an interview, Dr. Ge shared how her childhood experience inspired her to study science and what makes the primary cilium fascinating.

Q: How did you first become interested in science?

A: When I was a little kid, my mom was a primary care doctor, and I saw her treat patients in our community. I noticed that no matter who got a particular illness, she could use the same medicine to treat them. My little mind was amazed that the same medicine could work for so many different people! I think this early experience planted the original seed of my interest in life science.

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Quiz: Do You Know Your Immune System?

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This post is part of a miniseries on the immune system. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series that you may have missed.
Cartoon microbes with smiley faces forming the shape of a question mark.
Credit: NIGMS.

Throughout our immunology miniseries, we introduced the immune system and its many functions and components. Additionally, we highlighted how vaccines train your immune system, how the system can go awry, and how NIGMS-supported researchers are studying immunology and infectious diseases. Put your knowledge about the immune system to the test by taking the quiz below.

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