The Making of a Researcher
words by Maryann Brinley, Eve Jacobs and Mary Ann Littell
he world of science continues to flourish despite tough economic times. For those choosing the laboratory as their second home, commercial gain is rarely — if ever — the motivating force. Pursuit of science is the “driver.” This road to a profession is long — the doctorate takes five to seven years post bachelor’s degree — and students spend 10 to 14 hours a day with test tubes and microscopes on top of hours of study time. We introduce you to 11 notable doctoral students at our Graduate School of Biological Sciences (GSBS) and the Dean and VP who’s both their role model and support.
From One Researcher to Another
Kathleen Scotto, UMDNJ’s Vice President of Research and Interim Dean of GSBS, is a woman who wears a great many hats — figuratively, of course. But despite her voluminous list of administrative duties, research is still a priority in her life; and with her background as a laboratory scientist, and a PhD from Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, she fully comprehends the pull of the lab. In fact, the one she heads up at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, an affiliate of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), is running full steam ahead, and Scotto not only holds several patents, but still manages to publish her NIH-funded research findings on the regulation of alternative splicing and of drug resistance genes that impact sensitivity of cancer cells to therapeutic agents.
Scotto’s background also includes a post doctoral fellowship at the Rockefeller University in New York, as well as being an associate professor of molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center from 1989 to 2001, an associate professor of pharmacology at Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences during that same time period, and a professor of pharmacology at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia from 2001 to 2004 — before joining the faculty of RWJMS.
“You need a love for science and a knack for asking the right questions in a creative way,” she observes. “Grades are not the sole measure for future success in this field.”
Of the 60 to 80 top notch students accepted for graduate programs at GSBS each year, up to 10 are inducted into the Foundation of UMDNJ Society of Research Scholars — an honor that carries with it a $26,500 stipend and an additional $5,000 to be used for expenses. The program — established three years ago — represents a collaboration between GSBS and the Foundation, which provides all funding through its Annual Program Committee grants.
Scotto points out that every Research Scholar is required to write and submit a research grant for outside funding between their second and third years — a significant challenge for a beginning doctoral student. Even if that first attempt at grant-writing is not successful, “this is a skill every researcher needs to learn,” she says.
“We teach — this is our single most important mission,” states Scotto.
“Support of excellence by providing scholarship money for students is a very high priority,” explains George F. Heinrich, MD, vice chair and CEO of the Foundation. “We are proud of our Research Scholars and look forward to hearing about their successes both as GSBS students and future researchers.”
A Science Person
Rebecca Lewandowski has known since childhood that she’s a “science person.” Also an “outdoors person”— who skis, rock climbs and swims — she says that sports are a great way of decompressing “after hanging out with microorganisms.” Her undergraduate years were divided between William Paterson University and Rowan University, where she first became involved in tissue culture research.
The small size of the program, good facilities, and friendliness of the people attracted her to GSBS at UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine(SOM). “I could see myself being happy there for a long time,” she says.
So far, she loves the program, which she says consists of two years of pre-determined courses in preparation for a qualifying exam. “That gives everyone a proper basis of knowledge.” In addition, during year one students complete three or four seven-week rotations through different labs — familiarizing themselves with the possibilities for specialization. After that, “you commit to a lab and are expected to do background work in that lab’s specialties.”
Where will she end up? Probably “studying eukaryotic organisms — it’s directly translatable to humans. I find it exciting,” she states.
The first-year student credits Randy Strich, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at UMDNJ’s School of Osteopathic Medicine, with teaching her how to approach a problem in a creative way. When a doctoral student joins a lab in year three of their program, “the choice is two-way. You will be funded by the PI’s [principal investigator’s] grant,” she explains.
Although Lewandowski says that “if I’m awake for 20 hours, 19 of them are spent on studying and research,” she calls herself “very lucky and very happy. There are people here who really want to see you succeed.”
Asked what she hopes to do with her degree, she says: “There are a lot of options — running a lab and teaching, government research, working for the CDC, for example. As long as I can do research — get my hands “dirty” in the lab — I’ll be fine.”
She is the first in her entire family to enter a doctoral program, she states proudly. “My grandmother was an immigrant. She had 11 children and never had the opportunity to finish high school. Many of the next generation did graduate from college. I will be the first one — I hope — to earn a PhD.”
Vanessa Espinosa is the first in her family to attend college and the first to study science. Majoring in molecular biology with a minor in chemistry from Montclair State University, her participation in the NIH Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program introduced her to the idea of pursuing a doctorate. Its goal is to provide underrepresented minority students with the research experience and guidance they need to ensure their success in doctoral studies. “I worked in a lab for two years and liked it so much that I decided to go on to grad school,” she says. Her work focused on “population genetics in frogs.”
Her day often starts in the lab at 9:30 a.m. and doesn’t end until she closes her books between 12 and 2 a.m. Her weekends are spent studying. “It’s challenging,” she comments, “but so far, so good.” Ultimately, she would like to teach at a university and do research.
Espinosa’s family came to the U.S. from Cuba when Castro took over – leaving all of their possessions behind. Her mother was born in this country. A Place to Call Home — a play she wrote based on an interview with her stepfather — won a student competition when she was in high school and was performed at McCarter Theater in Princeton, complete with a set designer and professional actors. “It’s the story of a boy telling his mother that he is going to the United States illegally on a banana boat,” she explains. “When I was transcribing the interview, the idea for a play came to me, and once I had the idea, it just rolled.”
“It came out well,” she says modestly. She continues to do some creative writing.
When we spoke, Espinosa had just finished her first laboratory rotation with Betsy Barnes, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (NJMS), working on lupus. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. It sounds like this grad student — who was the outstanding undergraduate and the outstanding research student in her major during her senior year at Montclair State — can take on just about anything, and succeed.
A Cross-Country Move
Matt Gielow moved 3,000 miles from his home in Oakland, California to begin his PhD program at GSBS in Newark. A 2005 graduate of the University of California, San Diego, he majored in cognitive science and stayed on for four years as a research associate in the lab where he had conducted his senior honors project.
With his strong interest in learning and memory, Gielow found the UMDNJ-Rutgers collaborative PhD program in his field to be very attractive. He attends classes at GSBS in Newark and at the CMBN (Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neurosciences) at Rutgers. His first lab rotation has taken him to the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in East Orange, a UMDNJ affiliate.
Gielow comes from a family focused on science: his mother as a middle school science teacher and his father as a clinical laboratory worker for hospitals. A self-described “pretty good” cook —desserts are his specialty — this Research Scholar says science is definitely first and foremost in his life, and his long-term goal is to continue in neurosciences research. “I want to end up wherever the research looks good,” he says.
In the shorter term, he looks forward to attending the Society for Neurosciences annual conference in the fall. “It’s 30,000 neuroscientists from around the world in the same place. It’s a lot of fun!” he states. Fortuitously, this year’s locale is San Diego — a prime opportunity for a young scientist to learn about cutting edge research in his field and to make what has necessarily become an infrequent, but much-looked-forward-to, trip to visit family and friends.
A Different Perspective
Temitayo Awoyomi was among UMDNJ’s first group of Research Scholars. Now in year three of her doctoral program at GSBS at NJMS, she has the perspective of “seniority.”
Born in Ontario, Canada while her father was studying for his PhD in economics and business, Awoyomi returned with her family to their homeland of Nigeria when she was 3. She graduated from a federal high school at age 16 and entered Babcock University, where she studied microbiology for two years. At age 19, she returned to the U.S. — where her father teaches in Fordham University’s Master of Business program and her mother is a registered nurse — and completed her college education at Lehman (where she was a MARC scholar), graduating cum laude in 2007.
“I always liked science,” she says, “and I was also good at writing.” She knew grad school was in her future. “Education is expected in my family.”
She considered UMDNJ’s seven-year MD/PhD program, but decided that five years of doctoral studies would probably be enough. Her field of interest: immunology.
She is far enough along in her program to have submitted her first grant proposal (in December 2009) and to be starting to prepare her second one for a May 2010 deadline. “Writing is never a problem for me,” she says. “I’ll keep going until I get a grant.”
Awoyomi’s thesis proposal on pDC activation and maturation in healthy and HIV-infected individuals is almost ready to be presented and her May grant application to the NIH is also HIV related. She works in the laboratory of Patricia Fitzgerald-Bocarsly, PhD, professor in the NJMS Pathology Department, on the complex interactions between the immune system and an invading viral pathogen. This lab has described a group of cells, called pDCs (human peripheral blood plasmacytoid dendritic cells), that are the primary responders to viral infection.
Awoyomi says she knew right away that this would be her lab. “Most people don’t know for awhile, but I applied immediately to immunology.”
“I liked the rapport in the lab. I liked that it’s a big lab —there’s always someone whom you can ask questions,” she says.
The young researcher says that her mother encouraged her to study oncology, but “it’s more fun studying a virus, especially HIV,” she explains. “There is a ying-yang dynamic that happens at the beginning of the infection. We need to know more about that.”
With two to three years left in her current program, she’s not quite sure what her next step will be. “Definitely a post doc,” she says. “For me, that’s very important.”
After that, “I would like to stay in academia, but circumstances being what they are in the world right now, it’s not certain.”
“I love research,” she continues. “Put me in front of a microscope with a computer and I’m happy.”
Despite her love for the lab, she tries not to be there on the weekends. Writing poetry, reading novels, singing in her church choir, yoga, international travel and trying to get enough sleep all compete for her time, often unsuccessfully. “I frequently end up working on papers on the weekends,” she states. “It’s my time to catch up.”
What words of wisdom does she have for beginning doctoral students?
“I would tell them to ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes — you’re expected to stumble in the beginning. Then later, you’re expected to walk straight. You don’t have to know immediately what you want to do, but it’s better to begin early. Pick from your options and start. And once you choose a lab, interact with everyone.”
Is she happy with her choice?
“I felt good here right away,” she recalls. “The students and professors were all very nice. I love being a grad student. It’s really a wonderful life.”
On His Way into Molecular Bioscience
Frank Macabenta may be a long way from home but this first-year GSBS student feels right at home in a lab. A Philippine national, Macabenta was raised on the island of Guam and did his undergraduate work at the University of Guam’s (UOG) College of Natural and Applied Sciences in biology. He worked in a horticulture lab at UOG under a National Institutes of Health Research Initiatives in Scientific Enhancement (RISE) grant, which pairs science majors with faculty mentors so they can gain first-hand experience doing scientific research. “It was through this grant that I was able to come to Rutgers in the summer of 2008 to participate in an eight-week program,” he explains.
“I always had an interest in the biological sciences,” says Macabenta, who is pursuing graduate study in molecular bioscience and in particular, cell and developmental biology at GSBS at RWJMS. Yet, it wasn’t “until my college years that
I developed a serious interest in biomedical research. I suppose it was a combination of the classes I took, the topics that grabbed me the most, my mentor, Dr. Mari Marutani, and the knowledge of how much potential there is for innovation in this field.” Last fall, he worked with Renping Zhou, PhD, investigating cortical cataract formation in mice and in his second semester, he studied with Sunita Kramer, PhD, who is investigating the role of guidance molecules in Drosophila heart development, both at RWJMS. “The research is applicable to so many disciplines. So many factors come into play during an organism’s growth. This is what makes the field so interesting and so challenging. My long-term goal is to teach university level classes in developmental biology or a related field.”
In His Father’s Footsteps
Embedded into Harrison Hsu’s memories are the smell of acetic acid and the multicolored paper tape he now uses in his own lab as a first-year GSBS scholar. When he was growing up in East Brunswick, Hsu would often visit his father, Gordon Hsu, PhD, a research scientist, in the lab at Rutgers University on the Cook campus. Born in South Carolina, Hsu says, “I remember it well. We moved to New Jersey when I was five and my father got this post-doctoral position and I would visit him at work. By the time I entered college, I thought I might like to become a scientist too.” Then, a summer high school experience in the Waksman Student Scholars program at Rutgers cemented his inclination.
Hsu earned his BA in biochemistry from Columbia University in 2009 and started the doctoral program at GSBS at RWJMS last fall. What makes him excited about science is “the unknown. There are all sorts of potentially interesting things waiting under the surface to be revealed with properly-run experiments. The more one understands, the more one can understand.” Though he is still just beginning his journey and doing laboratory rotations, Hsu hopes to study the biochemistry of what he calls “medically relevant systems.” For example, searching for the molecular causes of prostate cancer, something he did recently in a lab, is the type of medical puzzle he’d like to help solve. Uncertain of what the future will actually bring, he looks back and credits his parents who always encouraged him to study. “I’d like to see what kind of opportunities there are for a guy with a doctorate: academia, a local biotech, perhaps medical school.”
From Electronics to Evolutionary Perfection
“Initially, I went to college thinking I would be an engineer,” says Jon Brzezinski. Growing up in central Wisconsin, “I had a fascination with dissecting electronics and seeing how things worked when I was young.” But at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Brzezinski changed his mind about career directions and jumped off the engineering path altogether, going into genetics. “I veered into the biomedical track once I realized that living organisms will always be more complex than anything we can design as engineers, considering that life has had millions of years of evolution to be perfected.”
At GSBS at RWJMS, Brzezinski has not yet chosen molecular biology as his concentration because he’s also considering immunology or virology as
possible majors. Meanwhile, in the laboratory of Joseph P. Dougherty, PhD, GSBS at RWJMS, program director, Department of Molecular Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology, Brzezinski focused on a cloning project with the goal of creating a better system to study HIV latency. Dougherty and his staff, who have been researching retroviral replication and the design and use of vectors for cell gene therapy, have been looking for molecules that can be used to develop drugs to clear HIV-1 latent infections and as probes to study HIV-1 latency. “I like discovering things no one else knows about the world,” Brzezinski explains.
“Your work can eventually be used to help people when it applies to healthcare.”
Looking for New Ways to Treat Disease
After receiving his bachelor’s degree| in bioengineering from Lehigh University in 2007, Mehdi Ghodbane went right to work as a project engineer at the Alpharma Pharmaceutical Company’s newly constructed pilot plant in Piscataway, NJ. The pilot plant was a fraction of the size of a real-world manufacturing operation and could be utilized to scale products up from the lab-scale to full-scale manufacturing.
While there for more than a year, Ghodbane managed projects and validated equipment. Because his ultimate goal is to become a researcher in the biotech industry, Ghodbane took the news of the plant’s closing in 2009 as a signal to move his career forward academically. When the plant was shut down, “I gave serious consideration to graduate school and getting my PhD.” To do what he wants in life, this researcher needs a doctoral degree.
By the fall, Ghodbane was enrolled in GSBS at RWJMS and found himself working in labs. Under Martin Yarmush, MD, PhD, in his Rutgers lab, for instance, Ghodbane was trying to differentiate pancreatic beta cells from mouse embryonic stem cells. “I have always been interested in the technical aspects of the biotechnology business. And when I say technical aspects, I am referring to the use of novel technologies to treat disease. I’d like to work for a biotech company developing a new product for medical use.”
Growing up in Mount Laurel, NJ, “My father was a big influence on me,” Ghodbane explains. “He grew up in Algeria, went to college in France and then graduated from Georgetown University on full scholarships.” His father, Samir, received his PhD in physical chemistry and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for the last 25 years. “One day possibly, I’d like to start my own company,” this son says.
Moving Parkinson’s Research Forward
“I’ve always been fascinated by the brain and neurodegenerative disorders, particularly Parkinson’s disease,” says Samantha Cote. “I’d like to do research where there’s the potential for finding treatments for patients with Parkinson’s.”
Cote, who holds an undergraduate degree in biology from Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University, has wanted to be a scientist since she was in elementary school. Doubling up on course work is part of her strategy for getting into the lab ASAP.
Typically, PhD students take two years of classes before concentrating in a laboratory. Cote, who is from Easthampton, CT, plans to take all her classes in one year.
Cote, who recently received a summer fellowship from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, will soon begin working in the lab of Eldo Kuzhikandathil, PhD, associate professor, pharmacology and physiology, NJMS. His lab is studying the role of the dopaminergic system in neurological disorders. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that transmits signals in the brain. Dysfunction of dopamine signaling causes irregular firing of neurons, resulting in less control over movement.
“I’ll be looking at the behavior of dopamine D3 receptor behavior in primary neurons in Parkinson’s mouse models, using techniques I’ve already learned and some new techniques as well — such as electrophysiology, a way of looking at the electrical behavior of neurons,” Cote explains.
Cote has sought out laboratory experience, including a summer doing research at Harvard Medical School after her junior year of college. She is considering a career in academia or perhaps the pharmaceutical industry.
Fascinated by the Brain
A year spent in the Stroke Rehabilitation Research Lab at New Jersey’s Kessler Foundation Research Center clinched it for Meghan Davis: She wanted a career in research. “I worked with neurologist Anna Barrett, MD, director of the stroke lab, and it was a great experience,” she says. (See page 46 for a feature on Dr. Barrett and her work.)
Davis says she has always been interested in the brain, learning and memory. She graduated from Lafayette College with a degree in psychology. Contemplating her future, she decided to work in a lab for a year. As a research assistant at Kessler, she administered neuropsychological assessments, conducted experiments and analyzed data from stroke patients. Following her experience at Kessler, she went to Villanova for a master’s in psychology, then came to GSBS, where she’s now a first-year PhD student. She’ll be working in the lab of Richard Servatius, PhD, professor of neuroscience in the Department of Neurology and Neurosciences at NJMS. “The lab studies vulnerabilities to anxiety disorders, one of which is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are looking at the risk factors for PTSD to understand who is more susceptible to it,” she says.
Her research will focus on healthy human subjects. Davis will be doing eye-blink conditioning, a learning paradigm for classical conditioning, like Pavlov’s dog. “We pair a tone or image with a puff of air to the subject’s eye,” she says. “Over time, the subject learns to associate the tone or image with the puff of air. We’ll observe how quickly they learn this response. We know that people with PTSD tend to learn tasks differently than people who don’t have it. If we can identify who is at greater risk for PTSD, we can help these people learn to cope with stressors.”
From Archeology to Biochemistry
It’s not every undergraduate who can do genome sequencing — but Jennifer Alaimo learned to do just that as a student at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
As a biochemistry major, she did research on algae found in soil samples from Antarctica. “We did DNA sequencing to see what kinds of algae were present in the soil samples,” she says. “The environment in Antarctica is changing rapidly because of global warming. The purpose of this work was to catalog what is there, so we can study how the soil is changing due to global warming.”
Growing up, Alaimo wanted to be an archeologist, “because they discover things. By sixth grade, I fell in love with biology. Then I became interested in chemistry, so I combined these two interests and ended up in biochemistry.” She is one of eight first-year PhD students at GSBS at SOM, all of them women.
She enjoyed rotating through the labs at SOM. “It was a wonderful learning experience,” says Alaimo. “I’m exposed to so many different things that I’ve only read about. I’m in Dr. Venkateswar Venkataraman’s lab right now, looking at Alzheimer’s disease in a mouse model. I’ve also had the opportunity to do cancer research with tissue cell lines.” She will do her thesis work with Eric Moss, PhD, associate professor, molecular biology, studying the C. elegans nematode.