Humans of Tufts Boston: Ramesh Govindan, “Our ingenuity will pull us through”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 7 May 2020

Ramesh Govindan, CMDB, Fourth-year Ph.D. Student (Sixth-year M.D./Ph.D.): “Our ingenuity will pull us through

JH: How did you get started in science and what were you doing before medical/graduate school?

RG: I always had an interest in science, although I had a brief stint in college where I wanted to be a history major (my parents were terrified). I went to college thinking that I wanted to become a biomedical engineer, because my big interests at that time were in tissue engineering. Growing synthetic organs for transplantation seemed like the coolest thing on Earth (and it might be), and I wanted to be the guy to make it a reality. As I learned more biology and physiology as part of my major coursework, as well as a lot of the humanities courses I was required to take, I also became a lot more interested in the human elements of disease and medicine. So, on top of working in a biomedical engineering lab, I started volunteering at a local hospital in a Medical Specialties ward, through a program where we would visit patients who had been, or were anticipated to be, on the ward for a long time (weeks, months). I’d spend a few days a week there for a couple of hours at a time going on walks, playing board games, and chatting with the patients. I got to know a few people pretty well, including a particularly memorable guy who had poorly-controlled schizophrenia and type I diabetes, the combination of which prevented him from being discharged on his own. By the time I hit senior year, I was pretty confused as to what I wanted to do – science or medicine. I ended up taking a gap year at the NIH in a basic science cancer research lab, where we studied the mitotic kinetochore, a protein-chromatin-microtubule complex that forms during metaphase to regulate chromosome segregation. I had two projects there, first looking for substrates of Aurora B kinase, which orchestrates numerous processes in the kinetochore. The second was to study the role of a specific histone methylation (H3.3S31me) in mitosis. Our model system was Xenopus laevis frog eggs, which are highly mitotic and are great for immunoprecipitation. I applied to MD/PhD programs during that time.

The MD/PhD team at the 2018 Relays

JH: Why did you choose to do an MD/PhD?

RG: People ask this of MD/PhD students a lot, and I’m not sure if it’s out of a concern that we’re all secretly insane, or whether they actually think there’s some hidden driving motivation behind each person’s choice. I’ve come to realize over the years that I really don’t have a single reason why I chose this. There are a lot of small reasons, though. The first, probably, is that I was really torn between two professions. I enjoy science and the lab, but I also like helping people directly, with my own hands. To find out at the age of 20 that there was a career path that would allow me to do both of those things, even if it was only in theory, was something I had to jump at. The second reason I chose this is maybe more nebulous – I didn’t really see the downside. It was a challenge that only a relative few chose, and it opened up potential without closing any doors. In my mind, the regret of not having tried to do both would far outweigh the regret of having tried and failed. So I applied, then I got in, and, six years later, I’m still doing it. And yes, I still have two more years of medical school, five-ish years of residency, and then one or two more years of a fellowship, but I take it one step at a time and so far I’m really enjoying it!

The third reason was that medical school is free.

Waiting in line at the 2018 Extreme Beer Festival

JH: What drew you to microbiology for your thesis research?

RG: My interest in microbiology was not a deciding factor in any choice I’ve ever made. I’m not sure I even knew what a virus was before John Coffin and Katya Heldwein told me about them during lectures in my first year of medical school. And even then, I only wrote down enough information to pass whatever exam I had coming up. I didn’t realize that viruses would become such a big part of my life until I decided to join James Munro’s lab, and I only really joined because I liked his mentoring style and pew-pew lasers. But in the last four years, I’ve come to realize that viruses are maybe some of the coolest biological phenomena on the planet. They’re the only known replicating pathogen that is, by most definitions of “life”, dead. They’re nature’s freak killer robots. From a structural biology perspective, they are macromolecular machines perfected by evolution with only the goal of efficiency. They’re insanely amazing as research and therapeutic tools, and equally terrifying as agents of human disease. So I’m pleasantly surprised to have found virology as a PhD student, and I’m hoping to maintain a level of engagement with it as I move on my career.

Setting up a new hot pepper garden at Ramesh’s parents’ house in central MA

JH: Obviously COVID-19 has been getting a lot of press lately. As a future doctor, what do you think? Are there any questions that aren’t being asked that should be?

RG: These are truly terrifying times. The looming specter of COVID-19 has, I think, become a defining challenge for society. As a virologist-in-training, I hope that this pandemic helps us re-evaluate the ways in which we interact with the ecosystem and each other, and, as a doctor-in-training, I hope that we find new ways to organize ourselves to respond to emerging viral pandemics. The gut-wrenching part of this is that this entire pandemic, on nearly every level, is a product of human activity. From the encroachment of humans on untouched wilderness, to our inability to deal with global poverty, to our complacency in letting free market forces dictate the makeup of our healthcare systems, simultaneously all of us and none of us are to blame for this. For instance, while the lack of infectious disease (ID) doctors in this country isn’t specifically anybody’s fault, experts have been pointing out this shortage for decades. A root of the problem is that training in ID is financially devastating – you pay ~60k a year through medical school, then slog through a low-paying internal medicine residency, and then train for 2-3 years as a fellow in ID. As an ID doc, you make less than you would have if you had just stayed in internal medicine – you take a pay cut to get more training. Your salary as a doctor is tied to how much you can bill insurance, and if you don’t do any surgeries or procedures (like an ID doc), you bill less, and you make less. It’s ridiculous. We were able to fight HIV in the ’80s and ’90s because at that time, there were many more ID doctors in the country. Today, we’re out-gunned. 

So, this has been a classic conversation with Ramesh where it gets really dark once he gets going. But it’s not all bad. I am, surprisingly, still an optimist, and I really do believe that our ingenuity will pull us through. Vaccine trials are already underway, and drugs like remdesivir are showing some promise. But we need to keep up our momentum once this pandemic is over, and rethink our preparedness for viral pandemics, because SARS-CoV-2 is just one of many pathogens to come.

Ramesh’s fish tank with Saruman, the betta fish

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

RG: Foremost, seeing my friends is my favorite thing to do. The friends I’ve made at Tufts have helped me in more ways than I can describe. Even if I somehow failed out of two doctorate programs, I know I’ll walk away with some of the best friendships I’ve ever had. If you’re asking after hobbies, then I think an easier question would be, ‘What doesn’t Ramesh like to do outside of lab?’ I think most people who know me know of my strange obsession with The Lord of the Rings, the greatest story ever told. More recently, I finished another fantasy series, the Wheel of Time, via audiobook on my drives out to UMass and my lonely nights in lab. I can’t recommend that series enough. During the final book (50-ish hours long) I had to periodically look up to the ceiling to let the tears drain back into my sinuses so that they wouldn’t splash into my ELISA plate. This was besides the tears I normally shed in lab. I also really enjoy gardening. I worked eighteen years a slave in my family’s yard, and then left home to realize that I actually enjoyed it the whole time, so besides heading home to work my parents’ garden I also have a small yard in Cambridge that I’ve been working on. Hand-in-hand with gardening, I’ve started keeping a freshwater fish tank with real plants that’s been pretty fun to maintain, especially in the winter when there’s no gardening to be done outside. I also enjoy cooking – I use the guides on Serious Eats and America’s Test Kitchen to try out new things when I can. It seems like during this pandemic there’s been a huge explosion of cooking on the internet, and I’m really enjoying that. I also can’t wait till summer rolls around so I can start smoking meats again. I generally think that people of our generation need more hobbies that are not Netflix, and I’m very grateful to have found hobbies that I enjoy and can share with my friends.

Humans of Tufts Boston: Logan Schwartz, “I am interested in helping an aging population”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 9 Apr 2020

Logan Schwartz, Genetics (JAX), Second-year Ph.D. “I am interested in helping an aging population”

JH: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions! What were you doing before graduate school?

LS: I started my scientific career as a summer intern at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals for three summers right after high school and through college. I worked in the VelociGene Department aimed at developing genetically modified mammalian models of gene function and disease! I attended the University of Rochester and studied Molecular Genetics and Chemistry. After completing undergrad, I was working for Dana Farber Cancer Institute and MGH as a research technician studying the functional genetics and molecular mechanisms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and cystic fibrosis.

The Trowbridge lab

JH: What drew you to the JAX program?

LS: I was drawn to the JAX program by the opportunity to work with Dr. Jennifer Trowbridge and the novel mouse models for studying clonal hematopoiesis (CH). The Genetics program at JAX is a unique graduate program with the freedom to take courses at The Jackson Laboratory in topics ranging from systems genetics to different computational languages. I really enjoy the close and collaborative community at JAX and I am happy to be a part of it!

Dr. Trowbridge is a leader in the field of hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) research and she is fearless with respect to developing and employing the new and best techniques to address scientific questions. She is an inspiring investigator to be mentored by, having navigated herself the challenges of achieving success as a woman in science.

The Trowbridge lab hikes in Acadia

I am particularly excited to work in this field of research because I am interested in helping an aging population. With the growing population of elderly individuals worldwide, preventative strategies to reduce aging-associated diseases are urgently needed. We acquire somatic mutations in our HSCs as we age, some of which can confer a competitive advantage and cause clonal HSC expansion, known as clonal hematopoiesis (CH). This is present in 10-15% of individuals aged 70 years or older. My thesis work in the Trowbridge lab strives to identify novel mechanisms that can be used as interventions to prevent aging-associated diseases and disorders of the hematopoietic system, with a specific focus on HSCs, which are responsible for the lifelong maintenance of a functional hematopoietic system.

Riding a camel with Rebecca Brown (Genetics program) in Israel

JH: Is there anything you think is under-appreciated in the field of genetics?

LS: Genetic Diversity! Many diseases are studied by using models on a single genetic background when no two humans with the same disease are genetically identical. My lab is using genetically diverse mice to determine if inherited genetic variants increase the likelihood of developing CH and that there are population differences in clonal advantages gained by specific mutations in particular genetic and environmental contexts. CH is most commonly driven by somatic mutations in the gene encoding DNA methyltransferase (DNMT3A), so we are testing the hypothesize that variation in genetic background dictates whether DNMT3A-mutant HSCs acquire a selective advantage. The work is still in progress so we will have to wait and see!

Logan’s cat, Eugene!

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

LS: Outside of the lab, I enjoy hiking/exploring Acadia national park, running, painting and trivia nights, and taking care of my fifty house plants! A couple of years ago, my friend gave me my first house plant, a snake plant. He told me they were impossible to kill, and somehow I still managed to kill it. I decided to try again, and somehow I was able to keep it alive. After that, it has become a sort of obsession, although I still kill succulents from time to time. The thing I love most about having plants is how much life they can bring into your home. I also love watching them grow and change over time!

Some of Logan’s many house plants!

How Do You Figure?: Graphic Design Software For Scientists

As I sit at home writing what will (hopefully) be my very first first-author manuscript, I began to wonder how scientists go about making their figures for a paper. Like many things in academia, it was probably going to be lab-specific: someone would have started using a particular software, taught the next graduate student how to use it before they left, and that student would teach the next. And so on, and so forth.

With this in mind, I took to Twitter to ask students (and @AcademicChatter), how, exactly, were they figuring?

BioRender (@vanesque89, @Nicole_Paulk)

Price: Free for personal/educational (limited) use, various paid plans
Platform: Web-based

Think of BioRender as your scientific clip-art library. BioRender has a collection of over 20,000 different icons covering more than 30 fields of the life sciences. The colors of each icon can be customized, and the drag-and-drop functionality makes figure creation very quick. Even better, there’s nothing to download! It’s right there in your browser, ready whenever and wherever you are working.

CorelDraw (@AdemaRibic)

Price: $249/year or $499 (one-time purchase)*
Platform: Windows, Mac

Originating in Ottawa, Canada, CorelDRAW touts vector illustration, layout, photo editing, and typography tools. It works on both Windows and MacOS.

*Editor’s note: Corel Education Edition is a one-time payment of $109 (thanks to Adema Ribić for this correction!)

Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator (@Nicole_Paulk)

Price: $20/month for the first year, $30/month after that (student pricing, includes all Adobe apps)
Platform: Windows, Mac, some apps available for iOS and Android

Almost everyone is familiar, at this point, with Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe’s suite of software for designing things (literally, any and all of the things). Photoshop is useful for raw images (such as overlaying fluorescent images and stitching together microscope images). Illustrator, in contrast, is for creating vector art and illustrations, but it’s also useful for aligning the different panels for a cohesive figure. The most updated version of Illustrator seems to have kept this in mind: the Adobe website specifically mentions its use in making infographics, including the ability to edit data through a charts function.

GraphPad Prism
Price: $108/year (student pricing)
Platform: Windows, Mac

Prism is less for making figures and more for making graphs, but it’s worth mentioning here since many of us include graphs in our figures. In Prism 8, you can draw lines or brackets on graphs to indicate significance. A centered text box is automatically included for your asterisks! These graphs can be exported as images and then arranged easily in another application as panels of a figure.

Affinity Photo and Designer (@SimonWad)
Price: $50 per app, one-time purchase
Platform: Windows, Mac, iPad

These are popular alternatives to Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. One of the major complaints about Adobe was its movement to a cloud-based subscription model. Affinity uses a one-time purchase model, and is also considerably more affordable. The company also has an alternative to Adobe InDesign (called Publisher).

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the possible software you could use to make a figure. Many people swear by PowerPoint as their favorite way of assembling figures. Here are a few other pieces of software to check out that are free to all:

Gimp
Price: Free!
Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux

Gimp is a high-quality raster image editor. Think of this as the free version of Photoshop. It can do a lot of the same things, but it’s missing some of the advanced tools, such as using adjustment layers to non-destructively edit images.

Inkscape
Price: Free!
Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux

Inkscape is a vector graphics editor with shapes, layers, text on paths, and the ability to align and distribute objects. If you’re looking for something like Illustrator to handle vector graphics but don’t want to shell out the money, this is a great option!

Scribus
Price: Free!
Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux

Scribus is an open-source alternative to Adobe InDesign. It has many of the same features as InDesign, but unfortunately can’t open InDesign files.

Thank you to everyone who responded, and happy figuring!

Cover image by Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay

Sources:
biorender.com
coreldraw.com
adobe.com/products/photoshop.html
adobe.com/products/illustrator.html
graphpad.com
affinity.serif.com
products.office.com
gimp.org
digitaltrends.com/photography/gimp-vs-photoshop/
inkscape.org
scribus.net

COVID-19 and Your portfolio

Dow Jones Industrial Average, Feb-March 20th, 2020. Source: marketwatch.com

Investing in a time of turmoil

The uncertainty of the novel coronavirus pandemic has left global stock markets reeling, erasing gains from the past 3 years. Massive selloffs have occurred over the past month that have not been seen since the 2008 financial crisis. For those of us young enough to be long-term investors (many year horizon) this is not a time to panic sell. I would argue the opposite and to continue your monthly contributions practicing dollar cost averaging. I caution against trying to “catch a falling knife” in trying to time this market volatility with large sums of uninvested cash. This is a trial-by-fire for testing an individual’s tolerance to risk and unrealized loss, so do not throw money in now that you are not comfortable seeing potentially decline another 50% or more in the coming months. Even if that does occur, ride out the bump however long it lasts and eventually you will see the value increase. Historically, market downturns are followed by a recovery, and over the long term still provide the best returns on investment. While the past is no guarantee of future results, the two hundred years of US stock market history would indicate this is still the best way to generate wealth.

Anyone near retirement age should have already reallocated their assets to consist mostly of lower-risk fixed income securities as appropriate for their age. For those of you who have parents who are concerned by this crisis, assure them that unless they need their capital within the next few years, they should not sell holdings at a significant loss. The hit to the economy during this pandemic is uncertain but will definitely be deep. In the coming weeks, unemployment will skyrocket as most sectors grind to a halt. This is certain to continue for the coming months as more and more state-wide lockdowns will go into effect. However, the extent to which this is mitigated depends on the actions of Congress as they continue to debate different stimulus measures.

Choosing stock investments

So, what investments should be considered during this current market discount (and at all times when investing)? I would not feed into frenzy of any “hot stocks” because by the time you have heard about it in the media, they are likely already overvalued. Similarly, companies with promising COVID-19 treatments may end up disappointing investors. The principles I would recommend for those beginners wanting to invest a percentage of their savings would be to dollar cost average into an index fund that tracks the total stock market. These provide the safety of diversification that picking individual stocks do not. Essentially each month, no matter what the price of the fund is, buy the same dollar amount of that fund. Some months you can buy more when the price is low, and other months you buy less when the price is high. Over time, this averages to a lower cost-per-share than jumping in all at once. This is a great way to passively invest in stocks, as you don’t need to do deep analysis of a company that you want to invest in (and feel the pain when it turned out you were wrong). The S&P500 tracks 500 large companies in the US and SPY is a great low cost fund tracking it. Be sure to chose a fund with a low expense ratio (fees), and many popular ones can be found for under 0.1%. Anything charging over 1% eats away at your return and is not worth your money.

For those who want to be more active in their investments and buy individual stocks, you must do your homework. If you don’t want to take the time and discipline to invest in individual stocks, follow the investment strategy in the previous paragraph. Your principal will be much safer that way. There are two main schools of thought for picking stocks, technical analysis and fundamental analysis. Technical analysis looks at volume trends of buying and selling of shares and other metrics on how to predict which way a particular stock will move. In my opinion, this is essentially gambling and should not be followed. Fundamental analysis looks at the fundamentals of a business. All things from its financial health, growth prospects, dividend payments, management team, and advantage over competition are looked at. This is the best way to determine which companies have true staying power over the long run.

Fundamental Analysis and Value Investing

The best-known proponent of fundamental analysis is the investor Warren Buffet, who learned his strategy from the “father of value investing”, Benjamin Graham. Value investing seeks to buy stock at a safe discount, as the investor has determined this stock to be mispriced by the market in her favor. Eventually, she hopes the strong fundamentals of the company place it in the good graces of Wall Street and as more investors buy in, the share price increases. Value investing requires patience, as you could wait many years before your favorite picks become the favorites of Wall Street. But when they do, you will be happily rewarded.

You can read hundreds and hundreds of pages from many books and take many classes on how to learn fundamental analysis. Personally, I feel a great starting off point for those who are interested is to read Ben Graham’s, The Intelligent Investor. My perspective on investing, risk, and emotional responses were completely changed for the better after reading that book. Honestly if I had not read this only a few months ago, I probably would have sold my investments completely at the first whiff of this virus. (I believe time in the market is superior to timing the market). Briefly, the definition Graham gives for investment is the following:

  1. Investment, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Not meeting these requirements is speculation
  2. An investment operation is one that can be justified on both qualitative and quantitative grounds.

In another earlier work by Graham, Security Analysis, he sets criteria that should be met by a company before consideration of purchasing their stock:

  1. a suitable and established dividend return
  2. a stable and adequate earnings record
  3. a satisfactory backing of tangible assets

Essentially this boils down to the company should distribute profits (and they should have for many years prior), they actually have earnings, and their debt does not exceed their assets. If you follow the advice in The Intelligent Investor you will do well. If you want to speculate, avoid doing so with more than you are comfortable seeing disappear to zero. I would strongly urge against gambling with all derivatives (buying on margin, puts, calls, futures etc.) unless you REALLY know what you are doing and are also ok with losing your initial investment, or in some of those cases, owing MORE than you originally had.

Where can you buy stocks?

After putting down your copy of The Intelligent Investor and carefully analyzing a stock that looks attractive to you, you decide to go ahead and buy that stock. But how is this accomplished? Today it is even easier to buy and sell stocks than in the past. A stock broker is authorized to handle this task and there are many companies offering this service online. Fortunately many commission fees for doing this have been eliminated. Some popular brokers are TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, Vanguard, and E-Trade. These companies have different minimum investment amounts so be careful to check the requirements before choosing.

Conclusion

Many of us are not trained in finance, economics, or security analysis (I certainly am not), but I hope that investing does not have to be scary to those in other disciplines and is seen as a valuable way to grow wealth over the long run. It is fun to learn more about a field completely different than your own. This could also be a good skill for scientists, as familiarizing yourself with a prospective company’s 10-K filing (yearly financial report) will teach you a great deal about that company and if they have the financial health to ensure you don’t need to look for a new job in 6 months. This only applies to publicly traded companies however. Startups and established private companies don’t have to disclose as much to the public. Whether or not you decide to take a passive or active approach, you will be able to achieve your financial goals through sound and disciplined investment.

Disclaimer: These views are my own and I am not qualified to give financial or investment advice. Please seek out certified financial planners from trusted institutions. I own shares in SPY and other individual stocks and index funds as of this writing.

Can you find artist among the scientific community?

Can you find artist among the scientific community? If you ask someone off the street if they consider a scientist an artist many may answer no; perceiving scientist as dull people in lab coats. This early March serval scientist at the Tufts Boston Campus where challenged to strut their artistic skills in the Sci-Art Competition helping break down the dull scientist persona people often perceive.

Jacob Klickstein, a Neuroscience student won first place with his “Brain Storm” piece. The piece was part of his current lab work in which he was looking at a cluster of iPSC-derived lower motor neurons stained for a cytoskeleton marker (TuJ1-cyan), a nuclear marker (dapi-blue) and a motor neuron-specific transcription factor (Hb9-red).

For second place, we had a tie between graduate students Ashlee Junior and Linus Williams. Ashlee is a Genetics student, her piece titled “INVADERS!” showcases Candida albicans filaments invading an agar plate.

Linus Williams is an Immunology student, his piece “A heart, broken by rejection”, is a Maisson’s Trichrome of a rejected mouse heart (Blue is fibrosis, red is muscle).

Eric Link is a technician in the Zeng lab. His piece “B-CHP Metatarsal on glass slide”, is a collagen hybridizing probe highlighting cartilage remodeling in the growth plate of a developing mouse metatarsal.

Quentin Bernard is a Microbiology student, his piece “Five, six, pick up Tick”, is an oxide’s scapularis tick stuck on its back before it was microinjected.

Alyssa DiLeo is a Neuroscience student. Her piece, “Possibilities: what went wrong with my western blot”, showcases the unfortunate results from a botched western blot.

Rachael Ryner is a CMDB student. Her piece, “Mermaid Mouse Brain”, is a fluorescent mouse brain section that has been immune-stained for beta-catenin and GABA in a CaMKII-Cre:Ai9 background.

Surendra Sharma is a CMDB student. His piece “The Dark Side of the Genome”, describes the long considered “dark matter” of genomes, regulatory noncoding RNAs like miRNAs and lncRNAs which are now recognized as key drivers and/or regulators of a variety of cellular processes.

Dominique Ameroso is a Neuroscience student. Her piece “Alien Astrocytes”, showcases astrocytes in culture – or an alien waiting for host.

Pragya Singh is a CMDB student. Her piece” A network of collagen”, exhibits collagen bundles forming in 3D, specifically a collagen1 gel as a result of LOXL2 treatment.

As scientists we have characteristics that by any dictionary definition would categorize us as artists. Naturally most scientists are curious. Our daily work requires us to be creative, take risks, and have a sense of passion for the work we do. The muse of a scientist lies in the continuous sense of adventure that comes from trying to uncover the unknowns in our projects. We don’t have to look too far for an example of an established scientist who struts his scientific muscles regularly. In our own Tufts community, our very own Dean, Dan Jay, is a visual artist who combines art and science to create pieces that express inspiration in science. This art competition was definitely a testament to our communities vibrant artistic abilities. Thank you to all those who participated and keep a look out for upcoming events and competitions.

References:

“Daniel Jay.” Daniel Jay | School of the Museum of Fine Arts | Tufts University, smfa.tufts.edu/directory/daniel-jay.

Humans of Tufts Boston: Noell Cho, “Representation Can Have a Broader Impact”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 12 Mar 2020

Noell Cho, Neuroscience, Second-year Ph.D. “Representation Can Have a Broader Impact”

JH: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions! How did you get your start in science?

NC: My start in science harkens back to my high school on the island of Guam, when I volunteered to work at its endangered species lab under the direction of our AP Bio teacher Dr. Hauhouot Diambra-Odi. For decades, invasive species have completely destroyed Guam’s ecosystems. Of particular interest to our group was the introduced Philippine collard dove, which is threatened by the invasive Brown tree snakes. In the lab we designed experiments to learn more about existing bird migration patterns and behaviors. We delved into “field work,” which involved several camping trips on an uninhabited islet called Alupat island (approximately 200 meters off the western coast of Guam). We eventually presented the data at the International Student Science Fair in Kyoto, Japan. Unfortunately, some of Guam’s endemic bird populations, such as the Guam rail are deemed extinct in the wild and extirpated from the island. I was surprised to find that the New England Aquarium had these birds, a little piece of home right in Boston!

Cetti Bay in the southern region of Guam

JH: What drew you to neuroscience?

NC: I worked as a tech in several different labs and research areas, including cancer biology, immunology, and translational neuroscience. I worked in Clive Svendsen’s lab at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, where I became involved in stem-cell transplantation studies in animal models of neurodegeneration, specifically the SOD1G93A rat model of ALS. I was fascinated that a neurodegenerative disease phenotype was able to be recapitulated in rodents harboring a mutated human ALS gene. Through these studies, I joined Gretchen Thomsen’s lab, whose particular focus was studying the link between repetitive TBI and ALS. My previous experience in immunology research motivated my investigation of selective inflammatory responses related to TBI-induced neurodegeneration. I fully credit working in the Thomsen lab as where I discovered my passion for neuroscience research.

The Thomsen lab at Cedars-Sinai. From left to right: Gretchen Thomsen (PI), Mor Alkaslasi, Patricia Haro-Lopez, Noell Cho

JH: What is your favorite technique that you use in lab?

NC: I’ve become an apprentice of electrophysiology since I joined the Moss laboratory here at Tufts. Tarek Deeb has been profound in imparting his knowledge of ephys and its many applications for neuroscience research. It’s intriguing to use the patch-clamp technique to measure the electrical properties and functional activity of neurons. My research experience has been primarily focused on looking at biochemical changes in neurological disease, so it has been refreshing to learn a new technique and observe electrophysiological changes in the brain. I remember that first moment, not too long ago actually, when I patched onto hippocampal neurons in mouse slices and observing action potential firing patterns. Seeing those spikes is so satisfying!

Members of the Moss lab representing at Relays

JH: Have you been following any fascinating new scientific developments or controversies?

NC: More recently, I’m trying to stay updated on new ephys systems in vivo and ex vivo. There are so many cool videos and photos that pop up on my feed of some of the most insane multipatch ephys rigs. Ed Boyden’s group has made tremendous advances in automated in vivo multipatch recordings. Automated multipatch rigs not only allow for ease of recording multiple neurons simultaneously, but also provide large-scale mapping of brain circuits. Multipatch clamp recordings also reveal more about connectivity between specific cell types in the brain, and automation provides a huge advantage in terms of time and feasibility. It’s always exciting to see the latest innovations that come out from the Boyden lab, but also it seems that robots are an inevitable part of scientific developments.

Noell presenting her repetitive TBI model at her first SFN!

JH: What do you do outside of lab?

NC: Because I’m a Boston transplant from Los Angeles, it was important to me to foster an environment at school that would feel like home. Thankfully, student organizations such as GWiSE and SPINES provided just that. Currently, I am the GWiSE secretary and operate media and communications for our group. As a first-year, I enjoyed the GWiSE coffee & conversations events that feature a woman in STEM and learning of their school and career experiences. I am so thankful for my former PI, mentor and friend, Gretchen Thomsen, who believed in me and is one of the reasons why I am in grad school today. I definitely benefit from the efforts of GWiSE and SPINES that provide programming surrounding diversity and inclusion, because ultimately representation can have a broader impact. You can follow GWiSE and SPINES on Twitter (@TuftsGwise and @TuftsSPINES)!

Checking out the East Coast surf in Montauk, NY

“We Ball Outrageous”

Did you know that GSBS has a basketball team?

The Tufts Medical campus has had a long-standing basketball league that historically consisted of medical and dental student teams. It wasn’t until October 2019 that GSBS contributed its first team to the league. The Contaminators was founded by team captain Linus Williams (#6) and was made up of both PhD and MD/PhD students. With financial aid from the Graduate Student Council, The Contaminators bought green and gold jerseys.

The 2019 season started in October and ended in January with 9 Saturday games. The Contaminators started out their season strong, winning their first 3 games. The competition started to heat up later in the season, and The Contaminators entered the playoffs with a record of 4-5. This league’s playoffs were a double elimination tournament running through mid-February. The Contaminators won their first playoff game, but lost the following game, sending them to the loser’s bracket. They were eliminated in their very next game by the eventual champions, Nothing but Netters. Overall, The Contaminators ended their 2019-2020 campaign with a respectable 5-7 record.

Williams, who is known for scoring with his signature one-handed floater, said he was happy with how the season went: “We learned how to defend with man-to-man and with zones, and were able to adapt to whatever the situation called for.” One of the team’s weaknesses was dealing with defensive pressure, especially when Liam Power (#2), Point Guard and MVP, was not on the court. This resulted in more turnovers due to the restricted court vision of the ballhandler.

Team member Daniel Fritz (#11) said “The league was a perfect balance between fun and competition.” He wants to encourage other students to join who may be wary of a team sport that they’ve never played before.

The team recruited students with a wide range of experience in the sport, from first-timers who wanted to learn the fundamentals of the game to seasoned veterans who were lifelong basketball players. Regardless of skill, each teammate was a valued asset in a sport that requires cardiovascular fitness. Lack of female substitutes was especially felt with only 3 women on the team. The co-ed league required that one female player be on the court at all times. That meant one female player would have to play the entire game if the other two female teammates couldn’t make it (shout-out to Sasha Smolgovsky #12, Patriots fan). One of The Contaminators’ goals for future seasons is to increase the recruitment of players.

Although the season is over, there are upcoming opportunities to get involved. During the spring and summer, there will be pick-up games hosted by Williams and future team captain for 2020, Joshua Man (#24—Kobe). If you are interested in participating in pick-up games or the 2020 season, please contact Williams or Man via their Tufts email.

Other team members of The Contaminators:

#3, Zemplen Pataki—Valuable tall person who can shoot.

#4, Rachael Ryner—Author of this article.

#7, Zoie Magri—Played middle school b-ball and it shows.

#14, David Jetton—An owner of the Green Bay Packers who plays b-ball on the side.

#32, Mike Rist—Secret weapon when he’s not at a wedding in New Hampshire.

#33, Mike Thorsen—Team morale booster and team mascot.

2019 Nobel Prizes: Another Year Filled with Great Discoveries

This past December, the prestigious international Nobel prizes were awarded in recognition of academic, cultural and scientific advances. Before delving into this past year’s prizes, it seems only appropriate to take notice into how nominations to become a Nobel laureate occur. The process to select laureates begins in September when invitations are sent out to a select group to make nominations. The deadline for nominations is January 31 of the following year. Once nominations are in, there is a three-month process in which all nominations are being consulted on, with experts. After having consulted with experts, reports are written with recommendations during July and June. In September the Academy gets a report on final candidates and in October, after a majority vote, the Nobel Prize is announced. Bringing us full circle to this past December’s Nobel prize awards.

We begin with the Nobel Prize in Physics which this year was awarded for two separate discoveries, each of which I will comment on separately. The first, “the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star”, by Michel Mayor and Didler Queloz ushered in a new era for exoplanet astronomy. Before this, physicists wondered if there were other planets like ours in the solar system, and more deeply, wondered if there were planets just like our Earth that could sustain complex life. Since then, the interest in exoplanet astronomy has grown, and the tools at the disposal of scientists studying them have improved, with more exciting discoveries about exoplanets every year. The second, with equal value, “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology” by James Peebles is profound because his work attempts to understand the origins of the entire universe. A lot of active research in astrophysics depends on understanding what the initial conditions of the universe were like and wondering how the galaxies themselves came into existence. In building this article, it is worth mentioning many physicists felt the award for cosmology was bittersweet as it came a little too late for a certain well-known astronomer whose contributions to cosmology were also immense. Vera Rubin was an astronomer in the field of galaxy rotation rates that revealed the presence of dark matter. Dark matter is an essential component in the theories of cosmology, and many felt it sad to think her contributions did not get as much recognition from the Nobel committee when she was alive (She passed away in 2016).

The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability” was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza. Every cell in our body requires oxygen for basic metabolic and physiological functions. Several animals utilize oxidation reactions to power the conversion of nutrients from food into energy, making oxygen essential for supporting life. This discovery completed the full picture of oxygen sensing in cells that began back in 1931 with Otto Warburg’s discovery concerning the enzymatic basis for cellular respiration, and Corneille Heymans in 1938 for his findings on the role of the nervous systems respiratory response to oxygen. The question that loomed over many scientists in the current century, that this year’s Nobel finally addressed, was cellular adaptation to oxygen availability through gene expression. The ability to alter gene expression patterns to oxygen availability is essential during normal physiological events from embryonic development to even exercise. This variation also extends to pathological states such as cancer and infection. William Kaelin, Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza found that during normoxia a transcription factor that alters normal physiological processes is degraded via the ubiquitin proteasome system. However, during hypoxic states such as cancer or infection this transcription factor is not ubiquitin tagged and thus not sent to the proteasome for degradation leading to alterations in gene expression. The question these scientists helped to answer is a textbook question that we will likely see being taught in early biology classes. It is also something we will likely see being applied to new therapeutics as it paves the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases.

Lithium ion batteries are everywhere from your smartphones to devices used on the International Space Station. The Nobel prize in Chemistry “for the development of lithium-ion batteries” was awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino. The concept of lithium batteries has been around since 1991 and since their introduction to the field they have been revolutionary. The working principle of a battery is simple; it consists of two electrodes (metals like lithium) each connected to an electric circuit which itself is separated by an electrolyte that can accommodate charged species. Before we had lithium ion batteries, batteries relied on other metals such as copper, lead, and nickel. The main issue with the previous battery designs was that they were not rechargeable. Lithium on the other hand was rechargeable but prior to perfecting the design of the lithium battery, many worried it was too explosive. The current design of lithium batteries is not based on a chemical reaction as the designs preceding it were. Rather the new design relies on ions flowing back and forth between anode and cathode. This design is advantageous as it allows users to charge their batteries hundreds of times before the performance of the battery deteriorates. The work of these scientists is exciting as it introduces new power resources that other scientist can expand on in an era that seeks to lean away from fossil fuels. 

The last Nobel prize I will comment on is in Economics which was awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. According to the UN though, the global poverty rate has declined by half since the beginning of the twenty-first century, one in ten people in developing regions still live on less then two U.S. dollars. Many have attempted to help address the problem but have come short, describing the problem as too big. This year’s laureates went about addressing the crisis using a more strategic approach. The economists utilized a method familiar to many clinicians; they utilized Randomized Controlled Trials or RCTs. Instead of tackling poverty as a whole, they set up randomized trials in different locations in developing countries, in which they compared different groups with the same average character analyzing different things that contribute to poverty: education, health access, job availability, etc. By breaking down the problem, the economists were able to better define the needs of these developing countries in terms of resources they need, or have but aren’t utilizing. Today the field of developmental economics relies on field experiments as the gold standard for experiments done in order to give more valuable data.

For more information on past and current Nobel laureates visit: https://www.nobelprize.org/all-2019-nobel-prizes/

References:

“All 2019 Nobel Prizes.” NobelPrize.org, www.nobelprize.org/all-2019-nobel-prizes/.

Kabisch, Maria, et al. “Randomized Controlled Trials: Part 17 of a Series on Evaluation of Scientific Publications.” Deutsches Arzteblatt International, Deutscher Arzte Verlag, Sept. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3196997/.

“Lithium Ion Battery.” Lithium Ion Battery – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/lithium-ion-battery.

“Power System.” How Do Batteries Work?, www.qrg.northwestern.edu/projects/vss/docs/Power/2-how-do-batteries-work.html.

“Areas of Research.” Areas of Research | Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, www.mpa-garching.mpg.de/27882/Areas_of_Research.

Humans of Tufts Boston: Uri Bulow, “Archaea Don’t Get Enough Love”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 13 February 2020

Uri Bulow, Microbiology, Third-year Ph.D. Student (Fifth-year M.D./Ph.D.): “Archaea Don’t Get Enough Love”

JH: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions! So what were you doing before graduate school?

UB: I worked as a tech in a lab in Boulder for two years after finishing my degree in molecular biology. I was in a molecular cardiology lab, but I ended up working on a transduction system and found out that I enjoyed thinking about viruses more than myosin. I also loved the microbiology classes I took (thank you, Norman Pace and Shelley Copley), so when I came to Tufts I decided to join the microbiology department. Now I work on Lassa virus, which is a hemorrhagic fever virus. Hemorrhagic fever viruses (like Lassa or Ebola) are characterized by high fevers, multi-system organ failure, and hemorrhaging from mucous membranes (though this is less common than the name would suggest). I really enjoy being able to study such a simple and elegant system. Lassa only has 4 genes, any organism with more than that is just showing off!

JH: Getting an MD/PhD requires a great deal of dedication and time. Why did you go for an MD/PhD, and did you decide you wanted to go into medicine or science first?

UB: I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, and I figured that if a PhD takes 6 years and an MD/PhD takes 8, I might as well throw in the free MD since it would be interesting and it’s only an additional 2 years. At the time I didn’t really know what residency was, or that MD training doesn’t end when you graduate. Oops. Since starting this program I’ve discovered that I actually enjoy medicine, and making a career of both science and medicine sounds pretty ideal to me.

JH: Are there any major controversies in your field right now? What are they, and what are your thoughts?

UB: I know that this doesn’t need to be said to any GSBS students, but people need to get over this antivaxxer nonsense that’s threatening the health of our country. Vaccines are arguably the single greatest healthcare achievement we have ever made as a species, and watching them get dismissed by parents who would rather use essential oils and spells to ward off evil spirits is incredibly frustrating. The CDC actually estimates that 2.5 million lives are saved every year due to vaccination.*

JH: Is there anything you think is under-appreciated in microbiology (or medicine, if you prefer) as a whole?

UB: I think that archaea don’t get enough love. They’re a whole separate domain of life, comparable to bacteria or eukaryotes, and we know so little about those adorable little weirdos. Did you know that their plasma membranes aren’t bilayers, and that they use ether-linked lipids instead of ester-linked lipids? They live in every known biome on Earth, even inside our own GI tract, yet we know so little about them. What are they up to?

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

UB: Lately I’ve been really enjoying the Berklee student concerts. They’re super cheap and those kids are super talented. Shout-out to Mike Thorsen for introducing me to them. My favorite thing to do is to experiment in the kitchen. I recently dry-aged a beef striploin for 90 days, made my own lox, smoked some cheese, and I’m currently making pineapple vinegar. I also really enjoy marathoning the Lord of the Rings with friends, photoshopping my PI’s face into funny pictures, growing super-hot peppers, and canceling plans so I can stay home and read.

The famous lox

*Uri kindly provided this further evidence for the benefits of vaccines from an economic standpoint: “A recent economic analysis of 10 vaccines for 94 low- and middle-income countries estimated that an investment of $34 billion for the immunization programs resulted in savings of $586 billion in reducing costs of illness and $1.53 trillion when broader economic benefits were included.” Orenstein and Ahmed. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Apr 18. 114(16):4031-4033.

2019 novel Coronavirus: The latest zoonosis

A new coronavirus has made the jump from its animal host into the human population from what is believed to be an animal market in Wuhan, China. Reminiscent of the coronavirus responsible for the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak during 2002-3, this virus is making headlines around the world. As of this writing, it has already infected and killed more people in China in the past three months than the entire SARS outbreak. The current infected count is over 28,000 people with over 560 deaths, all but two of which are in China. While the risk to people outside of China is minimal at this time, the outbreak must be monitored carefully as reports of human-to-human transmission are being confirmed. Because this is a new outbreak, very little is known about this virus and rumors and unsubstantiated claims are running rampant in online communities. We must remember not to panic and rely on factual information from the Chinese and US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organization).

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which circulate among animals such as camels, cats, and bats. The 2019- novel coronavirus (nCoV) is most similar to SARS, but is a different virus to that which causes SARS or MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). The 2019-nCoV causes respiratory illness in people with the potential to spread from person-to-person, although it is unclear on how easily this happens. Based on how other coronaviruses behave, 2019-nCoV transmission is most likely through respiratory droplets from infected individuals, as well as surface transfer to mucosal membranes. Reports of symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and in severe cases pneumonia in both lungs. Onset of symptoms can occur anywhere between 2-14 days after exposure.

An international response is mounting to contain the spread of this virus, and the WHO has declared this outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the sixth time they have done so. There have been confirmed cases in 24 countries around the world. Airlines are restricting flights to and from China, and the United States is barring individuals who recently visited China from entering the country. There are similar travel restrictions in Australia, Japan, and Taiwan. Vaccine development is already underway in several countries with testing reported to begin as soon as this summer. A group at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is targeting the spike proteins that the virus uses to attach to its host cell receptor, ACE2. Although, any vaccine is still a year away at minimum, so we must rely on a swift response from the global community in identifying new cases and blocking routes of transmission if we are to stop this from becoming the next pandemic.

This situation is evolving rapidly, and infection counts and deaths may increase each day. Travel restrictions and policy are likely to change rapidly as well.

For the most up to date information please see the CDC website here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

And at the WHO here: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019