Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
In high school I read a book called “The Panda’s Thumb” by Stephen Jay Gould and another one called “The Making of Memory” by Steven Rose. The ideas in those books changed my life. Actually, I wrote a blog post about it.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Right now I’m doing some pretty weird science on a common genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD). People with this disorder usually develop lung problems, but about 15% of them end up with liver diseases, like hepatitis. We are trying to understand what factors predispose those particular people to liver disease.
The weird part is how I’m doing that. I’m using bakers’ yeast cells (yes, the kind you use to bake bread) as a stand-in for the liver cells of people with AATD. I have genetically engineered the yeast cells so that they make the mutated protein that causes AATD, just like a liver cell, and then I study what happens to the yeast. Understanding how the mutated protein affects yeast cells can help us understand what happens in liver cells. This works because there are certain activities that all cells do in a similar way, like make new proteins and dispose of old proteins, so how those activities are affected by the mutated protein will be similar in both yeast and liver cells.
But yeast are much easier to do experiments on than liver cells are; they are super fast to grow and it’s easy to make changes to yeast genes. By using this unusual approach, I can gather lots of data very quickly and then test some of the most interesting ideas with more complicated experiments in liver cells. The bakers’ yeast act as a kind of rapid testing ground for different hypotheses about this devastating disorder.
My intellectual hero has always been Charles Darwin, but my role models have been the people I have met and worked with. Like my high school maths teacher, Ms Maseladahni, who showed me that not being very good at maths didn’t mean I couldn’t love the intellectual challenge. Or my PhD supervisor, who placed a high value on curiosity and creativity in science.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love making discoveries about the world. There’s not much that can compare to the feeling of generating knowledge! The other thing I love is all the creative and passionate people that you get to work with.
Advice for future STEMinists?
Think about your job prospects but think most carefully about your interests and your personality. Whether you choose software engineering or scuba diving, you are going to end up knowing more about your specialty than you can possibly imagine right now. So make sure you choose something that you want to be an expert on.
Favorite website or app: http://scienceseeker.org/ lets me navigate the thousands of science blogs out there. If you think you don’t look like a scientist, try http://lookslikescience.tumblr.com/