Blog Posts

3 degrees, 3 fields

By  Farbod Mahmoudinobar

 

As a kid I didn’t like to ask many questions.

I was told that scientists by nature like to ask a lot of questions.

Yet, I liked science.

Just because I didn’t like to ask many questions didn’t mean I wasn’t curious. Instead, I enjoyed problem solving independently. Asking questions is only one means to satisfy the curiosity of a scientific mind. Compared to being handed the answer, self-discovery requires a deeper understanding of the challenge. Like completing a puzzle, the enjoyment is in the problem solving process. Once solved, it becomes merely a memento of your achievement. My passion for learning originates here, I want to build towards the answers to my questions.

I have always been interested in the medical sciences. The specialized yet interdependent function of each organ is pretty amazing to me. I was curious to understand the mechanisms of a healthy body and the advancement of biotechnology to ameliorate so many medical conditions. My high school biology course may have sparked my interest in this field. By the end of high school I had developed a love for math, physics, and biology. To combine my broad scientific interests, I chose my first field, BioMedical Engineering (BME), at Amirkabir University of Tehran. BME is an amazing major which integrates my engineering problem solving skills with my interest in medical science with the goal of improving healthcare diagnostics and therapy. The courses I took covered a broad range of topics from Finite Elements Methods, Strength of Materials and Computer Programming, to Bioinstrumentation, Fluid Mechanics in Biological Systems and Tissue Mechanics. I gained hands-on research experience in a tissue engineering lab. I analyzed endothelial cell elasticity after cyclic stress loading to understand the cellular impact of high blood pressure and hypertension. I enjoyed using my skills to find the answers to problems.

 

The BME major and my research were so fascinating that I decided to continue my education with an advanced degree. I had realized one of shortcomings of my experimental research: I did not understand the inner workings of endothelial cells. I learned that biological functions are studied on the molecular level using molecular simulations. Not only could I learn more about proteins, I could also complement experimentation with these simulations. Thus, I applied to PhD programs in bio-related fields with a research focus on computer simulations. I skip a lot of things here, i.e., my travel to the US to continue my studies and its complications. I was admitted to the Biophysics (my second field) PhD program at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in the Fall of 2013. I joined the lab of Dr. Cristiano Dias in the Physics department. He was not only my research advisor, but also my mentor and teacher. Over the next six years, I learned numerous new subjects such as Quantum Mechanics, Electromagnetism, Statistical Mechanics and most importantly, atomistic simulations. I found that I am passionate about simulations and coding.  We conducted research on protein aggregation involved in diseases including Alzheimer’s and type-II diabetes using molecular dynamics simulations. I also gained experience mentoring undergraduate students as well as teaching undergraduate courses and labs. We published five papers as results of my PhD work which included answers to problems which could help many people.

 

A person standing in front of a screen</p><br />
<p>Description automatically generated

Me presenting my research as a part of my PhD at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

 

As my PhD was coming to an end, I had a clear path in front of me. I needed to learn new skills and gain more experience to broaden my horizons. That is the reason I started as a postdoctoral associate in the department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (my third field) at New York University. In my current role, I am co-advised by Dr. Jin Montclare at CBE and Dr. Richard Bonneau at Flatiron Institute and NYU. I work with many great scientists including Dr. Douglas Renfrew at Flatiron Institute to perform computational simulations on protein biomaterials with diagnostic and therapeutic properties.

 

I am glad that my academic life has worked out so well to this point. I consider myself very lucky. I traveled across the world and worked within different fields and departments with one simple goal: to answer some questions.

 

I want to be a beach bum

By Dustin Britton

What do you want to do after you graduate?

“I want to be a beach bum.”

Although that wasn’t my long-term goal, it was still my best plan after completing both undergraduate and master’s degrees.

I owe much of my current research drive to an unexpected 12 weeks that evolved my perspective on pursuing scientific research. Prior, my classes taught me thermodynamics, separations, and transport theory. My notebooks were filled with long differential equations and little understanding of the practical relevance of my newfound knowledge. My internship experiences consisted of trudging through pungent, dirty plants with steel toed boots and a hard hat to take mundane measurements and process check-ups: ‘everything is running well as usual.’ It is putting it mildly to say that I was disillusioned with the postgraduate job prospects that Chemical Engineering beheld. I had expected to ‘engineer chemicals’ for an albeit corny, ‘better world.’

Thus, I entered a 12 month Master’s program in Chemical Engineering primarily to postpone my job search and to extend the enjoyment of college. My program involved completion of graduate coursework in the first two semesters followed by a research project as a Particle Technology Intern for the Chemours Company. Because I had never set foot in the lab outside of my undergraduate core classes, I had no concept of what scientific research entailed. I learned that my research group at the Chemours Company would include one principal scientist (or Principal Investigator, P.I.) and myself. The company was based out of a research facility in Wilmington, Delaware. I was not excited.

My job consisted of carefully preparing various powder materials into stainless steel holders for various rheology devices. I was also tasked to read (embarrassingly with not much enthusiasm or effort) about bulk solids flow and rheology theory. After about six weeks I was able to collect my first real set of data. Still, I was not excited.

Shortly after, my P.I. showed me how my readings on theory were related to the results I had tediously collected. I was taught to search and analyze trends to elucidate novel relationships. I was shown how to present my data and defend my thoughts. I was encouraged to derive my own ideas and improve experimental designs. I was given my first opportunity to relate my academic experience to industrial application. This was fascinating and exciting.

The process then repeated itself, but this time, I was vested and knew what the end bore. I fell in love with the process of using fundamental knowledge to extrapolate an idea and ultimately create a unique discovery. This deeply changed my idea of how I could contribute to the world with my education and skill set. I owe a lot to my PI and the independence and challenges he presented me with as a part of my first research experience. Shortly after, I applied to a Ph.D. program to continue the pursuit of scientific discovery.

I feel incredibly lucky that my career has found me rather than the opposite. My journey to pursuing a Ph.D. is uncommon among my peers. While it seems that many who pursue a Ph.D. have an earlier semblance of their scientific goals, I remind myself that my journey also conveys my passion for scientific research and demonstrates a love for discovery and engineering a better world.

If you were to ask me now what I want to do after I graduate, I will  say:

“I want to be a beach bum…. But only for a little bit.”

“ I want to head back to the lab.”

The New Vanguard: First-Generation Students

 By Stanley Chu

Being the first to accomplish something, especially in STEM, is an achievement. Pioneers are lauded for their contributions to the field and remembered for their triumphs. But what’s  often forgotten is the loneliness, insecurity, and oftentimes guilt associated with that journey. First-generation students, those that are the first in their family to attend college, face a similar struggle. While it is difficult to pin an exact definition of who is included in this group, what can be said about first-generation (first-gen) students is that they often “lack the critical cultural capital necessary for college success because their parents did not attend college.”1 This “cultural capital” refers to the intangibles that contribute to student success in a college setting.

As a first-gen student, perhaps one of the toughest challenges I’ve had to face in pursuing higher education was my relationship with my family. My family immigrated to America from Hong Kong in the 80’s. As is true for many immigrant families, the move was inspired with the hopes of having more opportunities in America. It’s the dream of many immigrant parents to watch their kids pursue higher education. While I was able to earn my PhD in STEM, I wasn’t able to share the entirety of this journey with my mother. For one, I simply do not have the Chinese vocabulary to describe Chemical Engineering to my mother. I lack the language to describe my research and to accurately portray the rigors of academia. While my family has been approving in my academic pursuits, they were unable to act as an effective support system during my undergraduate and graduate years when it came to academic affairs.

A group of people sitting at a table with wine glasses</p><br />
<p>Description automatically generated

(From left to right) Me, my sister, and my mom toast my successful thesis defense.  

For many of my peers who are also first-gen, they too experience a lack of family support. It is well documented that students in higher education experience more issues with mental health. A Nature report has suggested that there is a mental health crisis amongst graduate students, with graduate students six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression compared to the general population.2 What is a mentally challenging time for all graduate students is even more so for first-gen students who often find that their family does not or will not understand their mental health issues. In my final months of graduate school, I began therapy sessions and even sought medical help to cope with the pressures of academia. When I shared my decision to seek treatment with my family, I was met with pushback. I was told I wasn’t “depressed”, but “just lazy”. I was told that the decision to take prescription medicine should’ve been a family decision. Many first-gen students come from cultures that do not view mental health as important as physical health. For this reason, I am very vocal about my own experiences and about mental health education.

First-gen students also lack family mentors, specifically in navigating the culture of academia. This may manifest in lacking guidance in selecting what fields to major in, not having safe and effective outlets for venting frustrations, and a general disconnect with family members. Family members who have never gone to college can’t appreciate the unique pressures that one faces in college and graduate school. Family members may even discredit their issues and invalidate their experiences as a first-gen student, further distancing first-gen students from their families.

A group of people posing for a photo</p><br />
<p>Description automatically generated

My advisor, labmates, and I celebrate after I successfully defend my PhD. Graduate school is an academic and emotional challenge. Finding your chosen family that can empathize with your situation is crucial in maintaining your mental health.

First-gen students also receive less help in the college setting and have less resources. Many first-gen students come from low- to middle-income families. Thus, many first-gen students often work in order to support themselves through college. This also means that many first-gen students cannot afford to live on campus, thereby creating a different (and perhaps more isolating) college experience compared to non-first-gen students. While it is great to see more resources available for increasing diversity in STEM, first-generation students are not considered an underrepresented minority, thus there are not as many  opportunities for financial support. And, I believe the biggest disadvantage for first-gen students is that they have to build their professional network from scratch. Many non-first-gen students enter college able to rely on the professional network of their parents. For example, many professional opportunities, such as internships or co-ops, come from family friends.

My intentions with this blogpost are twofold. Foremost, I want to document a small portion of my experiences to spark dialogue in the greater community. It is my hope that by bringing the community together through conversation, first-gen students can find their peers and realize that they are not fighting this battle alone. I have found Twitter to be an extremely powerful platform for connecting with students all over the world. In terms of connecting with first-gen students, @firstgendocs serves as an excellent resource for finding other first-gen students and they also host cyber-workshops and events. Secondly, by bringing more attention to this issue, I hope that academic institutions recognize the legitimacy of the challenges faced by first-gen students and provide additional resources to support first-gen success.  Already, there are several organizations investigating the various statistics 1 about first-gen students as well as serving as a database for financial resources 3 for first-gen students.

The word “trailblazer”, although trite, seems appropriate for first-generation academics. To me, it invokes imagery of audacious explorers, torch and machete in hand, lost in the thick foliage and shrubbery of the jungle. There is no set path to follow and the unknown can often be crippling. But there’s beauty and power in this. To move forward and survive, they must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and use their tools to hack away at the vinery and burn away obstacles. Go forth, make your own rules, and don’t forget to reach back to give others the same chances that helped you succeed.

I would love to connect with you and follow your journey in STEM!

@StanleyChuPhD

  1. Center for First-Generation Student Success. https://firstgen.naspa.org/

  2. Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

  3. rise first. https://risefirst.org/

My Interest in Protein Engineering Research

By Xiaole Wang

In one of my undergraduate biochemistry labs, I was introduced to sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE). This is a process by which proteins are separated based on size from a protein sample with various kinds of protein. Running these experiments sparked my interest in biology research. After this experience, I joined a lab where I studied a food related polypeptide derived from naked oats. I was surprised to find that this kind of polypeptide is able to prevent blood sugar spikes after meals. Because I desired to understand proteins with greater nuance, I followed up my undergraduate study by enrolling in the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, majoring in biotechnology. In addition to my studies in the Engineering department, Dr. Montclare has given me the opportunity to volunteer in her lab where I have broadened my experience in protein related research, especially in protein engineering.

 

sds-page

Line pressed with loading buffer of samples during SDS-PAGE

 

I am amazed that proteins, composed of only 20 different building blocks, bear function in almost all of life’s activities. They play an essential role in daily exercise, cellular growth, metabolism, immunity, gene inheritance, and evolution of species. From microscopic creatures to dinosaurs with legs the size of the Parthenon’s columns, life cannot exist without proteins. However, there are many proteins that remain unknown in their function. Scientists continue to make steps in uncovering the mystery of nature by identifying new proteins. With the advances in gene manipulation, it is now possible to produce artificial “engineered” proteins. These engineered proteins can be developed to address issues in human health care. For instance, the creation of Cetuximab, a drug used for cancer treatment, is achieved through protein engineering. Also, protein engineering made it possible to artificially synthesize insulin (Goeddel et al., 1979).

 

E.coli under microscope
E. coli (one kind of gut bacteria) under microscope

dinosaur

One of the top 10 largest dinosaurs

Currently, I am working on a research project with protein based hydrogels, a kind of biomaterial that absorbs water and binds drug molecules. Hydrogels are thus capable of retaining moisture or delivering drugs for wound healing. By means of protein engineering, I am able to let E. coli (a very common bacteria existing in our gut) produce protein needed for hydrogel. Then, I let the protein chemically cross-link with each other to form cross-linked molecules that are able to shape hydrogel. With necessary handling of the gel, its ability of drug delivery is then tested on a mouse with wound. It turns out that the hydrogel works well!

A master’s level is not enough for providing me with necessary knowledge and skills to go deeply into this field. I am committed to pursuing a PhD to continue my interest in protein engineering.

 

Reference

Goeddel, D. V., Kleid, D. G., Bolivar, F., Heyneker, H. L., Yansura, D. G., Crea, R., … Riggs, A. D. (1979). Expression in Escherichia coli of chemically synthesized genes for human insulin. Biochemistry, 76, 106-110

 

Image Sources:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjEHJIPRtlU

https://www.microscopemaster.com/e-coli-under-microscope.html

https://www.seeker.com/top-10-largest-dinosaurs-1769041759.html

Breaking the Gender Stereotypes in STEM

By Jordyn Pierre-Raphael

Most little girls like to play dress-up with their dolls, but when I was younger I always treated my dolls as “patients,” who needed my help with a fever or a stuffy nose. I remember that I would wear a lab coat and use my plastic stethoscope to listen to my patients’ heartbeats. At this young age is when I first decided I wanted to become a doctor for the simple reason that I found helping people to be rewarding. In retrospect, I acknowledge my naivety because many occupations involve helping people in one way or another, but my motivations have certainly changed as I have matured and become more interested in the field of science.

In high school, I have developed a passion for science because it challenges me while simultaneously feeds my sense of curiosity. I have taken almost all of the accelerated science courses offered at my school, and my favorite of the many I have taken so far would definitely have to be Experimental Chemistry. It is a semester laboratory intensive course where I was exposed to some of the challenges that must be addressed in moving a chemical reaction from the page to the plant. This course taught me about advanced laboratory techniques for synthesis, purification, and analysis of compounds, including thin layer chromatography, gas chromatography, and UV-Vis spectroscopy, and the hands-on aspect of the course reminded me of my work in the Montclare Lab. I think the most important concept that I learned from the course is how important it is to approach problem-solving with a creative and collaborative mindset, and I have carried these skills with me as I work in the lab because of how pertinent they are.

I feel as though it is important to note that in my Experimental Chemistry class there were twelve students, and I was one of only three girls. This has been a recurring experience for me because almost all of my science classes are male-dominated, which caused me to become used to being interrupted or talked over more times than I could count by my male peers.

After talking with some of my female peers, I realized that we shared similar experiences in our science classes. Many talked about how they avoided participating in class because they feared judgment from their male peers, and this was something I had experienced but worked to overcome because it was stifling my learning experience. This is why I restarted the Women in STEM club at my school because I wanted the girls in my community to have a space where they could feel encouraged to study and then enter STEM fields as well as gain exposure to STEM-related opportunities at school. Over the past year of leading Women in STEM, it has been amazing to see other girls in my community be inspired to join the STEM field by enrolling in my school’s science courses, such as the Independent Science Research program which allowed me to work in the Montclare Lab. The Independent Science Research Program is a three year course at my school in which select high school students are able to pursue a science field of their interest, work in a professional research lab, and participate in science competitions during their junior and senior year. It is more of an experience than a class, in fact, as you are able to gain extensive public speaking practice, gain experience reading professional journal articles, and become knowledgeable about a field that you are passionate about. Few high school students are able to say that they worked in a research lab and gained research experience, and I can definitely say that I cherish the opportunity I have been given because I have been able to work with college graduate and undergraduate students and postdocs who are all so passionate about a field of research. My experience at the Montclare Lab has certainly inspired me to pursue scientific research when I am a college student!

 

Jordyn Pierre-Raphael

@jordyn_pr