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My Scientific Summer with the Navy

By Joe Thomas

Academia or industry? This is a question that every grad student is asked at some point regarding their career plans.  As tenured academic positions become incredibly difficult for the bulk of life science graduates to obtain, industry is an attractive alternative that provides a wealth of different opportunities. These jobs are an obvious choice to apply the skills accumulated over the course of a PhD, but there are even more opportunities available outside of the traditional academia/industry dichotomy for those looking for something a little different. PhD scientists are trained to be highly technical leaders, a skill set that is in high demand in many defense/military positions. The Department of Defense (DoD) is always looking to recruit highly specialized researchers to work on projects of national importance. These roles allow researchers to be involved in cutting edge work that has a direct, near-term impact while serving your country.

Since starting graduate school, I have had an interest in working for/with the military as a researcher but was never able to interact with anyone who had direct knowledge of how to break into the field. Scholarships such as the NDSEG are widely publicized and allow graduate students to work on topics of national importance, but I was looking for something more involved with day-to-day military operations. A chance Google search revealed that the Navy uses numerous internship programs as pipelines for new hires. I applied for an NREIP internship and was fortunate enough to be selected to spend the summer at a Navy lab. NREIP internships are available to undergraduates and graduate students alike and involve working alongside a Navy mentor for 10 weeks to get a glimpse of how the DoD does science. My internship has me working with the Naval Medical Research Unit garrisoned at Wright Patterson in Dayton, Ohio. I am working in their Environmental Health Effects Laboratory which is in charge of investigating the effects of chemical exposures on military personnel. I have been tasked with developing a high-throughput analytical chemistry workflow that will allow the Navy to rapidly screen many different environmental exposures to assess how service members may be at risk. This new procedure will directly support and inform the military during their operations to help keep soldiers, sailors, and airmen safe and effective. During my time here, I have interacted with many Navy officers as well as civilian employees who work together in a tightly coordinated team to achieve their mission. The unit has researchers from many diverse backgrounds including biochemistry, physiology, physics, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and psychology. Since the team is incredibly multidisciplinary, scientists are able to step outside of their comfort zone and gain experience in different fields if they choose. In this way researchers can build their resumes to move up within the organization or to transition into other scientific specialties.

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Opportunities exist for those looking to serve in and out of uniform. The Navy recruits life science PhD gradates as officers to act as biochemists, microbiologists, and aerospace physiologists. In these roles they use their scientific knowledge to complete a wide range of tasks such as conducting safety training, running drug testing labs, developing vaccines, teaching at the Naval Academy, performing humanitarian missions, and carrying out basic research. Aerospace physiologists for example leverage their knowledge of biology and the human body to act as aeromedical safety officers. In this role they are in charge of the safety and training of their aviation unit and even have the chance to become rated pilots. These officers typically spend little time conducting experiments at the lab bench, but the knowledge and scientific skills they have acquired during graduate school are still applied every day during operations where they have to identify and solve technical problems. When they do receive research assignments however, they can act as department heads responsible for writing grants and coordinating a large team that conducts relevant aerospace research. PhD’s are also hired as civilians to conduct and oversee research programs of interest to the DoD. In this role they act as PI’s who are responsible for writing grants and directing a research team, similar to a PI in academia. PhD level scientists can work in GS (government service) rated roles or as government contractors. Bachelor’s and master’s level scientists can also work as contractors to carry out the day-to-day lab work that supports their command.

 The career fields available in defense research are incredibly varied on both the civilian and military side. Scientists have control over their careers and still maintain plentiful opportunities to secure grant funding and journal publications. Work/life balance is also heavily emphasized which can be a huge benefit for anyone with commitments outside of the workplace. If you are shying away from a job in academia or industry but still want to conduct meaningful research, a DoD job might be a good fit for you!

If this sounds interesting to you, Tweet me @jthoma91 and will be more than happy to answer any questions about the internship process and doing science with the Navy!

A Shift in Perspective

Xiaole Willy Wang

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, my professor at the time told me that one type of polypeptide of naked oats has a hypoglycemic effect. There is even an existing patent advocating the same conclusion. I was then challenged by my professor to conduct the same experiment.

“Check the results,” he said, “and if the results come back the same as the patent, you’ll have a chance of investigating further and write a research paper.”

I was so excited since having a published research paper is extremely helpful for an undergrad student, who plans to apply for grad school in America. It would give me more of an advantage among other applicants and be more likely to achieve my dream of being admitted to grad school. With that in mind it became the driving factor, and so I began my experiment.

First of all, I took for granted everything that happened during the experiment process including inconsistencies between my data and what was reported in the patent. My way of thinking, because the published patent is considered “right” and anything that is incongruous with it should be wrong. The right thing can be defined as something repeatable in practice, while the wrong thing is the opposite. What I did was take those inconsistencies as an operational miss, instead of the “wrong thing”. Even though I modified my experiment plan, I still could not repeat the so-called “right result”. With the increasing amount of failure, I became less and less confident and began suspecting whether the result could ever be repeated, I still insisted that it was my fault for the conflicting results.

I then realized that several others had failed as well in duplicating the patent’s result. The trial persuaded me into accepting the truth that the result of the patent can’t be repeated at all. I was chasing an expectation, my quixotic desire to have a published paper became my obsession. Why? What’s wrong with the patent? Surely a patent is an amazing achievement, while it can also be an idealistic fallacy. However, there is only one truth that stands, What we should follow is the truth, rather than accepting someone else’s version as actual fact.

What I learned from the experience is just as Aristotle’s saying goes ‘Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is a truth’, we, especially scientists, should also focus on things that can be questioned, we should not be blinded by specious theories. Questioning is the first step for not being blinded.

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The Thing I do Outside of Research

By Matthew Moulton

I am a senior chemical engineering student at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Outside of research and school, one sport that I love to play is handball. I was inspired to start playing at the end of my freshman year in high school after I watched a game between my classmates who were on the handball team. Handball is a sport in which players use their hands to hit a small rubber ball against a wall such that their opponent cannot do the same without the ball touching the ground twice. There are three versions of the game, one-wall, three wall and four-wall. Handball can be played in singles or doubles. The first player to 21 points wins the game. One-wall handball courts have a wall that is 6.1 m wide and 4.9 m high. The court floor is 6.1 m wide and 10.4 m long. I started to practice by playing against people at a park near my school. This was the first sport that I practiced consistently.

http://personal.psu.edu/vml5084/smithpark.jpg

                                   Handball Court*

To put the ball in play, a play must execute a serve. To serve the ball, a player must strike the ball to the wall such that its first bounce is past the short line. Once the ball is in play, players rally until a player fails to properly return the ball. In singles play, more emphasis is placed on the serve because the players have more ground to cover. A well placed serve can immediately put the opponent on the defensive. In doubles, each team has two players so it is more difficult to win a game using your serve alone. This is where strategy is important. One strategy is to identify the weaker player on the opponent’s team and target all of your serves towards that player. If that player hits a weak return, you or your teammate can easily capitalize on the opportunity to win a point. Another strategy is to aim your serve between your opponents. This can make the opponents hesitate when approaching the ball because they are not sure who should hit it. Ideally both opponents hesitate and they both miss the ball resulting in an easy point for your team. The next strategy is applicable during rallies. First hit the ball softly so that its first bounce is close to the wall. This will draw the opposing team towards the front of the court. When they return the ball, hit the ball hard so that it bounces to the back of the court. Hopefully the opposing team will be out of position from the first shot and your team will win.

I focused on playing doubles. I enjoyed doubles because the rallies are longer and there is more strategy involved than in singles play. I later joined the handball team during my junior year. While I was in high school I would practice about three times a week. Now I only play once a week during the warmer months. I continue to play handball because it relieves stress and it’s good exercise. 

What do you like to do outside of research?

-Matthew Anthony Moulton

@Matthew10309725

*http://personal.psu.edu/vml5084/History.html

A tryst with science

By Ashwitha Lakshmi

Here I am, sipping my coffee and staring out of my only real window to the outside world. It all does seem a bit too cinematic. And as a clockwork, I start to ponder on the endless rhetorical questions that we often ask ourselves.

 

Isn’t it amusing how we are so caught up in the present (or future) that we lose track of how far we have come? A typical Indian twenty-something, in New York, living a life she still finds hard to believe. A student in a renowned University and even an amazing Laboratory, I get to do everything that I ever imagined and more. Could life get any better?

 

I can see my reflection smiling away in the window and I think “Oh I know what comes next”. I’m pulled into a known reverie.

 

As cliche as it sounds, unlike most, I do not remember when or how I fell in love with science. But one memory does come to my mind. In 2007 I got to meet my grandparents after a long hiatus (isn’t that always the case?) but they were very ill and I felt utterly helpless. For a brief period of time, I wanted to become a doctor and help others who were sick. But to my dismay, I was made aware that even the doctors often felt helpless.

 

And that is when a realization hit me – the medical profession stands tall on the shoulders of thousands of scientist’s life work. And for doctors to function, we need scientists who lock themselves in labs for years together, if not decades. (More power to doctors, especially in tempestuous times like these, but we as scientists have a hugely pivotal role to play)

 

My first rendezvous with anything remotely “sci-fi” was when I met my uncle and aunt in their lab. Yes, they are scientists. My uncle was working on this curious project on Kala azar (also known as Visceral Leishmaniasis) which is the second largest parasite killer in the world, which I could hardly follow back then. But it did strengthen my resolve to become a scientist.

 

Even at the mere mention of a famous scientist’s name, I’d ask myself: What does it take to become a good scientist? And do I have what it takes?
What makes me fit for this fascinating but immensely challenging life-career?

“I am a good human first, meticulous next, then a team player. A contribution made in the spirit of humanitarianism – is what makes a good scientist” – I would pride myself into thinking.

 

When I entered Grad school I was worried that I’d spend my entire life with Biology. Thankfully Biotech turned out to be an interdisciplinary field. (*Pheww) And like every grad student, there were times when I thought I had bitten more than I could chew. I would often wonder why I was made to study Engg mechanics and Engg drawing. And there were times when I felt out of place. Call it frustration or just wishful thinking, I even lured myself into thinking that I could become an actor instead. But life has weird ways, even a small mosquito can induce life changing decisions (intended cliff hanger).

 

As weird as it may sound, a sleepless (blame it on mosquitoes) night can actually change the course of your life. Weirdly, my research idea on mosquito proteins gave me an opportunity of a lifetime – to work in one of the most stellar labs in India – BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research center) where I worked in Radiation biology and health science department on Expression and purification of mosquitocidal binary toxin component BinB and its receptor protein Cqm1 using bacterial expression system project. For me, all this while science was just in the books or in the research papers. But for the first time, I could hold a protein in my hands (Of course immobilized in gel). The first time I could visualize a pure protein band – a huge one at that!

All of these were baby steps to me in the field of scientific research and I couldn’t wait for more.

 

My usual lab schedule was between 8 in the morning till 8 in the evening and I still yearned for more (and nope, I’m not bragging ). Nobody could stop me from thinking about going back to the lab every day. On some days I couldn’t even sleep due to excitement. The next seven months went in a jiffy. And all the hard work culminated into a Research Publication.

 

When I look back it was one of the greatest achievements of my life. From begrudgingly referring to research papers for class assignments, to writing and publishing my own research paper with “actual scientists”, it has been an exhilarating journey.

 

That’s when I knew I wanted to spend my life in scientific research. The new-found purpose of my life made me pursue a Masters degree in Biotechnology. And I remember being overjoyed to the extent of crying, when I was accepted into NYU. Once in post-grad, I worked as a Graduate teacher’s assistant for the first 6 months and then received an email from my advisor on an opening for graduate Research assistant in Montclare lab and after reading the work that was happening there on protein, I knew I had to apply.

 

The first formal job interview of my life! The excitement was killing me but it helped me prepare for it. On the day of the interview I remember being scared out of my life but I gathered all my courage and reached for the interview where I met Stanley Chu (my mentor). He put me at ease with his demeanor and kind words. And the questions were pretty interesting too. Overall, I was happy with the way the interview turned out. (Fingers crossed)

 

I was in my class when I received an email saying I got the job and cried from happiness again (I cry a lot when I’m happy lol). Next thing I know I am on a video call with my whole family and friends, and was super excited to begin work at this lab. In hindsight, I could not have asked for a better mentor and was a bit too excited to learn a lot from him.

 

Life has been kind to me with wonderful people – my parents, my elder sister Pavi, all my friends at high school and grad school. Yes, good people are often hard to come by, much harder to retain. But I am lucky in that sense because I have my people whom I can trust my life with. Oh the gratitude and compassion! I feel a new spring of warmth blossoming inside of me.

 

Now I see my reflection smiling away in the window and now I know why. And I’m pulled back into reality.

 

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.

 

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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.