Category Archives: arts & culture

Book Review: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing

It’s not uncommon to hear young, aspiring scientists say, “I hate writing. That’s why I’m going into science!” Plot twist: we do a lot of writing as scientists. Writing is pervasive in this field. We write to disseminate our research to the wider scientific community, to get funding, to get hired. It’s surprising that, as a community, we don’t devote much time to formally training students in the writing process.

Enter Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist, who wrote “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” to help address this gap in training. He draws from the scientific study of scientific writing, filling in the gaps with his own experiences with the writing process. The result is a book that not only advises readers on what to include in different written works, but also provides exercises that can be used to improve their use of the craft.

When scientists write about their research, the goal is mainly to convince other scientists that the body of work is important, and completely necessary, to the advancement of a particular scientific field. To do this, any arguments made need to be clear and well-founded, easily transferable from the page to the reader’s brain. Heard addresses this by offering his reader details about what writing actually is, beginning with the history of scientific writing and its unique evolution.

Throughout the book, Heard draws his reader to several conclusions, including three crucial tips: first, that any body of work must be crystal clear (in his words, it should “seem telepathic”); second that making note of things you like when you are reading can bolster your own writing; and third, that every word should be considered and removed if unnecessary. These conclusions apply across the board—not just to manuscripts, but also to grants and other types of scientific communication.

While a book on writing may not seem especially interesting, Heard’s advice is invaluable to the developing writer. Reading this, or a similar book, should be considered critical training for every student of the sciences.

“The Prize” by Geoffrey M. Cooper, PhD is a thriller for the dramatic scientist in all of us

I was excited to learn a few months ago that my former PI from BU, Dr. Geoffrey Cooper, was publishing a fictional novel about the competitive world of scientific discovery and competition. I’m sharing a short review for you guys to hopefully inspire you to pick up a copy of your own to enjoy this entertaining and relatable thriller!

A fictional novel that tells the story of two professors racing to discover the first successful Alzheimer’s drug, written by Geoffrey Cooper PhD., a professor of Biology at BU. The story follows a chronological timeline to detail how the insatiable need to achieve a novel discovery can drive scientists to perform inconceivable acts. Pam Weller acts as the protagonist, a young assistant professor studying Alzheimer’s, vying for tenure at the fictional Boston-based research institute, the Langmere. Opposing Pam is Eric Prescott, a well-established and older professor at the Institute for Advanced Neuroscience in Cambridge, also a fictional and supposedly more established institute, compared to the Langmere. Whereas Eric is credited with the establishment of an Alzheimer’s mouse, Pam is building her budding career on a novel cell culture model of Alzheimer’s in which primary mouse brain cells grow plaques and die in vitro. Pam’s lab’s efforts are directed towards screening tens of thousands of compounds in her cell culture model in hopes of identifying a drug that can stop or reverse the formation of plaques to rescue the cells—a much speedier technique, compared to the screening of compounds in Alzheimer’s mice. With Pam’s tenure review coming up quickly, the pressure is on for her to make a truly groundbreaking discovery. When Pam’s postdoc Holly happens to identify the right compound, she greedily decides to keep the data to herself in hopes of advancing her own career. In an exciting and dreadful twist, Holly uses her discovery to team up with Eric to steal the drug, destroy Pam’s credibility, and walk away with all the glory and a Nobel Prize to boot.

This book is a true thriller as Pam works to uncover the truth and gain credit where it is truly due. The Prize is an easy-to-read page-turner. It’s an exciting and relatable story that is sure to entertain, especially for us, as we are deep in the trenches of scientific discovery!

That being said, hopefully none of us are resorting to tactics as evil and dramatic as Eric and Holly. It’s just a Nature paper and full tenure and the Nobel Prize… nothing worth murdering anyone over, right?

The Prize is available for purchase on Amazon.com

Humans of Sackler: Becca Silver, “Enthusiasm was contagious (no pun intended)”

 

I’m Ila Anand, a fifth-year student in the Microbiology program. I’ve recently taken over the “Humans of Sackler” portion of the Newsletter, which was originally pioneered by Andrew Hooper. In this issue I had the honor of getting to know our GSC president, Rebecca Silver, better known as “Becca.” It was a delight sitting down with this die-hard Bruins fan and discussing a variety of topics—from finding out she loves butter pecan ice cream and Figaro’s to discovering how she first broke into science. I hope you enjoy our conversation and are better acquainted with our GSC president!

IA: Hi Becca! Let’s start with what were you doing before you started graduate school?

RS: I was having a good time in college at the University of Maine in Orono! Besides the academics, my favorite part of college was having my friends nearby and being able to spend time with them whenever I wanted. I had a pretty diverse group of friends in college and I still keep in touch with them. I’m originally from Portland, Maine and spending time with close friends was also a big part of my childhood. My favorite memories are from Fourth of July when my friends and I would hang out at a lake house. The lifestyle in Maine is generally much more slow-paced. That is actually one of the biggest differences I noticed when I started grad school—there’s much more of a “rush” in Boston compared to Portland, where the people are more laid-back.

IA: Sounds like there are definitely some cultural differences between the cities. Where else have you traveled to in the past?

RS: I’ve mostly traveled on the East coast. I’ve visited the majority of the North East and I’ve also visited Georgia and Florida. I’ve actually never traveled to the West Coast but if I had the opportunity to attend a conference I would totally go. I also really want to ski in the mountains of Colorado at some point in the future. Outside of the U.S. I’ve traveled to Canada and Bermuda. I visited Bermuda when I was fairly young (ten years old) and I vividly remember that time period because two weeks before the vacation I had pneumonia. At the time it was awful because I missed school and was trying to recover (I had a lot of Pediasure!), but in the end, because I also went on vacation, I ultimately took a month off of school and my teachers didn’t assign me any extra homework. You could say that was my first introduction to the infectious disease field!

 

IA: That does sound awful! So when did you actually become interested in pursuing research and studying science?

RS: Well, I was a bioengineer back in college and honestly pursuing research was a decision I made on the whim. I took an immunology elective class my junior year of college and quickly realized I really like immunology. The class was much more interesting than any of my bioengineering classes- the lectures were awe-inspiring! The professor really emphasized infectious disease clinical examples like super gross rashes all over the body, etc. The professor was so excited and his enthusiasm was contagious (no pun intended). After taking the class, that summer I took the GRE and applied for grad school the fall of my senior year. It was literally a 6-month turnaround from being a bioengineer to wanting to be an immunologist!

 

IA: What was your first experience working in a lab?

RS: My first experience doing lab work was during a Co-Op internship at Idexx, which is a veterinary biotech in Portland, ME. I interned at Idexx during the summer going into my junior year of college. I was involved in developing a lateral flow assay that is similar to an ELISA and this rapid immunoassay detected digging worms in infested dog feces. It was a triple detection assay so it was able to detect whipworm, roundworm, and hookworm. My internship involved developing positive and negative controls for the assay. My boss at Idexx played on the same recreational hockey team that I did in Maine and she was a Tufts alumnus. Later, when I decided I wanted to go to grad school, I reached out to her for a reference and she’s the one who influenced me to apply to and attend Tufts Sackler.

IA: That’s really neat that you play rec-hockey. How did you get into that? What else do you like to do outside of bench research?

RS: I picked up hockey in high school when I was fourteen. My friend asked me to try out for the school team because they needed more people and now it’s one my favorite activities to do. I currently play on a Greater Boston rec-team called South Shore Women’s Hockey League. We have a lot of fun! In addition to hockey, I like to run. I run with a group in Jamaica Plains called the Forest Hill Runners and my favorite spot to run is in Peters Hill in the Harvard Arboretum. It has the best view of the whole city, in my opinion. I also like to cook and play video games—specifically strategy games, like Civilization 6. As GSC president, I’ve also been heavily involved in planning the Sackler relays. Our plans are kind of top secret but I can tell you that this year we’re going to have relays in June rather than July and we’re going to have an awesome raffle. Of course, my favorite part about relays is winning- go Immunogenetics!

Sci-Art Contest 2017: And the winner is…

Last month the Sackler Insight hosted a contest to find the best science-based art (“sci-art”) at Sackler. All twelve entries were posted to the Sackler Graduate Student Council Instagram account (@SacklerGSC) and the Sackler student Facebook group. The winning contributor will receive a $25 Visa gift card!

The results are in! 174 voters from both Instagram and Facebook weighed in on their favorite pictures. Our lucky first place winner is Mary H. from Microbiology with her photo “An enteroid supernova,” which received 65 votes. Runners-up included Rana A. from PDD with “Making the best of a bad Western” (61 votes) and Rob C. from CMDB with “Monday Blues – Screening One-Bead-One-Compound Peptide Libraries” (39 votes).

Congratulations Mary, and thank you to everyone who participated! You can check out the pictures below:

Notes from the North – CMDB first year visit to MMCRI

We frozen few doing our thesis work in the CMDB and genetics programs are always looking for ways to highlight some of the excellent resources we have at our institutes. Last month I had the pleasure of hosting the CMDB first year students and introducing them to the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough, Maine. They heard from the faculty here about potential rotation projects, but perhaps more importantly about the larger on-going projects that could become collaborative efforts between Maine and Boston. Here are some pictures of their visit and a link to the updated MMCRI website in case you too are interested in finding out about current MMCRI research.

 

Left to right CMDB first years Brittany Ahlstedt, Alexander Hu, Alice Meng, and Jackson Fatherree at Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park.

 

Left to right CMDB students Alice Meng, Brittany Ahlstedt, Jess Davis-Knowlton, Jackson Fatherree, and Alexander Hu at Duckfat in Portland.

Science Sketches at MMCRI

Very recently I found myself in a revelationary conversation with a non-scientific colleague as we were planning our annual exhibition for the Maine Science Festival. We needed a display that would highlight the molecular biology work we do at MMCRI that would be exciting and comprehensible to a broad audience plus a related hands-on activity that could be completed in just a few minutes. Pulling from the expertise of the folks attending the festival, I proposed that we have a display on our use of 3D silk scaffolds in modeling cancer. One of the hallmarks of the cancer cells compared to healthy cells is reduced lipid content, so the hands-on activity could be a demonstration of dye solubility with the explanation that this is how we measure lipid content in our cell populations.

Well, about halfway into the conversation I found that I had completely failed to convey A. the link between the silk scaffold models and the hands-on activity and B. the importance of dye solubility in highlighting specific structures and substances. Fortunately, my colleague asked me to take several steps back and was able to ask very specific questions such that I was able to reform my explanation for her. In the end, my idea was passed along, but the episode highlighted to me that despite all the opportunities I have to explain my science to both scientific and lay audiences I still need lots more practice.

This past summer at MMCRI we had an excellent opportunity to think in great depth about how to present our work in a concise and comprehensible manner: we produced Science Sketches! A Science Sketch is a two-minute or less video summary of a scientific topic. I have seen examples of more universal basic scientific principles as well as very specific projects.

All sketches start as an idea or concept that the writer wants to convey to their audience. The writer must decide who their audience will be, as this will dictate the vocabulary and the level of explanation that needs to be employed. Science Sketches has a great tutorial to help writers as they get started telling their stories. They recommend a 300-word script with no jargon that has been proofread by several colleagues and assessed using online tools that highlight terms above a given reading level. With a complete script, you can start putting together a storyboard that illustrates every sentence.

The sketches generally utilize pen and ink drawing on copy paper or white board, but they can also employ cut paper shapes, building blocks, or other props to illustrate an idea. They can be made very rapidly and at very little expense as they are often filmed using a cell-phone camera mounted on a ring stand.  The writer films him or herself drawing or moving paper cut outs, records his or her script, then uses video editing software to compress the video and match it to the audio. The writer can take as long as he or she likes drawing the images as they can be sped up to whatever speed is necessary using the editing software.

Video summaries of scientific concepts have been around for a long time, and I am particularly fond of this trippy vintage recording of translation, but organizing an approachable tutorial that anyone can carry out is a novel model. Science Sketches arose at the Max Plank Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden Germany as a collaboration between the institute’s postdoc program manager, Lisa Dennison, PhD, and the Hyman lab. More recently, Science Sketches has focused on improving their public engagement, so Liam Holt, PhD of NYU, became involved and helped them develop their science fundamentals video series.

I found this summer’s workshop challenging but rewarding. I had to take a high altitude view of my project again after months of detailed experiments in order to highlight the key features of my work and keep my audience’s attention for the full two minutes. It also gave me an excuse to binge watch lots of science vignettes, making me feel really well rounded and intelligent for a day, as I decided how I wanted to construct my own video. Hope you enjoy!

Humans of Sackler: Patrick Davis, “I’ve been Accused of being a Science Robot”

Humans of Sackler, 23 March 2017

Patrick Davis, Neuroscience, Fifth-Year M.D./Ph.D. Student: “I’ve been Accused of being a Science Robot”

For this issue of Humans of Sackler, I had the opportunity to sit down with Patrick Davis, an M.D./Ph.D. student in the Neuroscience program. Although I see medical students coming and going around Sackler every day, I confess I haven’t gotten to know many of them – or much at all about the medical school curriculum. So it was a great pleasure to learn more about this from somebody who is as passionate about medicine as he is about science research; Patrick and I had a particularly engrossing conversation about the differences between these two kinds of higher education, and I hope you, dear reader, enjoy and benefit from it as much as I did!

 

Young Pat with the Chestnut Hill Academy Theoretical Physics Group

AH: How did you become interested in studying science?

PD: I had a physics teacher in 11th and 12th grade – Marty Baumberger – who was just the best teacher ever. He got me so into physics that I started a Theoretical Physics group at Chestnut Hill Academy… I went to Brown University as a physics major. I loved the open curriculum, but I was a terrible student. I didn’t do well my first year, so I switched to an economics major for about a year, and that was completely unfulfilling. Eventually I came to my senses and switched to biology… The thing about Brown: it’s chaos. There are no required classes, so you just mix and match and do whatever. There are requirements for your major, but you could theoretically never take a math class if you never wanted to. What happened to me was the best-case scenario: the first year and a half made me a more dedicated student. I learned that if I’m not doing something I really want to do then I’m going to be lazy, and if I don’t work hard then I’m not going to do well.

 

At a Macklis Lab get-together, chatting with friend and mentor Alex Poulopoulos (left)

AH: What was your first experience with neuroscience research?

PD: When I graduated from Brown, I didn’t know right away that I wanted to do med school or neuroscience. I ended up working at Jeff Macklis’s lab at Mass General Hospital for two years after college, and that was my first real exposure to neuroscience. Jeff made his name with a series of studies on induction of neurogenesis in the neocortex. I met Alex Poulopoulos there, who has been a mentor ever since, and a very good friend. I would credit Alex almost entirely with piquing my interest in neuroscience, but also with my development as a scientist. I love to come up with an idea, test it, go through the whole process myself, interpret my own data, talk to other people about their data – I like the actual scientific process. Alex just started his own lab at University of Maryland School of Medicine; anybody reading this, please apply to his lab! You could not ask for a better person to work for. He’s interested in how neural circuits self-organize, which is extremely interesting to me as well.

 

With pals from Brown University

AH: Why did you choose the M.D./Ph.D. path and how have your medical and scientific training differed?

PD: I could never be just an M.D. because I love science too much. The fundamental quality of a scientist is curiosity; medicine is more like service and helping people, curiosity about the people themselves, empathy. The preclinical years are a lot of memorization, but once you get into the hospital, it’s more like an apprenticeship. You’re learning how to do the day-to-day things that a doctor does: how to walk through clinical decision-making, interview a patient, present that information to other doctors, how to work with your hands if you’re doing a surgery rotation… Because medicine is an applied science, the goal there is all oriented around the health of the patient; I don’t think that’s really what science is about. For a long time, medicine has been done in a very parochial way: people in this hospital do it this way, people in another hospital do it another way. Evidence-based medicine still gets a lot of pushback. Take stenting for example: doing a coronary artery stent for someone with angina. About half of the stents in this country are done for stable angina – chest pain when you exercise, but not an acute threat to your health – and it’s now been shown over and over again that that is no better, and possibly worse, than just giving them statins and blood pressure reduction medication and telling them to eat their vegetables and exercise a little bit. It’s because doctors think in terms of, ‘I see it happen, it intuitively makes a lot more sense to me, so it must be this.’ Of course the lines are blurred in real life, but a true scientist would say, ‘We have to trust the evidence, why don’t we look at what’s causing the increased risk of doing the stent, or why do statins work?’ The curiosity that is absolutely necessary to be a good scientist is not necessary to be a good doctor… The types of mind that are selected for by these two professions are almost non-overlapping, they’re completely different.

 

Even science robots enjoy a night on the town every now and then

AH: What do you like to do when you’re not studying medicine or neuroscience, and how do you find the time and energy to do it all?

PD: I love to teach, I really like being in the didactic role and seeing people learn and discover things for themselves. I tutor for the MCAT, I used to tutor for the SAT, I’ve volunteered for things like middle school science fair mentoring and the Brain Bee. These kids in the Brain Bee were extremely impressive; they knew more facts for this test than I would have! Thomas Papouin and I also started a class trying to teach grad students the basics of the scientific method. There’s a whole rich history of how to think formally and scientifically; and the more aware you are of it and the more you practice it – like by applying these things to your own rotation project or qualifying exam – the better you get at it. The notion that, by just reading papers, this will happen – for some people, maybe it will, but the purpose of the program is to maximize the probability of this happening for everybody… I’ve been accused of being a science robot: the joke between Alex Jones and me is that when I get home, I have a scotch and read PubMed… The M.D./Ph.D.s that I’ve spoken to, the ones that succeed, are recharging one half of their brain while the other one works. Like a shark, like a science shark!

 

Relaxing by a picturesque mountain lake in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

AH: Have you had many chances to travel outside of the U.S.?

PD: I’ve traveled through Europe a bit, I’ve been to Peru, Brazil… I was in Berlin at one point, and I decided to just hop on a train and go to Prague. I spent two full days and a night there, and it was awesome. Most of the people spoke English at tourist-type places, but it was fun to walk around, take pictures, be completely by myself… I had a Cormac McCarthy book called “All the Pretty Horses”, and it was nice just being on the train, reading or watching the sites, then walking around the city and going to a café for a coffee or beer. I don’t know much else about Prague, but aesthetically, I can’t imagine a prettier city. Part of why I enjoyed the city so much was because I didn’t expect it to be that way: of course when you go to Rome, you know that one of the greatest civilizations existed here and that every step you take is rich with history, but I didn’t expect this in Prague.

 

Enthusiastically sharing data at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting

AH: What topic have you studied for your thesis work?

PD: Under Leon Reijmers’ mentorship, I’m trying to figure out how ‘extinction learning’ happens in the brain: it’s a medically-relevant type of learning that underlies treatment for psychiatric disorders like PTSD. In extinction learning, the patient repeatedly gets exposed to the thing they’re afraid of, you gradually increase the ‘stimulus intensity’, and they learn that it’s safe. So for example, if they’re afraid of spiders, you would show them a picture of a spider at first, then maybe have them in a room where there’s a spider in a corner, then work your way up to having them handle a spider. What I’ve found is that there’s a particular cell type in the amygdala – the parvalbumin interneuron – which acts a critical hub for this kind of learning: if you silence these cells, then you shut down the process of extinction learning. Now I’m using that finding as a jumping-off point to really figure out what’s going on. I’m manipulating parvalbumin interneurons with different frequencies of stimulation and seeing how the amygdala – and the rest of the brain – responds to that. It looks like I can ‘toggle’ the fear state up or down just by controlling this specific type of neuron!

 

Contemplating the mysteries of the universe

AH: Where do you see the field of neuroscience heading in the near future?

PD: I think that we have tools in neuroscience that 15 years ago, you couldn’t have even fathomed. Not just optogenetics, but recording techniques, chemogenetics, optical electrophysiology, simultaneous local field potentials with single units, closed loop systems… The engineers like Ed Boyden have done us a great favor. But now it’s time for us to step up. I think that in the next 2, 5, 10, 15 years there are going to be many, many discoveries that are really going to blow things open. Once we fall out of love with the mere application of modern tools to hypotheses we already kind of assumed to be true, then we’re going to ask the question: how? You have to record neurons’ endogenous activity, then do experiments that are really informative about what’s going on. In neuroscience, because we have these techniques, we can start asking this kind of question.

A guide to making effective protest signs

With the first ever March for Science two weeks away, a lot of us are sitting and scratching our heads thinking up the perfect rhyme, or the perfect punchline to write on cardboard that would express our outrage or our incredulity against proposed cuts for the NIH, or our passion for our favorite scientific topic, or even why science is awesome and important. We have so much to say, except there is only so much space on the cardboard or even the banner. Given that brevity is the mother of wit, we believe that you can come up with awesome signs for the March by yourself. However, we just wanted to provide some tips to help you along the way! If you happen to make a sign similar to someone else, don’t lose heart. Repetition = reinforcement, so it will show your solidarity with others. 

1. Use literary devices – Parallelism is a great way to get your message across and make it memorable. If you can make it rhyme, even better since it can turn your message into a chant! As the linguist Daniel Midgley describes, both parallelism and rhyming make slogans readable and memorable. In addition to rhyming, clever usage of common memes will also help making your sign memorable, such as the one below. 

Source: L May/Twitter

2. Be Positive – While the proposed cuts to the NIH budget may not sound funny at all and the future of scientific research looks bleak under this administration, negativity will not help win supporters. Instead, spin your negativism into a humorous catch-phrase that either expresses your incredulity (eg – “OMG GOP WTF”) or your positive attitude (eg – “We Are Better Than This”). 

3. Use Symbols – Your message can be personal and defined based on what you want to say, but  you can still express your solidarity with the overall cause by including the symbols of the protest (eg – the Boston March for Science has incorporated the official logo of the March for Science with its own twist by adding the Zakim bridge over it).

Official March for Science logo
Boston March for Science logo

4.  Focus on the Issues – Emotional reactions to President Trump and his proposed changes are inevitable. However, given that he has been in office for 3 months, it would not help to make signs that say “Not My President”. Instead, make sure your signs reflect the issues at hand – climate change, funding for scientific research, evidence-based policymaking, etc. Your sign should tell the rest of us about the cause you support in the specific context rather than a knee-jerk reaction, which may be valid but out of context. So, be informed about the specific goals of the march, and use those points to shape your message. 

5. Don’t be Partisan – Remember, it’s a non-partisan march, but it is not apolitical. Both democrats and republicans have utilized science as a tool to make political gains. However, this march is beyond petty partisan politics. This is something much more fundamental – it is about the defense of basic truths. While the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers seem to support the Republican party more often than the Democrats, such issues affect all of us and the March for Science will not achieve its goals by displaying partisanship. Alienation is not what we need right now, but rather, we need to be able to win over the other side. 

Just a quick note – the March for Science is taking place on Earth Day, April 22. So PLEASE MAKE SURE you take your signs with you after the march, or recycle them and if you would like, help with clean-up afterwards. This is also our responsibility, not only as scientists, but also as members of society taking part in a civic and political action. 

Hope to see you all at the March, with your awesome signs.

For Science, In Solidarity!

CMDB and Genetics Programs Come Together in Portland, Maine

For the first time, the Genetics and CMDB programs came together for a retreat in Portland, Maine for the snow and slush-filled weekend of April 1st. The retreat brought together students from different programs to interact and learn more about one another’s’ research, as well as students from different campuses. Both the Boston and the Bar Harbor Jackson Laboratories contingents made it to Portland to join the Scarborough Maine Medical Research Center Institute (MMCRI) folks for a weekend of science and camaraderie. Students and faculty gave brief talks on their work, followed by a poster session and a fantastic keynote speech on storytelling was given by Christine Gentry. Read on for details on the weekend, written by Jessica Elman (CMDB, Boston Campus), Jessica Davis-Knowlton (CMDB, MMCRI), and Alexander Fine (Genetics, JAX).  

We kicked off the retreat with a marathon of 16 talks given by students in year four and up from the CMDB and Genetics programs. Given the challenge to present a summary of their work in seven minutes or less, the students delivered with presentations that were brief but pointed. Three winners were selected by Philip HInds, Ira Herman, and Rajendra Kumar-Singh for their exceptional clarity, creativity, and concision.

In third place, Melissa LaBonty, a 5th year CMDB student in Pamela Yelick’s lab, presented on her work studying Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP). In this rare and severely understudied disease, an abnormal wound repair mechanism results in bone ossification in soft tissue after damage or injury. LaBonty is working with zebrafish to create a model of FOP, which will help to better characterize the disease and understand the underlying mechanisms that drive its progression. In her presentation, LaBonty spoke clearly and at an even pace, with assisting powerpoint slides that displayed only the most essential words: together this style helped keep the group focused on her story and contributed to her ranking as one of the best speakers of the day.

 

Siobhan McRee, a 5th year Genetics student in Philip Hinds’ lab, came in second among the student presenters. McRee talked about her work in which she is elucidating the roles of different Akt isoforms in BRAF-mutant melanoma. Though this cancer is initially responsive to the drug Vemurafenib, which specifically targets cells with a BRAF-mutation, cells with other driving mutations manage to survive the drug treatment and clonally expand, resulting in significant and potentially deathly relapse of disease. Ultimately, McRee’s work will help to better understand how the Akt signaling pathway is involved in this disease and may result in more therapeutically targetable molecules. McRee’s story logically built from general facts and understanding of BRAF melanoma to ultimately culminate on more specific data showing her findings thus far as well as their implications. Furthermore, her even pace and well-organized slides made her an especially great presenter that day.

Coming in first place was Kayla Gross, a 4th year CMDB student in Charlotte Kuperwasser’s lab. Gross’s work involves understanding how aging contributes to the breast cancer development, and why certain subtypes of breast cancer are more prevalent in the aging population. Given the prevalence of breast cancer, the impactfulness of Gross’ research is immediately obvious. She worked with an aging mouse model to characterize their mammary tissue as well as performed an RNAseq experiment to uncover molecular mechanisms that might be differentially expressed in young and aging mouse tissue. Gross presented her data in a logical progression, and used illustrative cartoons and animations to her advantage to keep her audience focused and to get her point across. Besides for her brilliant and captivating powerpoint, Gross stood out for her speaking style: she had clearly chosen her words to be concise and to the point, which allowed her to make the most of the seven minutes allotted to her.

All in all, the student presentations were remarkably impressive: in just seven minutes, all the participating students managed to convey the most critical and interesting components of their research. This was a great opportunity for everyone to learn a little bit more about what our colleagues are working on, as well as a chance to practice our “flash talk” skills, which will come in handy whether it’s at a job interview or at Thanksgiving table when your uncle asks you to explain what you’re doing in graduate school for the third time.

The Story Collider’s Christine Gentry, PhD as keynote

It was suggested by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen in The Science of Discworld II: The Globe that perhaps Homo sapiens as a name for our species is a bit of a misnomer considering we are not omnipotent beings. They suggest Pan narrans, the storytelling ape, because we gain understanding by fitting facts into a larger narrative rather than collecting and storing millions of pieces of disparate information.

As communicators of new knowledge to the world (i.e. our scientific findings), it is important for us to keep the nature of our listeners in mind. In her keynote presentation to the retreat, Story Collider’s Christine Gentry, PhD encouraged us all to think about how to frame our narratives to be more approachable and demonstrated some methods of drawing in an audience.

She immediately captured our attention and sympathy by describing the challenges she faced in a wending career path that started with her geek excitement to bring a black widow spider to her Texas elementary school show-n’-tell, traversed through public outreach on the topic of zoology, and has landed at teacher/storyteller in Boston.

She required us to engage with her material by highlighting snippets of stories that we examined in small groups to find the element that made them compelling. We saw that admitting to vulnerability helps to humanize us to our audience in the story from a researcher who relies on fresh donor tissue, that self identity makes us more honest in the story from a researcher who decided not to cover her tattoos, and that we can surprise our audience by not sticking to script in the story from David who refused to tell the inspiration arising from conflict story that reporters sought to box him into. The thread tying all these stories together is that at the core they are about relationships with others, ourselves, our work, and with the larger community.

Perhaps the most memorable take-home point from her talk is that anecdotes do not equal stories. The response to most anecdotes is naturally “so what?” In order for an event or experience to be a story, it must have changed you: “I was callus, this event happened, and now I am more thoughtful” rather than “I am amazing, I did this, and I am still amazing!”

Scientific inquiry must be done in an objective manner and it is imperative that we remain unbiased as possible when we review scientific evidence, but there is room for us to inject our personalities into our presentations and relate our findings to the people who care. Now it remains to us to decide when to do so and to what degree.

On Sunday morning, we took a break from data and lectures; it was time to start working together. The purpose of this retreat was cross-program cooperation, and in our final event of the weekend, we put that goal into action. We separated into breakout sessions, not by program or campus, but by what we are interested in. These small group discussions were designed to get people together with various strengths and experiences to think about how to solve some of the challenges that graduate students face.

So what are graduate students at Sackler interested in discussing? The topics of these breakout sessions varied. Some sessions focused on day-to-day problems that a graduate student might face, like using CRISPR/Cas9 or selecting a sequencing platform. In the CRISPR discussion, participants came to the conclusion that there are no specific shared standards for all the applications of CRISPR and identified strategies to address potential off-target effects.

Other discussions centered on how to accomplish broader training goals, including grant writing, mentoring, and communicating in science. The grant writing section reviewed general writing strategies, like setting short-term, realistic goals, and shared a need for a formalized grant-writing course at Sackler. The mentoring/leadership session discussed existing programs at Sackler where a student can find a mentor, like the Tufts Mentoring Circles and the Tufts Biomedical Business Club. Students expressed a need for a more accessible alumni network, including cross-institutional resources. In the scientific communication group, students were urged to get on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and ResearchGate.

In two of the largest breakout sessions, participants concentrated on solving larger scale problems: designing coursework for a modern graduate program in biology and bridging the gap between science and medicine. To help bridge the gap between scientific research and medicine at Tufts, the discussion group recommended that faculty members be identified that can connect labs with clinicians and tissue banks. In addition, access to a course that provides a basic orientation to clinical research would benefit many students at Sackler. In the session on coursework for a modern graduate program, one topic became the clear center of the discussion: computational biology! Whether students had struggled through teaching themselves or were currently stuck with a dataset they didn’t know how to analyze, everyone in the room agreed that coursework in computational biology was crucial for a graduate student’s success in modern biology. In addition to new coursework, students from both programs expressed a need for a revision and update of their first year coursework.

While all of the breakout sessions at the retreat were productive, they are meant to be starting points for continued discussion and collaboration. This retreat should be the springboard that leads to action across programs and institutions. Sackler students are lucky to be in programs that span multiple states, campuses, and research focuses. The cross talk between these groups will make each of our programs stronger and better prepare us for our careers in the future.