Title and Department: Postdoctoral Scholar, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Expertise: Structural Biology and Biophysics
Career aspiration: Tenured Faculty at a Tier 1 Research Institute
What problem do you hope to solve as a researcher, and why do you care about it?
There are a number of “problems” that I address indirectly through my research. My work focuses on how signaling complexes form and function at the molecular level in multicellular organisms. The problems that I work on mostly have to do with teasing out the exact mechanisms pertaining to how enzymes function and how they interact with each other.
Many people associate biomedical research with diseases. While I don’t work on disease states directly, my work— understanding the basic biological and chemical mechanisms at play—can be used to understand how diseased states are different from the normal state and potentially lead to the development of novel treatments.
What do you like about the process of doing research?
Oh, most of the time I like nothing about the process. It is a painful and, at times, deceitful affair. One often makes incremental progress at great expense and, at times, it is absolutely maddening! That being said, if done well, an experiment will always tell you something. What I do like about research is the moment after all of those terrible and recalcitrant times where it all comes together, and data just seem to fall from the instruments in a torrent. Those are joyous moments, and they make the hardship worthwhile.
What or who inspired you to do this work?
Both of my parents are educators, and, from an early age, I think that I was indoctrinated into academia. All kidding aside, I wanted to be a physician throughout my adolescence.
I attended a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree, and it was fortuitous that the chemistry department had a well-developed undergraduate research program. I ended up working in two laboratories over the course of three years while pursuing my undergraduate degree. I think from the moment that I performed my first, independent experiment, I was hooked.
If you could have a dinner party with any three guests of your choosing (dead or alive), who would you invite?
My wife, James Baldwin, and Kurt Vonnegut. Given the strangely limited parameters, and the liberal use of necromancy, I honestly don’t know how a better dinner could be engineered. Maybe the addition of Anthony Bourdain?
What advice would you give to an incoming freshman?
There are a variety of factors that determine success, but I believe that one of the greatest predictors within one’s control would be the ability to break out of one’s comfort zone. The big problems in all fields of science require fresh eyes and applying methods and gathering perspectives that have yet to be considered. The ability of students to actively seek out training so that those techniques can be applied to the problem at hand is essential to success.
What tips would you give to students trying to get research funding?
Figure out early what the currency of your field is, and be enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the question that you seek to answer. In most cases, as you move along in your training, published manuscripts are the currency – and it never hurts to publish early. This shouldn’t be the exclusive priority, though; and it needs to be ever-so-carefully balanced against the need to ask informed questions that, in turn, generate intelligent hypotheses that will potentially move your chosen field forward. Ultimately, the pairing of these two things (having good ideas and being a part of a body of work that demonstrates your ability to do the work you are proposing) is what makes a successful grant. Well, those things and a lot of good ol’, plain, dumb luck.