All posts by Kayla Gross

Insight Essay Contest


In the spirit of this publication connecting science and communication, the Insight team is excited to announce a new endeavor: an essay contest. Here is your chance to sound off on a topic near and dear to all of our hearts and careers, namely our education. Science is a rapidly evolving field, and to produce excellent scientists, training programs need to incorporate those changes. So, here is what we are asking you:

What component, topic, or field do you consider critical to a PhD education, and why should it be prioritized in training?

Essays can address anything from incorporating bioinformatics into training, to the need for grant-writing assignments in classes, to how collaborations significantly improve research projects. We only ask that these essays address a general PhD education, not one at Tufts’ specifically. More rules can be found below.

Max. Length: 1500 words

Due Date: January 31st, 2016

Winner(s) will be determined via a school-wide poll on the Insight blog and awarded prize(s). If you are interested in entering or have questions, please email

Happy writing!


Techniques: How to Enjoy Holiday Vacation as a Graduate Student

This is always a busy time of year, and whether you are traveling or staying local, taking time off or continuing to work, here are some things to make this season more merry and bright:

  • Sleep. On a bed, not your lab bench or desk. Get a lot of it to catch up after committee meetings and final exams.
  • Eat. Try a new recipe at home (here are some recipes and here are some tips on cooking as a grad student) or make a list of new restaurants to taste test.
  • Travel, even for just for a day or within an unexplored neighborhood of Boston. Experiencing some place new will help shake up your routine and maybe even your perspective.
  • Reconnect with friends and family, either in Boston or at home. Knowing you have a support system can do a lot for morale, motivation, and overall wellbeing.
  • Find a new TV show to binge watch. Winding down with the latest adventure saga or drama-filled reality show can give your brain a rest, making you more alert and ready to work the next time you’re scanning PubMed or sitting down at your bench. Feel free to contact the InSight team for suggestions!
  • Wanted to try rock climbing or pottery or paint night? Now’s the time to do it! You might even be able to find some holiday deals too. For those staying local, take a walk around the Boston Common and maybe stop by the Frog Pond for skating.
  • Try experiencing science in a new and different way. As graduate students, thinking about our research isn’t something we really can never stop doing. What we can do during vacation, however, is examine it from a new angle. Look at your field from the perspective of the media, or medicine, or industry. It’ll make you feel productive while also freshening your thoughts on what you deal with on a day-to-day basis and maybe even propel you in a new direction when you return to the bench.

Happy holidays, Sackler!

Photo from (“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham). 

Movie Review: The Martian

Who wouldn’t want to be a space pirate? Granted, if you had to be stranded alone on a barren planet for over a year for that chance to happen, it might not be so appealing. Still, space pirate: think of the possibilities.

It is this optimistic, jocular tone that Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, takes as it follows astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, through the trials and tribulations of having to remodel rudimentary living conditions after being presumed dead and left behind by his crew during a mission to Mars. Stranded initially without means of communication to Earth, Watney’s life-saving ventures range from making water using hydrogen and oxygen gas (which almost gets him blown up) to growing potatoes in a homemade greenhouse (you don’t want to know where he got the fertilizer for that project, just saying). His life gets a little less difficult when an observant mission control operator notices a moving rover on the satellite surveillance of Mars’ surface late one night, giving those on Earth the first sign that Watney is in fact alive. With some quick thinking and teamwork, they rig up a way to communicate and suddenly Watney isn’t so alone anymore. They continue to help him survive in the harsh conditions of the planet, which he does all to the lively beats of disco hits, as that is apparently all his team’s commander, played by Jessica Chastain, loaded into the system during their stay, much to his chagrin.

The 1970s soundtrack calls back to the post-space race era, using the backdrop of where we have been to throw into sharp relief how far we have come, and also how far we can still go in exploring the stars. Still, The Martian, at its heart, is not a two-hour promotion for NASA and its programs. Though it does get ample on-screen time, political maneuverings and calculated public relations decisions made in board rooms rival the time spent problem solving in mission control or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), giving the organization an almost ominous corporate vibe. Driven by Jeff Davis’ performance as the callous program director, NASA becomes the antagonist when the decision is made to keep the news of Watney’s survival from his crew, who are making their way back to Earth, in an attempt to keep their focus on the mission to return home safely.

It is this theme–balancing the lives of several versus one–that refracts throughout the back half of the film, making the humanity of this survival story begin to outshine the science in a subtle and heartwarming way. Thus it comes as no surprise that the returning Ares III crew chooses to risk their lives in a genius attempt, crafted by an eccentric but endearing JPL engineer, to change course and retrieve Watney even though NASA initially rejects the plan. As every pirate adventure should, mutiny and risky swashbuckling ensue, ending in a daring rescue attempt that requires the brains and particular STEM skills of all six members of the Ares III team. In a breathtakingly beautiful and nerve-wracking sequence, an injured, exhausted, and bearded Watney attempts to launch into Mars’ atmosphere with a jerry-rigged pod to reach his crew’s ship which is orbiting by, all while the whole world watches on.

Whether or not he makes it–well, you’ll have to go see The Martian yourself to find out the answer to that question. Though the AMC Loews Boston Common 19 will no longer screen the sci-fi adventure after this week, Regal Fenway Stadium 13 and AMC Assembly Row 12 have showings scheduled for the next two weeks, so catch it while you can.

Lastly, for those interested in how accurate Watney’s scientific efforts to remodel his surroundings are, NASA [1] and The Guardian [2] both addressed this question, and Neil deGrasse Tyson also weighed in on the matter via Twitter with some very amusing and pointed commentary [3].


  1. Fox, Steve. “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian’.” NASA. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 11 Sept 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015.
  2. Zubrin, Robert. “How Scientifically Accurate Is The Martin?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, Limited. 06 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015.
  3. Gettell, Oliver. “Neil deGrasse Tyson Tweets His Thoughts on The Martian.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, Inc. 2 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015.


Dr. Victoria Seewaldt: Whole-Body Research, Whole-Community Medicine

We probably all remember elementary school science worksheets, those ink-marked copied pages with large Comic Sans text that asked us the most basic questions: What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? These are simple enough questions, with simple answers to simple experiments. As the science gets more complex, so do the questions, and the fact that a researcher’s daily bread-and-butter, the core component of our work, is merely observation often gets lost among that complexity. The importance of it, however, cannot be forgotten.

Dr. Vicky Seewaldt, formerly of Duke University and now a clinician and the Population Sciences department chair at City of Hope in California, and her work investigating the mechanisms of malignant progression in high-risk breast cancer patients highlight the crucial role that simple observation can play, and how it can lead to more tangible advances in how we conceptualize, research, and treat disease. When she made the move from University of Washington to Durham, North Carolina, she found herself treating a new patient population, the majority of whom were women of color. When some of her high-risk patients came to her and described their cancers as seemingly ‘appearing from nowhere’—a concept that, at the time, was at odds with her previous experience with breast cancer diagnosis—she did not dismiss them. Instead, she listened to their very personal experience with their very personalized disease. She listened, she observed, and then she began to wonder and plan.

For more than a decade, Dr. Seewaldt worked for and with her patients to delve more deeply into understanding why certain populations display such aggressive disease progression. Her main focus was on identifying biomarkers for short-term risk assessment within this subset of triple-negative breast tumors, as well as understanding how the breast microenvironment contributes to disease occurrence and development. Simply by listening, she launched a career that would benefit many and carve out new inroads to understanding breast cancer heterogeneity.

Yet her listening didn’t end with the disease, either. Dr. Seewaldt took note of her patients’ requests for wellness treatment beyond the one part of their anatomy that at the time needed it the most. Thus the Women’s Wellness Clinic came into play at Duke. Through the clinic, Seewaldt and colleagues not only sought to provide underserved women with access to information and services regarding breast health and cancer detection, diagnosis, and treatment, but also to encourage overall wellness within the community.

She reiterated this idea as she concluded her talk given for the 3rd Diane Connolly-Zaniboni Lecture in Breast Cancer at Tufts Medical Center earlier last month, commenting that clinicians should treat “the whole body, not just the breast.” Her work in Durham, which will no doubt be continued in the same enthusiastic and innovative capacity at her new position at City of Hope, demonstrates this idea of whole-body medicine and whole-body research, a reminder that a snapshot won’t do to truly eradicate disease. Rather, you need a mural, made up of bits and pieces of the many, in order to see the whole picture.

Photo credit: UC Davis M.D. Class Notes, Spring 2011

Lasker Foundation Awards Laud Achievements in Genetics, Cancer, and Ebola Response

While significant scientific breakthroughs can be rewarding in their own right, celebrating critical advances in disease research through award nominations is a wonderful and important tradition within the scientific community. The Lasker Awards, established and endowed in 1945 by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, are one of the most prestigious of these celebrations in the United States, honoring advances made in basic research, clinical medicine, and public service. In particular, they serve not only as an opportunity to applaud the tireless and ingenious efforts of field leaders for their outstanding medical research and service, but also as a call-to-arms those in the biomedical sciences. They are a reminder that there is still much left to understand about a host of diseases and disabilities that affect the lives of so many individuals, within the United States as well as globally. That was indeed the awards’ original purpose, as the Lasker family brought them into existence in the wake of World War II to invigorate both immediate and long-term interest and financial investment from the general public and the U.S. government in cutting-edge medical research.

Albert Lasker. (Library of Congress)
Albert Lasker. (Library of Congress)
Mary Lasker. (Library of Congress)
Mary Lasker. (Library of Congress)

Albert and Mary Lasker were relentless in their efforts to engage the country in the fight for increased research efforts and funding. Together they reorganized and revitalized the group that would become the American Cancer Society (ACS), and they were incredibly instrumental in substantially expanding the activities and finances of the National Institutes of Health throughout their lifetimes. After Albert’s death in 1952 due to colon cancer, Mary continued to be a passionate patron of medical research, holding leadership positions in a dozen prominent healthcare societies and organizations—including the ACS and Planned Parenthood Foundation— and contributing to the implementation of President Richard Nixon’s War on Cancer. Her decades-spanning commitment to medical research advocacy and philanthropy earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1989. Upon her death, she left over $10 million dollars to the Lasker Foundation, ensuring that her legacy of championing disease research and public health would continue.

The tenacity and passion of Albert and Mary Lasker for medical research and outreach are reflected in the recipients of their foundation’s awards, as Lasker laureates are exceptional leaders in their fields. Indeed, over eighty Lasker Award recipients have also gone on to be awarded a Nobel Prize, forty-four of them within the last three decades. This year’s laureates are no exception to this trend of excellence.

2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award winner Evelyn M. Witkin. (Jane Gitschier/Rutegers Today)
2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award winner Evelyn M. Witkin. (Jane Gitschier/Rutegers Today)
Stephen J. Elledge. (Emmanuel Ording/The Boston Globe)
2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award winner Stephen J. Elledge. (Emmanuel Ording/The Boston Globe)

The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award was bestowed upon two recipients in 2015—Dr. Evelyn Witkin of Rutgers University and Dr. Stephen Elledge of Brigham and Women’s Hospital—for advances made in understanding bacterial and eukaryotic DNA damage repair. Dr. Witkin’s work began in 1944 when, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she uncovered a radiation-resistant strain of Escherichia coli while investigating the effects of ultraviolet light on impeding bacterial cell division. One summer’s worth of work ignited an entire career, as she pursued studying DNA mutagenesis and subsequently DNA damage repair over numerous decades. Her work, in conjunction with that of Dr. Miroslav Radman, led to the discovery and characterization of the SOS response, a broad, error-prone DNA damage response in bacteria that promotes both repair and mutagenesis and is mediated by the proteins RecA and LexA. Like Witkin, Dr. Elledge has made astounding impacts in the biomedical research community due to his work on DNA damage response mechanisms, but in the eukaryotic system. Initially he studied how DNA synthesis and damage repair pathways interacted in yeast, and these findings eventually led him to investigations regarding the ATM-mediated damage response. Significantly, he discovered how ATR detects DNA damage and initiates the subsequent response cascade; he continues to investigate the complexity of these pathways, as well as a host of other topics related to DNA and cell cycle maintenance.

James Allison. (Lasker Foundation)
2015 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Award
Winner James Allison. (Lasker Foundation)

Dr. James Allison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was bestowed with the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award this year for his development of a monoclonal antibody that stimulates tumor detection by the immune system. His work delineating the role of the protein receptor CTLA-4 in T-cell proliferation and as an antagonist to CD28-mediated T-cell activation led him to cancer immunotherapy research. He proposed that blocking CTLA-4 suppression of T-cell response would allow the immune system to detect tumors it previously ignored. Initial success in mouse models—where an anti-CTLA-4 antibody spurred tumor rejection—led Allison to pursue advancing this treatment to clinical trials. Over a decade later, the human anti-CTLA-4 antibody, termed ipilmumab, was approved by the FDA in 2011 for treatment of late-stage melanoma. This type of immune therapy is a radical one, as it triggers a general immune response instead of targeting tumor-specific markers, and thus has promising potential to be a treatment option for multiple types of cancer.

Medecins Sans Frontieres International President Joanne Liu, with healthcare worker. (P.K. Lee/Doctors Without Borders)
Joanne Liu, International President of Doctors without Borders (MSF), with a member of the MSF team in Sierra Leone.
(P.K. Lee/Doctors Without Borders)
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Logo. (Doctors Without Borders)
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Logo. (Doctors Without Borders)

In 2015, the recipient of the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award was not an individual, but rather an organization. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders) was commended for their tremendous response to the Ebola outbreaks in Africa last year. Members of MSF were on the ground from day one, serving as leaders in disease treatment and containment as well as pillars of patient and community support despite facing immense challenges on a local, national, and global scale. Even after the most significant outbreaks subsided, MSF continued their efforts through advocacy for programs and support that will aid and improve response efficacy to future epidemics.

No doubt this year’s award laureates will continue to change the face of medicine in the years to come and also inspire future medical researchers and advocates to do the same.