“I never thought I could make an impact on chemistry and students’ lives. But now, I’m the head of a lab with several Ph.D. and undergraduate students and a postdoctoral researcher; and we’re developing simple, low-cost lab techniques that can be adopted by labs across the world,” says Abraham Badu-Tawiah, Ph.D., the Robert K. Fox Professor of Chemistry at Ohio State University in Columbus. We talked with Dr. Badu-Tawiah about his career progression, research, and advice for students hoping to launch a career in science.
Q: How did you get started on the path to a career in science?
A: In Ghana, where I grew up, education works differently than in the United States. High school students are assigned subjects to study primarily based on their grades, and once assigned a subject, it’s difficult to switch. I was assigned to math, physics, and chemistry, which put me on a path toward being an engineer. I was happy to be studying science, but after the death of my brother, I wanted to study medicine more than engineering.
Andrew G. Campbell, Ph.D., a professor of medical science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and previous dean of the graduate school, is passionate about researching understudied diseases and helping students reach their full potential.
Dr. Campbell’s lab has studied the single-cell organismTrypanosoma brucei (T. brucei), a parasite transmitted through the bite of the tsetse fly, which is only found in specific regions of Africa. In humans, T. brucei causes African Trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness. Symptoms of this illness include headache, weakness, tiredness, and altered sleep schedules; and if left untreated, it can be fatal. Dr. Campbell studies the function of certain enzymes found in T. brucei and other infectious agents, like hepatitis B virus and HIV, with the hope that they can serve as targets for new treatments for diseases.
“Science is for everyone. It’s in everything. It exists in cultures everywhere,” says Chantel Tsosie, a master’s student in the NIGMS-supported Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff. The program aims to prepare a diverse group of students for research careers through culturally relevant support, hands-on research experiences, and a tailored curriculum.
Chantel started her bachelor’s studies at NAU as a dental hygiene major and later changed her focus to biomedical sciences. “I’m from the Navajo Nation, and growing up on the reservation, I wasn’t really exposed to research as a career. At NAU, I began taking classes like microbiology and chemistry and found that I loved the lab portions of those. I met scientists who were Indigenous and really started looking up to them,” she says. When a faculty member brought RISE to her attention, she was immediately interested and reached out to its leaders, Catherine Propper, Ph.D., and Anita Antoninka, Ph.D.
“What’s great about a career in research is that there are so many paths you can take. I get so excited for the future when I think about all the open doors ahead of me,” says Hasset Nurelegne, a senior at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Hasset is majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology (NBB) as well as English.
Since her first year on campus, Hasset has been an active participant in an NIGMS-funded program at Emory that aims to develop a diverse pool of scientists, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) (which is now just for graduate students; the Maximizing Access to Research Careers [MARC] program is now available for undergraduates). The Emory IMSD has provided Hasset and other trainees with financial assistance for year-round research experiences and a support system for professional development skills and responsible conduct of research.
“There aren’t many professions that can provide this much opportunity for learning, especially when it comes to understanding how our bodies work. I really love what I do—I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Alan Saghatelian, Ph.D., a professor in the Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. From studying new facts and experimental techniques to adopting new ways of thinking, researchers never stop learning, and Dr. Saghatelian credits his love for learning and exploring as reasons why he’s perfectly suited for science. He’s used these passions to build a successful career in biochemistry.
From Chemistry to Biology
Dr. Saghatelian’s love for chemistry began when he was young. He was drawn to how predictable it could be: Mix two chemical compounds in the same way and they’ll always combine to form the same substance, as dictated by the rules of chemistry.
What do worm blobs and insect pee have to do with human health? We talked to Saad Bhamla, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, to find out.
Q: What did your path to becoming a scientist look like?
A: I grew up in Dubai and did my undergraduate work in India, which is where I was first introduced to science. The science faculty members seemed to be having so much fun and would say things like “for the love of science,” but I couldn’t figure out what joy they were getting until I got a taste of it myself—then I was hooked. I like the idea that you can create a legacy doing science because someone can come along 100 years later and build on your work.
After undergrad, I went to Stanford University and earned my Ph.D. in the lab of Gerald Fuller, Ph.D., and then stayed at Stanford for postdoctoral work (postdoc) in the lab of Manu Prakash, Ph.D. In 2017, I joined the faculty at Georgia Tech. On paper, I’m a chemical engineer, but I describe myself as more of a biophysicist.
“One of the best aspects of research is the excitement of discovery, being the first person in the world to know a small detail about the system you’re studying,” says Jeffrey Mugridge, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Delaware in Newark. We talked with Dr. Mugridge about how a pet store job sparked his early interest in science, why he decided to change his career trajectory after graduate school, and what he believes is key to being a successful researcher.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: My strong interest in science didn’t develop until I was in high school—I wasn’t one of those kids who had a chemistry set or a deep love for dinosaurs or anything like that. But in high school, I worked in a pet store, where I learned a lot about aquarium science, including the ins and outs of managing water chemistry to keep fish alive. I also had a fantastic chemistry teacher who really helped me foster a love for the field.
Claira Sohn credits her grandfather with sparking her interest in science. Although he never studied science at a 4-year university due to financial limitations, he took many community college classes and worked in chemistry labs developing products such as hair dyes and dissolvable stitches. “Every morning, my grandfather would take me to school, and we’d stop to get orange juice and a cookie and talk about science. When I was in elementary school, he bought me a book about quantum mechanics written for kids,” she says. “He inspired me to ask questions and encouraged me to go to college.”
Claira enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff after graduating high school. She majored in biomedical sciences and planned to become a medical doctor until her microbiology professor talked to her about the possibility of a research career. “That was an epiphany for me, because while I knew that there was research going on in the world, I didn’t realize there could be a place for me there,” Claira says. During her junior year, she joined the lab of Naomi Lee, Ph.D., where she first experienced what it felt like to be a researcher.
“I hope that one day I’m able to increase our understanding of evolution, and I also hope to increase access to research. I want others to know that this space is open to people who look like me, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who are underrepresented in the sciences,” says Nkrumah Grant, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate (postdoc) in microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing.
Dr. Grant’s work receives support from the NIGMS Diversity Supplement Program (DSP), which is designed to improve the recruitment and training of promising researchers from diverse backgrounds. Diversifying the scientific workforce can lead to new approaches to research questions, increased recruitment of diverse volunteers for clinical studies, an improved capacity to address health disparities, and many other benefits.
“We scientists know very little of what can be known—I find that invigorating,” says Dylan Burnette, Ph.D., an associate professor of cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “Most people find it exhausting, but I’m comfortable with not knowing all of biology’s secrets.” In an interview, Dr. Burnette shared his lab’s work on muscle cells, the knowledge he hopes readers take away from his research, and some advice to future scientists about being comfortable being wrong.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: Unlike with other subjects (it took me a long time to learn how to read), I excelled at science. In third-grade science class, I knew every answer on the tests. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I did well because I found it interesting. I decided I wanted to become a medical doctor that year. Back then, doctors were the only type of person who I thought did any type of science.