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Humans of Tufts Boston: Léa Gaucherand, “I Fell in love with research”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 22 October 2019

Léa Gaucherand, Microbiology, Third-year Ph.D. Student: “I Fell in Love with Research”

JH: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this! To begin with, where did you grow up?

LG:I grew up in the North East of France, in a city called Nancy in the Lorraine region. There are many differences between life in France and here; university is very cheap, like 100 – 200 euros [110 – 220 USD] a year. Also, the Ph.D. system is different because it’s only 3 years (you do it after your Master’s). You don’t have rotations, you just apply to one project in one lab and for funding from the government or other agencies.

JH: What were you doing before graduate school?

LG: I actually have a Master’s degree in Health and Drug Engineering and a multidisciplinary Engineering degree (equivalent to a Master’s but it is a weird concept that only exists in France where you do a little bit of everything). As part of my studies I did an internship in bioengineering research at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle and I fell in love with research (and with someone in Seattle). I went back to Seattle after graduating and started as a volunteer in Dr. Tom Wight’s lab at the Benaroya Research Institute. I then got a technician position in the same institute in Dr. Adam Lacy-Hulbert’s lab, and after two years there I moved to Boston for grad school!

JH: When you first moved to Seattle, did you encounter any culture shock?

LG: I had actually already lived in San Francisco for 6 months for another internship one year before I moved to Seattle, and I had a pen pal from Pennsylvania that I visited for a week in high school. I don’t think I really had any culture shock, it was more the excitement of being somewhere new and fully independent.

JH: How did you first become interested in pursuing science as a career? Was there anything in particular that steered you towards microbiology?

LG: My interest actually came pretty late. I was always good at maths and just liked thinking about science in general, but I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do. That’s why I went to the French engineering school I mentioned earlier, to still have a broad science background without deciding yet what I wanted to do. It was only there that I realized I missed learning about chemistry, and the only class I really enjoyed was about human physiology and bioengineering. I took extra classes during my last year to have a more specialized degree, and did the internship [in Seattle] that really opened my eyes about what research was and how much I enjoyed it. It’s only once I was a technician that I worked on viruses. I thought they were the coolest thing so I wanted to learn more about them, and about how they interact and evolve with the host. I applied to a bunch of programs, most of them more virology-focused than Tufts, but I really enjoyed my interview at Tufts Micro. It just felt right.

The Gaglia Lab

JH: What do you like to do outside of lab?

LG: Outside the lab I like to play volleyball (we have a great team at Tufts Micro!). I say it’s a Micro volleyball team but it’s not official at all. Another Micro student, Allison (in the Camilli lab), has a net so we go play with a few people from Micro (and other programs) at the Boston Common in the summer. Everyone is welcome and it would actually be great if we had more players! I also like to watch intellectual movies and travel. My husband showed me two intellectual movies in the past few weeks that I really enjoyed: Burning by director Chang-dong Lee and Shoplifters by director Hirokazu Koreeda. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to travel that much (apart from going back to France twice a year). The last big trip I took was right before moving to Boston, to Panama and Hawaii.

Summer volleyball on the Common

Op-Ed: Rename the Sackler School

Guest Post by Nathan Foster, a recent graduate of Tufts University

The United States is in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic, with 72,000 people estimated to have died from drug overdoses in 2017 alone. The crisis was caused by the systemic overprescription of opioid pain relievers, fueled by a massive drug industry campaign to downplay the risks and straight-up lie about the dangers of their drugs. Troublingly, it has come to light that Tufts programs were used to promote the opioid industry’s lies.

Purdue Pharma, wholly owned by the Sackler family, is one of the companies most responsible for the opioid epidemic. Purdue makes OxyContin, and for decades they systematically lied about its effects in order to sell more pills at higher doses. As tens of thousands of Americans died, the Sacklers made billions, some of which found its way to the Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences here at Tufts. Although the school was originally founded with donations from three Sackler brothers in 1980, before OxyContin was invented, the Sacklers have continued to give large sums of money to Tufts, including to establish the Masters in Pain Research, Education, and Policy program through the Medical and Public Health Schools in 1999, and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Convergence Laboratory in 2013.

As the role of the Sacklers in the opioid crisis has become increasingly clear through news reports and the activism of artist Nan Goldin, there has been some discussion about the appropriateness of the school’s name. Tufts’ biomedical scientists dedicate their careers to saving lives, after all, not destroying them for profit. But the conversation has remained relatively abstract, more about the symbolism of good deeds sponsored by bad people than about the concrete effects of the Sacklers’ money.

That has to change now. The Sackler name is no longer an abstract morality problem, if it ever was, but a full-blown crisis of academic integrity. According to a lawsuit from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, Purdue Pharma used the Sacklers’ donations to systematically corrupt Tufts’ curriculum and research in favor of opioids.

The Attorney General’s allegations are mind-boggling. Purdue employees placed unlabeled curriculum materials in Sackler School courses, and talked afterwards about “penetrating this account.” A seminar on opioids in Massachusetts was regularly taught by Purdue staff, and Tufts helped the company develop pro-opioid materials for patients. The head of the Masters in Pain Research program spoke in favor of Purdue at FDA meetings in 2012 and 2013. Purdue sent staff to Tufts “regularly,” as recently as 2017. The CEO of the company wrote to President Monaco in 2017 “to promote Purdue’s contentions about opioids and offer to meet,” though the lawsuit does not say President Monaco took him up on the offer. And all this happened after Purdue Pharma was fined $600 million in 2007 for misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about OxyContin’s potential for addiction and abuse. 

“The Sacklers got a lot for their money” at Tufts, the lawsuit asserts. “The MSPREP [Masters in Pain Research] Program was such a success for Purdue’s business that the company considered it a model for influencing teaching hospitals and medical schools.”

To be clear, Tufts is not the only institution alleged to have been improperly influenced by Sackler money. Following millions in donations, Massachusetts General Hospital even named its pain program after Purdue Pharma—then changed the name as the scale of the opioid crisis became apparent.

Last week, Attorney General Maura Healey stated that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are “one and the same.” It is not possible to separate the Sackler name from the crimes of the company that made them billions.

It is disturbing that the makers of OxyContin had such deep influence over research and education at Tufts. In addition, Purdue and the Sacklers’ close connection to a leading biomedical research institute allowed them to maintain credibility in the medical community for years after it was clear their product was killing people. It is too late to save the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives have been lost to the opioid epidemic. But Tufts can act now to undo some of the damage it has caused.

First, Tufts needs to immediately change the name of the Sackler School. Faced with lawsuits and protests, the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma can still draw credibility from having their name attached to one of the country’s top biomedical schools. The recent resurgence of the tobacco industry shows that the makers of deadly drugs will seize on any remaining scraps of credibility to push their product. We cannot let that happen.

Second, Tufts must establish a commission of medical professionals, students, and members of the addiction advocacy community to thoroughly review all improper connections to Purdue and the Sacklers, past and present, including but not limited to those alleged in the Attorney General’s lawsuit. The results of the review should be made public. Given the extent to which Tufts’ academic integrity is alleged to have been compromised, a fully transparent review process including students and addiction advocates is the only way to genuinely move forward. As an added benefit, the students involved will get an excellent education in the sociopolitical determinants of health.

Third, Tufts must file an amicus brief in support of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family.

Finally, Tufts must implement clear guidelines to prevent any donor from compromising its academic integrity in the future.

Editors’ Note: The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of the Sackler Insight editorial board or that of the Sackler community. Below is an official response from Patrick Collins, Executive Director of Public Relations at Tufts. 

Tufts University has always been and remains deeply committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards in research and education. The information raised in the Attorney General’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and other defendants is deeply troubling. We will be undertaking a review of Tufts’ connection with Purdue to ensure that we were provided accurate information, that we followed our conflict of interest guidelines and that we adhered to our principles of academic and research integrity. Based on this review, we will determine if any changes need to be made moving forward.

New Initiative on Campus Seeks to Tackle Mental Health Issues among Grad Students

For a long time, it was a generally accepted trope in academia that graduate students must endure harsh conditions, intellectual and emotional, before they are granted their PhD degrees. This is supposedly meant to build character, and weed out those who are not fit for the rigor and stress one encounters in academic research – a trial by fire of sorts. The ones who survive these conditions and emerge victorious, also internalize such hazing and come to think of it as just the regular pressure of working in academia.

It is therefore not surprising that the mental health of graduate students have not been discussed very much except in the recent years. While it has long been a subject of humor, such as PhD Comics and memes such as Shit Academics Say, it is only recently that the severity of the problem has been brought to light. In 2013, a series of articles regarding graduate students’ mental health was published on the GradHacker blog. In a guest post, Nash Turley, then a PhD candidate in evolutionary ecology at University of Toronto, looked at studies focusing on the major mental health issues graduate students face – anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, going as far back as 1997, and deduced that “mental health issues are the biggest barriers to success among graduate students.”

Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology by , described the mental health issues among graduate students as a “crisis”, highlighting the prevalence of anxiety and depression. After surveying 2,279 graduate students representing 26 countries and 234 institutions, the study found that graduate students are six times more likely to suffer from moderate-to-severe depression compared to the general population. The study also found that female, trans and gender-non conforming (GNC) students were significantly more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their cis male counterparts. Among the students with anxiety and depression, more than half did not felt valued by their mentors and half did not agree that mentors provided emotional support (only a third said yes). The study proposed some short term solutions, such as providing trainings to faculty and administrators by mental health professionals, similar to the NIH’s “train the trainers” program. For a longer term solution, the authors advocated for “a shift of the academic culture to eliminate the stigma and to ensure that students are not reluctant to communicate openly with PIs.” The notion of suffering has been internalized by graduate students to the point that in a latest study conducted among five hundred economics graduate students across eight institutions, the students who scored worse than average on a mental-health assessment tended to think that their mental health was better than average; among those who reported having suicidal thoughts, 26% assumed that their psychological well-being was better than the norm. In both studies, the major driver of such mental health issues seemed to be a combination of financial worries and the professional pressure to publish, both of which are products of the tight budget climate and the “publish or perish” nature that academia has recently taken on.

Alyssa DiLeo, a second-year graduate student in the Neuroscience program, is well aware of mental health issues graduate students face; she has faced them personally as well. “Graduate school is a hard transition for many people and even more difficult when they don’t have a support system. Mental health issues are also highly prevalent in graduate students. Levecque et al. published a study in May of 2017 reporting one in two PhD students experience psychological distress and 1/3 of graduate students are at risk for a psychiatric disorder. An online survey of graduate students in a recent March 2018 study by Evans et al. reported that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. After taking a few years off before entering graduate school, I’ve definitely found myself struggling to transition from an employee to a graduate student and was finding it hard to find the right support.” She became aware of an initiative called Resources for Easing Friction and Stress (REFS) at MIT while attending a Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (GWiSE) event at Harvard, and was inspired to start a REFS program here at Sackler called sREFS (sackler Resources for Easing Friction and Stress).

The goal of the sREFS initiative is “to provide an easily accessible outlet for graduate students to talk about conflicts, issues, or stressors in their lab or personal life.” Currently, there are few options that Sackler students can peruse if they are having mental health issues – the Wellness Center which puts out events for the whole TUSM community, the Student Advisory Council of the Wellness center (which just got a Sackler rep on their board), or their friends and other graduate students at certain social events. Mentoring circles, another peer-based support system started by Sackler students and alumni for networking and career development, could be another option. However, Alyssa noted that while Mentoring Circles provided “a great networking resource with experienced mentors”, “sREFS aims to create a more one on one private conversation between students about mental health in graduate school.” This initiative also hopes to serve as the first contact for first year students who may have questions about the school or its programs, courses, etc. Additionally, sREFS will be trained on mediation and conflict management skills that may prove valuable in their own labs or workplaces post-graduation.

The sREFS initiative is a pilot program, proposed by Alyssa in conjunction with Sharon Snaggs from the Wellness Center, and has gained the support of the Dean’s Office and the Graduate Student Council. The process to become a sREF involves an 8-hour training spread out over 8 weeks, and is modeled after MIT’s REFS program. While the MIT program offers a certification after 40 hours of training provided by professionals, the sREFS initiative has a smaller scope and is more flexible given the student body size and available resources at Sackler. Once trained, sREFS will be expected to hold office hours for one-on-one conversations, and sREFS are also mandatory reporters and are liable to report any cases of harassment or similar incidents to the administration. At the inaugural meeting on Thursday, Nov 29, Alyssa mentioned that the only exclusionary criterion for becoming a sREF is enrollment as a PhD student, since continuity and consistency are important for this initiative to succeed. The sREFS will be allowed to keep anonymized and confidential notes only after getting consent from those who are speaking with them. These notes may also help identify the common issues prevalent among Sackler graduate students and help sREFS recommend programs to administration to tackle such issues. In case of any conflict of interest, sREFS may recuse themselves from certain cases; Alyssa would like to see at least one graduate student from each program volunteer as sREFS to avoid such conflicts. Given that this role incurs emotional stress on the volunteers, sREFS can also take time off from the initiative.

Interested students are asked to email Alyssa at Alyssa.DiLeo@tufts.edu to receive an application packet. The application deadline is Jan 15, but is also flexible since the initiative would like to be as inclusionary as possible. The sREFS initiative is also looking for volunteers to fill in positions on the executive board to help with logistics and planning. Unsurprisingly, all the current volunteers are female, as emotional labor most often falls on women in this patriarchy, and it would be great to see the male graduate students do their part as well in this timely, community-based initiative.

Coffee & Conversation with Dr. Laverne Melón

Written by Alyssa DeLeoNEURCoffee & Conversation is a series of informal chats with women faculty on campus, hosted by Tufts GWiSE. 

Our last Coffee & Conversation of the year featured Dr. Laverne Melón, a post-doctoral fellow in the Maguire lab and a TEACRS scholar. She will joining Wesleyan University as a faculty professor in neuroscience in the Fall. Laverne was born in Trinidad and moved to New York when she was 10 years old. In high school, Laverne helped establish the science club, which she insists was the most poppin’ after school extracurricular at the time, and she knew she wanted to work in research before even knowing what that was. The science club gave her and her peers the chance to support each other in the search for research experiences and ultimately lead her to volunteer in a cancer genetics lab at Columbia University. As she reflects on her first experience in science, she also acknowledges that it was also her first exposure to the sexism and racism that exists in scientific institutions. It’s difficult to turn a blind eye to these situations when all you want to do is put your head down and do the work in front of you. But, she didn’t let this taint her passion for the field and her experiences spoke to her resilience, which would be noted by several scientists later in her career.

Laverne went on to earn a BA in neuroscience at Middlebury College, a MS in Behavioral Neuroscience at Binghamton, and a PhD in Addiction Neuroscience at IUPUI after her lab at Binghamton moved. She lost a Binghamton fellowship in the move and had to teach at IUPUI, which she found frustrating as anyone does when they’re forced to do something. However, Laverne began to enjoy the process and her career path in academia became increasing clear. Laverne has been a post-doc in Jamie Maguire’s lab for the last 4 ½ years studying effects of stress on reproductive health and the role of the GABAergic system in alcohol addiction. As she moved into her post-doctoral years, she was really fueled by a research question which she presented to Jamie along with some data to score her current position. Now, she’s fielding multiple offers for faculty positions and learning to navigate this new part of her career.

As always, we chatted about how early life experiences brought our guests to their current positions, how crucial the role of mentors played in this trajectory, and the vital importance of self-advocacy. But, we kept coming back to this idea of producing good, reproducible science and how that is only possible if the field really cared about the people behind the data. It’s no secret that scientific institutions have not been the best advocates for the health of their workforce. Levecque et al. published a study in May of 2017 reporting one in two PhD students experience psychological distress and 1/3 of graduate students are at risk for a psychiatric disorder. An online survey of graduate students in a recent March 2018 study by Evans et al. reports graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. SIX times! It’s exceeding clear that health of scientists across fields and levels are struggling in this environment. This begins by hiring scientists that are more than a good researcher, but are inspired teachers, passionate mentors, and expert managers who are in touch the health of their lab.

As Laverne is beginning the next chapter of her career, she’s considering taking on an administrative position as a director of inclusion and diversity in addition to her faculty appointment. She intends to use her status to implement institutional changes to allow for better science through caring, supporting, and mentoring the next generation of scientists. When Laverne started to work in science, she admitted she tried to assimilate as much as possible, but it gets exhausting. It’s difficult to integrate into establishments and systems that have been hostile to the existence of women and minorities in science while trying to stick it out until you can get to a position to make changes. She’s been able to tap into her mentoring network over the years for support and instructed us to be vulnerable in our insecurities to allow these organic mentorships to grow.

If you’re interested in getting involved with GWiSE, follow us on Twitter @TuftsGWiSE, like us on Facebook, or email us at tuftsbostongwise@tufts.edu. Our next Coffee & Conversation is October 19th, 2018 at 5PM in Jaharis 913.

Green Labs: How to be environmentally sustainable in biomedical research

The main responsibility of a biomedical researcher is to produce novel, trustworthy science that will improve human health. We may not be doing enough towards this goal, however, if we consider our research results to be our only impact on the human condition. How we conduct our research is just as critical as the results of our research, especially when it comes to the environmental footprint that research laboratories leave behind on university and medical campuses.

In 2013, Tufts University published a campus-wide report to assist the university in building a sustainable future. Working groups focused on three relevant sustainability areas—energy and water use, waste management, and greenhouse gas emissions—to develop actionable goals for reducing Tufts’ environmental impact. Regarding how laboratories and medical facilities factored into this impact, all working groups came to the same conclusion: “[these spaces were] singled out…as the greatest source of opportunity for increased sustainability across all Tufts campuses due to their large production of waste and heavy use of water and energy.”

Tufts is not the only university facing these issues. Harvard University labs consist of  20% of physical campus space but account for 44% of their energy use, and MIT labs take up less than a quarter of campus space but account for up to two-thirds of their energy use. So, if scientists like to talk the talk when it comes to best practices in advocating for governmental and community support of sustainable practices, how can we commit to similar support within our own institutions?

Many universities, including Tufts, have implemented Green Labs initiatives in order to develop environmentally friendly research laboratories using a classic sustainability framework: reduce, reuse, recycle. Based on resources from Tufts’ Green Labs Initiative and similar programs at other institutions, here are some starting points for making laboratories and research facilities more sustainable.


REDUCE

Energy: Labs can significantly reduce energy usage by maximizing the efficiency of their ultra-low temperature (ULT, or -80°C) freezers, as in one year, a single ULT freezer uses the same amount of energy as an average American household. Frequent de-icing, regular upkeep, and maintained organization all decrease the amount of work and time (and thus energy) required by freezers to decrease temperature to the set point. To encourage these approaches, Tufts joined the International Freezer Challenge in 2017, which rewards best practices in cold storage management”. Of note, three Sackler labs–the Munger lab, the McGuire lab, and the Bierderer lab–participated. Additionally, a less universally advertised, but possibly more effective, approach to reducing energy usage by ULT freezers is changing their set temperature. The University of Colorado at Boulder has accumulated a significant amount of information demonstrating that maintaining ULT freezers at -80°C may not be necessary, as many sample types are capable of being stored at -70°C without any significant loss of quality. Though seemingly trivial, this ten degree difference has huge implications for lowering energy usage , which also translates to reduced energy costs (Figure 1). By rough estimation, Tufts could save close to $50,000 per year on electricity if all ULT freezers in Jaharis, M&V, Stearns, South Cove, and Arnold were adjusted from -80°C to -70°C.

†Number of ULT freezers was calculated by presuming 5 freezers per floor in Jaharis 6-9 and 10 freezers per floor in Jaharis 3-5. This estimate was extended to the remaining buildings on the Sackler campus.

Figure 1. Yearly energy expenditure & cost savings for ten-degree increase in ULT freezer temperature.

Closing and/or turning off chemical fume hoods when not in use also mitigates electrical expenditure. At the Medford campus, undergraduate student Emma Cusack led a “Shut the Sash” initiative last year in order to reduce energy use and cost. Based on consultations with the Tufts’ Office of Sustainability about her work, it is estimated that lowering sashes of all 123 chemical hoods on the Sackler campus from 18” to 6” when not in use would result in yearly energy expediture savings of around 40,000 kWh and energy cost savings of over $200,000.


Figure 2. Yearly energy expenditure & cost savings for reducing sash height of chemical hoods. 

Lastly, powering down non-essential lab equipment overnight and incorporating timers into power sources are also simple but meaningful methods of lowering energy usage. The latter method is especially helpful to maintain convenience along with energy efficiency, as incubators and dry ovens are shut off overnight but can still be ready-to-use upon arriving in lab, for example, if set to turn on in very early AM.

Water: A traditional autoclave requires 45-50 gallons of water per minute when in use, and this massive usage is due to the need for continuous addition of water for cooling steam condensate before draining into sewers. Equipment like Water-Mizers use real-time monitoring of drain temperature to add water for cooling only when needed, reducing water usage by at least half. Also, being mindful of when sterilization is actually required for equipment and using dishwashing services as an alternative also contributes to lowering water usage.

Within labs, addition of low-flow aerators to faucets and switching vacuum sources for aspirators from faucet-style to vacuum-style can also can significantly reduce water usage. Finally, being conscious of when it is really necessary to use distilled or deionized water, as the process wastes water that does not pass the filtering thresholds, can also contribute to making water usage by labs more efficient.


REUSE

Materials: Styrofoam shipping containers and freezers packs can accumulate quickly in labs, given the frequency at which supplies are ordered and received. However, they are not necessarily easy to get rid of in sustainable ways. Many labs end up reusing some fraction of the styrofoam boxes and freezer packs they receive for experiments, which seems to be the most common and easily practiced alternative to throwing these shipping components away.


RECYCLE

Materials: Another approach for sustainable disposal of styrofoam and freezer packs is recycling them. A handful of life sciences companies do sponsor recycling programs for styrofoam containers, including Sigma-Aldrich, Qiagen, and New England BioLabs (which has run such a program for over thirty years), but most companies do not, given the cost of such programs. Alternatively, for-hire companies specializing in styrofoam recycling can be contracted by universities, but again the associated cost can be a deterrent. Even rarer are return programs for freezer packs, as the combination of contamination concerns and the cost of re-sterilizing seems to discourage their implementation.

The amount of plastic materials that biomedical research labs use are also quite high, though recycling used materials such as pipette tips, serological pipettes, conical tubes, or microcentrifuge tubes is often not convenient or feasible due to biological contamination. However, containers for materials (i.e. cell culture media bottles, pipette tip boxes) can be sterilized and disposed of much more easily. In the case of pipette tip boxes, several companies–such as Fisher Scientific, USA Scientific, Corning, and VWR–do sponsor programs where discarded boxes are collected or received via mail for recycling.


While achieving greener laboratories first requires implementation of sustainable practices like those listed above, the success of such efforts ultimately depends on institutional support and researcher engagement. Even if such resources and programs are offered by companies or research institutions, scientists need to be made clearly aware of their existence to take advantage of them. Accordingly, university- or departmental-level promotion of and encouragement for sustainable practices could substantially increase researcher interest and participation. Implementing reward-based systems, including financial incentives, for labs that ‘go green’ could also help motivate investigators to commit to practicing sustainable science.

In being more conscious of the environmental footprint that biomedical research leaves behind, scientists can clean up our own backyard and stand on firmer ground when encouraging others to do the same.


Thank you to Tina Woolston and Shoshana Blank from the Tufts Office of Sustainability and to Stephen Larson and Josh Foster from Tufts Environmental Health & Safety for providing information and resources on chemical hood numbers, energy usage, and costs.


Resources

Tufts University: http://sustainability.tufts.edu/get-involved/tufts-green-labs-initiative/

http://sites.tufts.edu/tuftsgetsgreen/2017/07/28/the-green-labs-initiative-an-overview/

University of Colorado: https://www.colorado.edu/ecenter/greenlabs

EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

Laboratory Fume Hood Calculator: http://fumehoodcalculator.lbl.gov/index.php

 

 

Career development initiatives, curriculum design, & building networks discussed at Sackler Community Meeting

This past June, around seventy-five graduate students and faculty members joined Dean Dan Jay and Associate Dean Dan Volchok in the DeBlois Auditorium to reflect on the previous year’s progress and endeavors at the Sacker School. Various community leaders briefly presented on topics that reflect the Deans’ new mission of training to career excellence followed by open discussion between all attendees. Following the larger meeting, attendees continued to engage in these topics in smaller groups over lunch to continue pushing these goals forward in the coming year.

Jay opened the meeting by reviewing the results of career development “trial balloons” that the new administration worked towards last year. He celebrated the high interest and positive reactions from trainees for the new short courses, including Introduction to Drug Development (50 attendees), Navigating the Corporate Environment (22 attendees), and the R Programming Workshop (34 attendees). Building on this positive momentum, additional short courses will be offered in the coming year. A ‘science storytelling’ workshop and an entrepreneurship short course have been developed for the fall semester, with a teaching short course planned for the spring. There are also plans to develop the Introduction to Drug Development course into an official Sackler-wide elective for the spring semester. In addition, two career counseling workshops by Sarah Cardozo Duncan will again be offered in the 2018-2019 for students and post-docs who are interested in industry-related careers.

Not all career development endeavours in Sackler last year had such immediate success, however. The initiative to place students who have completed Year 1, Year 2, or their thesis requirements in summer industry internships encountered several difficulties, including reluctance from potential partner companies. That reluctance mainly stemmed from aversion to such a short internship time period (3 months), as several companies in conversation with Sackler administration requested at least a 6-month full-time commitment from students. Meeting attendees generally agreed that this length of time would be difficult for both PIs and students to commit to without serious disruption to research progress. However, there was at least one successful internship negotiation and placement, suggesting that the program may still be developed but not in as broad a manner as originally intended. A case-by-case determination was concluded to be the best approach moving forward, with the requirement for extensive conversations and mutual agreement between student, PI, and hosting company on timeline and degree of commitment being emphasized.

In reiterating his desire to see Sackler become a leader in career training for biomedical graduate students, Jay described his aspiration to develop a tuition-bearing, two-year master’s program in Biomedical Leadership. Matriculating students would have the opportunity to train for various career tracks related to biomedical research, and their curriculum would include current and future career development short courses or electives offered within Sackler. During the group-wide discussion session, the possibility of offering a 4+1-style master’s program in collaboration with the undergraduate branch of Tufts University was put forward and positively received.

Another main topic of the community meeting was the state of graduate research training at Sackler. Opening discussions involved debating the merits of switching from the current program-specific curriculum design to a single core curriculum that all first-year graduate trainees–regardless of program–would take. Across programs, students generally were opposed to a core curriculum in regards to scientific content, emphasizing that most seek a graduate education specifically to specialize in a particular area. They did support the suggestion that any core courses in scientific content should be ‘nanocourses’, instead of full required or elective courses. In contrast, developing a skills-focused core curriculum that included classes such as research methods, quantitative biology & bioinformatics, and statistics seemed to have wide support from both students and faculty.  In addition to curriculum content, the possibility of expanding the MERGE (Medically-Oriented Research in Graduate Education) beyond the Immunology and Molecular Microbiology programs was discussed. The MERGE program trains participants in clinical aspects of their research area during the summer prior to their first graduate year at Sackler. During this time, they are also paired with a clinical mentor who provides them direct contact with patients and clinicians and serves as a thesis committee member during their research training. Given the proximity of Tufts Medical Center, it was advocated for the Sackler School to take advantage of the opportunity to give more PhD students training in regards to the clinical impact of their research. Genetics and Neuroscience were considered as programs which MERGE could expand to, but no specific plans for that expansion were discussed.

Strengthening the Sackler community was also a significant theme of the meeting. During a discussion about building diversity and inclusion at Sackler, students expressed the need for more structured support from the school. They expressed that while student-led initiatives such as SPINES (Students Promoting Inclusive Excellence at Sackler) provide excellent resources and opportunities for underrepresented minority (URM) students, the responsibility of delivering such support should not fall so heavily on the trainees themselves. Through this discussion, it was emphasized that bringing more URM junior faculty–from Tufts or other institutions–to speak at graduate seminars could help build networks for students to rely on. In addition, hosting a greater number of Sackler-wide events during the year, especially during recruitment, could foster a greater sense of community and provide more school-directed opportunities for URM individuals to connect across programs. Another discussion about community building focused on developing stronger alumni networks. The career development short courses were one way in which the Dean’s Office started on this initiative already. Various alumni contributed their expertise and their time to the courses’ development and operation, which was key to their success; this arrangement also provided a structured environment in which students could take the opportunity to develop professional connections with alumni in their career areas of interest. Given the positive outcomes from this year using this approach, there are plans to build on this foundation for similar endeavours in the future. Dean Jay also discussed his efforts over the last year in reaching out to Sackler alumni for fundraising, which he had done in collaboration with Roxanne Beal from the School of Medicine’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Relations. To broaden this effort, faculty were encouraged to reach out to their former trainees, and the group supported the idea of current students reaching out to alumni for an annual fund.

Overall, the morning and lunchtime discussions provided great insight into the past year’s success as well as highlighted what aspects of graduate training at Sackler still need to be strengthened, and the dialogue between students, faculty, and staff generated actionable items for the administration to take on in the coming academic year.

Relays Re-Play

On June 8th, Graduate students, postdocs, and faculty from all programs and departments flooded from the lab to the Medford campus for the 23rd Annual Sackler Relays, our yearly day of fun-in-the-sun and fundraising for the Student Activity Fund.

With cooler weather than last year, speed-inclined scientists competed in a 100 m dash, a 1 mile race, and the annual event’s namesake, the 4 x 200 relay. A few especially spirited labrats were spotted warming up prior to these events, but competition between the programs remained good-spirited and  friendly throughout the day. Contenders and attendees alike relaxed and enjoyed a buffet of delicious food and drink between the footraces and the team events.

Dodgeball made a triumphant return with new dodgeballs this year, which were a sturdy candlepin size rather than full kickball-size. Simultaneous brackets for dodgeball, volleyball, and tug-of-war ensured maximum participation from each team. In a great show of teamwork, the MD/PhDs stole back tug-of-war victory from CMDB, last year’s tug-of-war champions. The day’s events ended with an obstacle course consisting of a potato sack race, three-legged race, dizzy bat, and an egg-and-spoon race.

With race times recorded and sporting points tallied, Microbiology emerged at the front of the pack. Congratulations, Micro!

Last of all came the presentation of the raffle prizes, including gift cards to Boston Burger Company, tickets to the Somerville Theatre, and from the Celtics, two drinking glasses and a piece of the parquet floor! A full list of raffle prize donors can be found below.

As always, Sackler Relays would not be possible without help from the Dean’s office and the numerous faculty and alumni donors. Thank you to Claudette Gardel and Yusuf Mal for team and event photos, and a big thank you to everyone who participated. Let’s make it even better next year!

Thank you to our local and corporate donors:

Boston Burger Company

Fajitas and ‘Ritas

Slumbrew

Roche Bros.

Sweetgreen

Subway

Boston Celtics

Museum of Science

Somerville Theatre

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery

Institute of Contemporary Art

Tufts University Bookstore

Marathon Sports

Boston Kitchen Pizza

Corner Pub

Al’s South Street Café

Aeronaut Brewing Company

Flour Bakers and Café

Brew Café Boston

MJ O’Connor’s

Bao Bao Bakery

Double Chin

Chicken & Rice Guys

Dunkin’ Donuts

Novelty is in the eye of the beholder: The process of writing an F award application

The image used here is released under Creative Commons CC0.

Writing an F award application is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. There are lots of pieces, they all need to fit together just so, and it feels like it will never be complete. But writing – whether it be manuscripts, reports, or grant proposals – is a huge part of any scientist’s career, and it shouldn’t be an unpleasant process. F awards, which provide a stipend, health fees, tuition, and travel, are a great first step into the world of scientific writing.

There are a few oft-repeated adages that are thrown around when it comes to grant proposals, such as “Make your aims related, but independent” and “You need to study a little bit of a mechanism.”  While these are helpful in their own way, here are some other tips to make applying for your first F award a bit smoother:

  1. Take advantage of info sessions

Sackler offers two information sessions every year for potential F30 (M.D./Ph.D.) and F31 (Ph.D.) applicants. If you have questions about when to apply, writing, or anything else, this is the place to ask them. An additional day-long workshop is being held for the first time this year, hosted by Dean Dan Jay.

The Application – June 5th, 2 – 3:30 PM

Demystifying the Review Process – June 7th, 2 – 3:30 PM

*Writing Your Specific Aims – June 15th

*Attendance at the first two session is required for this workshop. Attendance will be limited to 20 participants.

  1. Make a list

There are several pieces to this application – so many that it’s possible for some of them to fall through the cracks. A checklist is a simple way to ensure you won’t need to rush to complete a document (or worse, start writing it!) minutes before the deadline. The following list is accurate as of Spring 2018:

  • Abstract/Project SummaryApplicant’s Background and Goals for Fellowship Training
  • Bibliography and References Cited
  • BioSketch
  • Cover Letter
  • Equipment
  • Facilities and Other Resources
  • Institutional Commitment
  • Letters of Support
  • Project Narrative
  • Research Strategy
  • Resource Sharing Plan
  • Respective Contributions
  • Responsible Conduct of Research
  • Selection of Sponsor and Institution
  • Specific Aims
  • Sponsor Information
  • Sponsor’s BioSketch
  • Vertebrate Animals

If you’re resubmitting your application, you’ll also need to include an “Introduction,” a one-page document where you respond to the criticisms of each reviewer.

  1. Gather preliminary data

To the bench! With data in hand, you can work with your advisor to determine what kind of story you want to tell. Your goal here will be to gather data that will demonstrate the feasibility of your proposal. Starting early is key, as this process can take several months. The more data you have, the better. It shows the reviewers that you can work hard and be productive.

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words

Begin crafting your figures before writing. Figures are a visual representation of your story; having it effectively “storyboarded” out makes it easy to see where there are holes in your data. Patching these now makes for a much stronger initial application.

  1. Make your Aims into an outline

Your Specific Aims page functions as an overall summary of your proposal. While your reviewers must read the whole proposal, you should assume that most other panel members will only scan this section. All of the critical aspects of your proposal should be clearly stated here, including the impact and novelty of your research.

  1. Stagger writing with editing

Once you write your initial aims, send it to your advisor for comments and get started on the next piece of your application. As your advisor returns documents with comments, you can edit and send them back. A continuous cycle of writing, editing, and rewriting keeps the process moving and keeps you from working on the same document for too long. You’re more likely to catch typos and other errors by looking every so often with fresh eyes.

  1. Play the matching game

Consistency is huge in any F award application. You will reference your aims multiple times in the Research Strategy section. As you craft your proposal, make sure that the methods listed under each aim match in the Research Strategy and Specific Aims sections.

  1. Ctrl-F for key words

There are certain core concepts that, when missing, are easy for reviewers to point out as a flaw. Your application should not only comment on the novelty and innovation of your proposed research, but also include key phrases such as “sex as a biological variable.” Reviewers may simply search for these terms to see if you address them, so you should do it, too. Talk to your advisor for some examples. As someone who writes and reviews grants, they will know exactly what they would look for in a proposal.

  1. Skip the jargon

Not every reviewer you have will be an expert in your field. In fact, it’s likely that none of them will be familiar with your precise topic of interest. If a simple word will do the job, use the simple word. The less reviewers have to think about what you’re trying to say, the better they will feel about your proposal.

 

Easier said than done, right? Don’t be discouraged if your proposal isn’t funded in its initial submission. Only about 13% of applications are at Sackler. However, making the strongest proposal you can initially will make it easier to edit for resubmission, and much more likely to be funded the second time around. Over the last five years, Sackler applicants have had a 30% success rate (this number includes both proposals funded initially and those funded after resubmission). For a breakdown of success rates by NIH institute, check out the following link: https://report.nih.gov/success_rates/. The F30/F31 spreadsheet is #3 under “Training and Research Career Development Programs.”

Finally, take a break once you’ve submitted the proposal! Rest and recharge before returning to the bench so you can get ahead on your next project.

 

Sources and Related Reading:

  1. NIH. Write Your Application. Last updated: 2016 Jan 28 [cited 2018 May 17]. Available from: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/how-to-apply-application-guide/format-and-write/write-your-application.htm
  1. Chasan-Taber L. 10 Tips for Successful Grant Writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2018 Feb [cited 2018 May 17]. Available from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/10-Tips-for-Successful-Grant/242535
  1. McCollum, L. To Resubmit or Not To Resubmit? GradHacker. 2015 Feb [cited 2018 May 17]. Available from: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/resubmit-or-not-resubmit
  1. Hollenbach, AD. A Practical Guide to Writing a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Grant. 1st ed. Oxford: Academic Press; 2014.

• This resource is available from Hirsh Health Sciences Library.

What Does the Sackler Name Mean to You?

Guest Post by Andrea Koenigsberg (Micro)

My favorite t-shirt is heather-grey and reads “SACKLER” across the front. It’s not just my favorite because it’s objectively the softest, but because it’s one of the token articles of clothing in the bookstore that is exclusively for Sackler students. All other clothing and paraphernalia generically represents Tufts University or is emblazoned with the names of the medical, dental or nutrition schools. None of those correctly describes my identity within the Tufts community. Don’t worry, I’m not going to have a school identity crisis over a t-shirt. The Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences is how we can identify ourselves within Tufts University and distinguish ourselves from the medical or dental schools, since neither of those would be accurate. While I have been proudly wearing my Sackler t-shirt for years now, I have more recently become conflicted about this pride.

For many Sackler students the Sackler name may not resonate beyond the name of their graduate school. Some may have noticed other buildings, schools or museum wings with the same name. However, very few people know anything about the Sackler family beyond the fact that they are wealthy. But, how many people have wondered where all of that wealth comes from?

Last fall, the New Yorker magazine published an article by Patrick Radden Keefe titled “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain”, telling the history of the Sackler family and how they got to where they are today. I highly encourage all Sackler students to read the article at some point, but the main points will be summarized throughout the rest of this article. The Sackler family has three main branches that stem from the three brothers Arthur, Raymond and Mortimer Sackler. While all three brothers were doctors, Arthur Sackler also had a propensity for advertising; Arthur is primarily responsible for how pharmaceutical companies market drugs these days. He shifted the marketing focus from the patients to the doctors, no longer relying on patients to request prescriptions from doctors. Years after Arthur Sackler died, the pharmaceutical company owned by his brothers, Purdue Pharma, developed OxyContin. Raymond and Mortimer used Arthur’s marketing strategies to make OxyContin a blockbuster drug. The company today is still privately owned by the descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler.

The Arthur M. Sackler Center for Medical Education on Harrison Ave.

For those who are unaware, OxyContin and other highly addictive narcotic painkillers have led to over two hundred thousand overdoses in the United States since the late 1990’s.  Often times, people become addicted to prescription painkillers like OxyContin and eventually switch to using a more affordable drug such as heroin. More people died from opioid overdoses (42,000) in 2016 than automobile accidents (40,000) or gun violence (38,000). The percent change in number of opioid related deaths continues to rise, increased 28% from 2015-16, compared to only 16% from 2014-2015.  

While OxyContin is not responsible for all opioid overdoses, it was the first drug to capture majority of the long-acting opioid market. How did OxyContin become so “successful”? Through a combination of adept marketing to physicians and misrepresenting just how addictive the drug could be – “the marketing of OxyContin relied on an empirical circularity: the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company”. Basically, Purdue Pharma was well aware of the addictive properties of OxyContin and did whatever they could to get it prescribed to as many people as possible. The Sacklers are now one of the richest families in the country.

The article importantly points out that while the Sacklers donate to an extensive list of charitable causes, the opioid epidemic is notably not one of them. When I learned last month that a high school classmate of mine died from an opioid overdose I can’t help but feel a little frustrated that my PhD will always be associated with the name Sackler. The Sackler family has been accused of creating the current opioid epidemic and, in similar fashion to the NRA, Purdue Pharma will argue against any suggested restrictions on prescribing painkillers – “Purdue insisted that the only problem was that recreational drug users were not taking OxyContin as direct”.  This argument just shifts the responsibility away from the company and onto the individual. This sounds awfully similar to the NRA’s stance on gun ownership. Wouldn’t we feel more uncomfortable if our school was named after the head of the NRA? Of course, so what’s the difference? The difference is that the general population is naïve to the role the Sacklers played in creating, and continue to play in perpetuating, the opioid crisis. Until this awareness spreads, the Sacklers will continue to be seen as philanthropists who generously support the arts and sciences. Does the source of the money matter if it used for good? Does it negate the harm they are causing?

Most of us have found ourselves as students at the Sackler school not just because of our love for science and learning, but also because of the desire to help people and make a positive impact on society (no matter how easy it is to forget that at 10PM when yet another experiment has failed). Is there a conflict between what we work on and the reputation of our school’s namesake? I realize just because our school is named after someone does not mean we support them or their beliefs. But at a time when schools and professional teams are changing mascots and renaming buildings because of actions that are no longer socially respected, it is worth thinking about whether something around here should change. Keefe importantly points out in his article that the buildings that are getting renamed were in honor of someone who is no longer alive, and in some instances have been dead for centuries. This actually raises two larger facts: (1) those people were alive at a different time and their actions could be excusable due to changing societal beliefs and (2) these people are dead and are no longer active donors.  It would be more noteworthy to rescind a donation from a current donor.  

At this point I will clarify that all three brothers contributed to the school’s founding in 1980, long before OxyContin ever reached the market. Additionally, according to a university spokesperson, a significant gift came specifically from Arthur Sackler in 1983 and the Sackler building (the medical school building) is named for him. As mentioned above, Arthur Sackler did not have anything to do with sale of OxyContin per se, since he died before it was produced, and his branch of the family has actually distanced themselves from the other two branches. Even though the initial funding for the school was independent from OxyContin sales, the school still receives money from other branches of the family whose wealth continues to come from OxyContin revenue, for example the gift for the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Convergence Laboratory.

I am not here to start a movement to change the name of our school or other Sackler institutions. Far from it. I just want to start a discussion I think is important for us to have as students who have benefitted from the Sackler family’s wealth. In the last year or so it has become abundantly clear how essential it is for us to educate people on the importance of science and research, and I think it is equally as important for us to help spread knowledge about a current crisis, especially one that hits close to home. Massachusetts is amongst the top 10 states with the highest rates of opioid overdoses, a rate more than twice that of the national average. If nothing else, I just want you to think about who and what you are representing the next time you wear your Sackler fleece down the street.

Relays Are Coming – Graduate Student Council Holds Open Meeting

The Sackler Graduate Student Council (GSC) held an open meeting last week, on April 5, 2018. The turnout was good – every program had at least one non-GSC student at the meeting. “We want people to know what we do,” Rebecca Silver, our current GSC President, stated.

GSC meetings generally begin with an update from the treasurer, a monthly recap from the three sub-committees (Career Paths, Social, and Outreach), and conclude with action items. As the environment was low-key, non-GSC attendees comfortably offered thoughts and ideas on a variety of matters. If you want the low-down on what events the sub-committees have planned, check out The Goods email (arriving in your inbox weekly).

Sackler Relays was a big topic at this particular meeting. The event has been set for June 8th (mark your calendar!) and subjects ranging from raffle prizes to activities to food were discussed. A popular idea was to potentially have a faculty team for the first time – who doesn’t like a little friendly competition? All in all, a productive meeting. “And at the end of the day,” Silver said, “everyone got some free pizza!”

Chatting with the non-GSC attendees after the event, it was clear that many were curious about the kind of delegation that occurs on the council, wanted to have input, or were interested in becoming a representative for their program in the future. Just remember, according to the bylaws, all GSC meetings are open, and you can get in touch with your program rep(s) if you’re interested in attending regularly. GSC wants to hear your ideas!

Relays Are Coming