Blog Posts

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.

 

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.

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(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.

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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/