Monday, February 18, 2008

Columbia University

My journey began very early in the morning as I bribed a friend with money for coffee and fudge brownies I had made the night before…I think advertising to my friends that they will end up with some sort of baked good if they drive me places is really the way to go… I spent another morning at the airport, as my flight was delayed in this month of terrible weather. I arrived in La Guardia at about 3:30, and my introduction to the Burroughs began. I took the M60 bus (M stands for Manhattan) through Queens, Harlem, and finally down Broadway to 116th, the cross street at the main gate to Columbia. Unlike NYU, there is actually a sizeable campus, and they are looking to expand from 116th to 168th (from Main Campus to the medical school). This is actually a pretty big deal: there are signs up all over wanting Columbia to stay away: their move into the 130s would continue the substantial gentrification already beginning in much of Harlem, and for the most part, residents want to avoid their homes being bought and demolished by Columbia, an institution which owns the second-most land on the island of Manhattan. [the first = the Vatican.] I walked around for a bit, given that it actually wasn’t too chilly outside: the campus is quite lovely, and the library is beautiful (it was used as the science building when they filmed Spiderman).

Next, I took the 1 downtown to 79th street. The whole “downtown” being a direction thing was also new, because in Minnesota, downtown is in the center, but in Manhattan, downtown is south. I walked a few blocks south to my hotel, the Milburn. This area is officially the Upper West Side, and it is a few blocks west of Central Park. Mostly families and couples live in the apartment buildings here, and I have a feeling it’d be pretty expensive. There are lots of cute shops and restaurants in the area, and it seems like it’d be a fun place to get to know better.

I checked into the hotel, put down my luggage, and decided that it was definitely time to eat. I walked across the street to a Greek restaurant called Nikos. I eat alone fairly often, but this alone is usually in my room, not in the presence of others, so it was kind of odd to be hit on by the cute waiter bemoaning the fact that he was working on Valentine’s Day, or the fact that I got the entire basket of bread to myself (there were six different kinds…yup, definitely ate them all). My grandpa also made a surprise appearance in the talks I had with two gentleman sitting across from me: for those of you who don’t know my grandfather, he prided himself on his ability to talk to people and find a connection between them in ten minutes or less. He passed away about five years ago, and I try every day to emulate his sunny outlook and passionate love for mankind. He flew in the Navy, raised four children and nine grandchildren, traveled, wrote, lived through five hip replacements, and worked and excelled as a counselor in a middle school…he was a great man. And I wish he was here to be a part of my life.

Anyway, the three of us talked about everything from ABBA and socialism to math to philosophy to music…they were quite the pair of citizens of the world. One grew up for a few years in France, but then he was forced to move to Cuba with his parents when Franco took over in the 1930s (they were Communist sympathizers, although according to him, his mother was more of a Bourgeoisie with a taste for fashion). He grew up knowing Fidel Castro, and spent his teenage years in Russia. His accent was an amalgam of Spanish and Russian, which made his comments even more difficult to understand over the din of the restaurant. He is now a mathematician at Columbia, and his friend asked him out to dinner to talk about Cuba, since his work in linguistics has taken him to a position in a non-profit that works with Cuban immigrants. He asked a very probing question of me, and it took me a long time to come up with the answer: “What does it mean to be interviewing at Columbia?” [warning: introspective thoughts ahead]

I thought about my high school track record, how my parents pushed me towards excellence in academics, my struggles trying to be a different person on the stage, speech or music (I know, so much teenage angst!) and I realized that my definition of success has evolved through my time in college. My own grades are immaterial compared to learning and understanding. Helping other students along the way means more to me than ever before, to the point where I want to make my career a job where what I do every day is talk about science to all different kinds of people. Music has become my love and distraction, not a stressful experience. Columbia to me means I have been successful in my collegiate pursuits, in the terms in which I define them. No one else can judge or decide what Columbia (or any other school) “means” except me.

It’s funny, because he’s the first person to ever call me a philosopher. I don’t really think I deserve that label, but it’s flattering that someone privy to my thoughts for the first time thinks I came up with a well-reasoned argument for my career and how education is one of the most important ways to improve quality of life worldwide.

After sharing an amazing Greek pastry-cream-deliciousness concoction with my globe-trotting friends, I headed back to the Milburn, where I met my roommate, Emily. Because of a scheduling error, we were assigned a suite, and I slept on a cot in the other room the whole time (not a big deal…after dorm beds, anything works). Emily is a biology major from Loyola New Orleans, and spent her Katrina semester in Chicago. She is interested in virology, and we both spent a great deal of studying this weekend for our respective midterms (she had microbiology, I had biochemistry). You know you’re cool when you say goodnight to New York City by 11:30 and study in a hotel room until 3 am…classy, that’s for sure.

We woke up early the next morning to make sure we would arrive on time on the Medical School Campus (168th). We took the 1 uptown, and walked past the newly-remodeled Armory Track and Field Center (which is just what it sounds like…an armory was redone a couple of years ago, so now the Medical School campus swarms with crazy running-types, even in the winter when it is freezing!). The labs for Microbiology are located in the Hammer Health Sciences Center, and on the 15th floor, you can see the Hudson River, the buildings of the Financial District downtown, and you used to be able to see Yankee Stadium before the new cancer center was built.

Since it was an alternate interview weekend, there were only four students visiting (something that allowed for a very personal experience), and our day began with a short introduction to the program. The graduate school is undergoing a bit of restructuring, and the way classes will work next year is still a bit under to be determined, but there are the requisite biochemistry and molecular biology courses to take, as well as a seminar course, and three rotations spread throughout the first year. The stipend for next year will be $29,000, and living in New York City (even in subsidized housing) means that this won’t go very far. The general feeling I got from graduate students was that you’ll definitely be able to live, but you won’t be able to save. Insurance is excellent, and graduate student housing isn’t bad. One of the buildings is a dorm (ouch), but the others are apartments which are decent (nothing outstanding) but a four bedroom for $850 a person isn’t bad for the city. There is also a free shuttle which goes to Fairway Market on 74th three times a week, but there is also a smaller market up near the medical school.

Next was a bit of a tour around the labs, as well as a seminar by two different post-docs. One worked with the Schuman lab and legionella, while the other worked with virus latency in chicken pox and shingles. I still feel like I don’t have a strong enough background to completely understand the entirety of these talks, but it is still so cool to come away from these weekends with a whole new appreciation for areas of research I didn’t know existed. It’s not that IWU hasn’t prepared me well enough: it’s just that there is such a jump in knowledge expected between the undergraduate and graduate level.

Our day continued with lunch at the Faculty Club, which is located within the medical school maze (and goes right past a bacteria lab…you can smell the ecoli…). It was really swanky, and it was nice to get a chance to talk to three different graduate students personally about their route to graduate school. One was from Costa Rica, and said that one of the hardest decisions she made was to move away from all of her family and go to graduate school after working in science for a few years. She said they were so angry that she was “deserting” them, especially in regards to her nieces and nephews. She stood her ground, still talks to her parents and brothers every day, and they all know that she did what she had to do. She also emphasized that it’s graduate school: as long as I work hard and put in the time, going home is not a problem (she visits twice a year). Another spent a lot of time working in a lab before going to graduate school, and says he regrets most of it: “Did I really need it? No…if you know you want your PhD, go for it.”

After our meal, we made the trek back to HHSC for interviews. My day began with Dr. Schindler, who works on cytokines and extracellular signaling. Cell surfaces have specialized molecules called glycoproteins (glyco = sugar) that are made up of carbohydrates and proteins which allow for recognition. For example, a person’s blood type is determined by the glycoproteins present on their blood cells…they act as a sort of name tag to tell the body that “I am SELF – do not destroy!” He didn’t talk much about his research, instead focusing on minute details of virus pathology of the adenovirus I worked with last summer at MIT. I did read a few papers on this construct, but I do not have a virologist’s knowledge or expertise in the subject: that is why I’m going to graduate school. I don’t know this stuff yet.

My next interview was with Dr. Vincent Racaniello: his work deals mainly with virus pathogenicity and how a virus enters a cell. I talked with him a lot about the dickcissel project I’m doing here at school, and he had almost an odd fascination with the entire process and results. I think in many ways, professors really enjoy interviewing students since it gives them a bit of perspective on science and other experiences and topics. Sure, the wet lab work I do is very simple (compared to many other procedures), but the complexity of the relationships and ecology that go along with it make the project full of nuances that make it rather exciting.

Dr. Max Gottesman is a veritable giant of virology, and did much of the work on lambda phages (viruses that infect bacteria). He talked with me about five minutes on my research at MIT, and then chatted with me about life in New York City, as well as my dorky science dreams.

Dr. David Fidock works with almost all facets of malaria, from the proteins that actually cause damage to the plasmodium organism, to interactions with vectors to the disease and vaccinations. [a picture of his work is below] I love his varied approach to a complicated problem, as well as learning about his collaborators and the travel he does in conjunction to learn more about the worldwide effects of malaria. We talked extensively about the gap between academia and those who are not traditionally involved in science and different avenues to remedy this problem, as well as the benefits of well-rounded research.

The day ended with a wine and cheese reception with professors and graduate students from the microbiology department: the fresh mozzarella soaked in olive oil and basil was my personal favorite.

Three graduate students took us out to dinner at Bondi Road, an Australian restaurant on the lower east side ( We shared calamari, tuna tartare, and baby scallops to start, and I had this amazing beet/pumpkin seed concoction with grilled sea bass for my meal. This is me, spoiled rotten. Emily and I went home early, studying before finally heading to bed.

The next morning, we both went to H and H Bagels on 80th Street and Broadway: it’s a smallish room with an enormous bagel oven: no tables or places to eat…it’s just about the bagels (which are $1.20 and delicious). I should also mention that Emily and I had to have a whole intervention process to make sure I could say the word bagel correctly. My Minnesotan accent (=bayg-llll, where bayg rhymes with hag) had to be fixed into the more appropriate bay-gull (I still have to think extremely hard about how to pronounce it). We met Todd Kumler, a friend of mine from IWU, at the bagel place, and we went back to our hotel room thanks to the lack of seating to chat about Columbia and living in New York City. Todd is a graduate student in the economics department, and has all sorts of excellent stories to share.

Next, we met the other prospective student in the lobby to walk to brunch with a graduate student (the final candidate had fallen ill and went home). We walked to a cute place called Sarabeth, a brunch haven for families and twenty-somethings treating themselves to a good meal ( The girls had Four Flower Mimosas, and I had this amazing almond French toast with cranberry cherry sauce. So good! I feel like walking all of New York City couldn’t get rid of the calories I have consumed this weekend.

I was surprised this weekend by a visit from a certain Bostonian gentleman, who came into New York to stay with cousin, a law student at Columbia. We tried to meet up in Chelsea at a gallery opening for another of his cousins, but I ended up getting lost in the Village, and my cell phone died on me. I know it seems wussy, but it feels a lot more dangerous to be in a city alone without a phone. They just seem to afford so much more security. I finally caught up with him on the Upper West Side, and we spent a little bit of time walking around before I went back to the hotel to get some homework done before dinner.

The three visiting students and I met some graduate students in the lobby for dinner, and we walked to Haru, a sushi place on 80th Street and Amsterdam. One of our hosts, Pallav, grew up in Sweden, so we talked a lot all evening about Sweden. The first words I said in Swedish (strawberry ice cream) resulted in a grimace and the same words repeated back completely different, but after that, things improved (hedgehog, thank you, Gotland, etc…). It was fun to talk about the island and my trip there after sixth grade: I would love to go back sometime soon.

From there, we went downtown to Max Brenner’s, a modern Willy Wonka extravaganza. ( The moment you walk in the store, it feels like your pores are saturating with chocolate. We ordered some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had (with Sara’s cocomotion currently in second place) while we waited about 45 minutes for a table (it’s quite a popular destination on Saturday nights). After salivating over the menus, we ordered an obscene amount of chocolate and proceeded to all end up with amazing sugar highs…quite the perfect way to end the evening! It is slightly expensive, but completely worth it if you are a chocolate lover.

Photo (L-R): Me, Pallav, PJ and Emily

We all arrived back at the hotel around midnight, and I studied a bit before heading to bed. The next morning, Emily and I took a cab to La Guardia around 8am, checked in, and had coffee before heading off to our respective gates. Due to bad weather in Chicago, we made it out of New York City extremely late, and I had to wait almost four hours in the bus terminal at O’Hare…but, I made it back to Bloomington at about 10:30 pm…just in time to study and then collapse for my midterm the next day.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

University of Michigan

I think this entry should begin with the general feeling of riding on a prop plane…wow. I sat next to the wing on my flight from Bloomington to Detroit, and as soon as they started the propeller, my entire seat (with me in it), and pretty much the entire plane began to vibrate. Even better, the two propellers were rotating at slightly different frequencies, leaving my poor musician heart to shudder in the wake of the interfering pitches for over an hour. Yikes. We also got to take the scenic route from the runway to the gate after a very slippery landing. As we landed in the concourse across from the airport, we had to walk through this long tunnel underneath the runway: the ceilings glow and morph colors, making you wonder if you ended up in Space Mountain in Disneyworld.

A friend picked me up from the airport, and we drove to Ann Arbor in a bit of snow. We ate lunch at a cute Southwestern restaurant on Main Street, enjoying the warmth of really good salsa through such a chilly afternoon. At about six, I met up with Mary Allen and Anna Carlson, two alums of IWU now studying for their masters degrees in performance from the University of Michigan. It sounds like they’re having a great time here, but the relationships that are fostered at Wesleyan just aren’t there in such a big school. They do love the area, though.

I checked into the hotel, trying to find the elevators in a swarm of college-aged students; about 200 people visited this weekend for the PIBS program. PIBS is the Program in Biomedical Science, an umbrella program which encompasses 13 different departments. As a student in PIBS, you are afforded a certain amount of flexibility with laboratory rotations and classes, which is a great thing for someone so interested in collaboration and learning, oh, just about everything.

Our host students met us at the hotel at about 8:30, and we walked to a restaurant called Cottage Inn, the first of many such pizza/pasta places around the country. There were four students and four hosts, each from a combination of programs. My host was Jocelyn, a third year MD/PhD student. She is the epitome of lovely, and extremely descriptive in giving me the real flavor of the UM campus. I feel very lucky to have met someone so supportive of the somewhat unconventional plans I have following my doctorate (or, more adequately put, my lack of plans, but plethora of ideas).

After dinner, I got to meet my roommate, Nikki, a tech that works at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She’s interested in host-pathogen interaction in bacteriology and virology, which is way cool. We had to wake up really early the next morning to be ready for interviews, meeting our hosts downstairs at 8 am.

We walked over to Rackham Graduate School, a newly-renovated building near the main campus. We had a quick breakfast and then a talk from the head of the program about life at the University of Michigan. The stipend for next year will be $26,500 (something that made all of our hosts very excited since that is a $1,500 increase over last year). We had a short introduction to the main framework of PIBS, which includes taking two of three classes: biochemistry, cell biology, or genetics, as well as specific seminar courses and electives across departments.

A cool thing about doing all these interview weekends is that you are better able to define why exactly you think that X subject is what you are interested in pursing as a career. My interest in immunology has been refined to the idea that one of the fundamental functions of an organism is how it interacts with its environment and distinguishes self from non-self and responds accordingly. The immune system is also the quintessential basis of all disease, and while medicine has become very good at treating disease, it is still not very good at teasing out exactly why certain things happen, and how to prevent and treat the cause instead of just a symptom.

Also, I find myself becoming very critical of windows in labs. After being spoiled at both the U of M and MIT with huge windows, I think I’d go nuts in the labs with no windows at all. If I’m going to spend five years of my life and 10 hours a day plus in a lab, there has got to be windows.

My first interview was with Dr. Matt Chapman, a professor that actually has a lab in the life sciences building on the main campus. The building reminds me of a Catholic high school built in the 1950’s, but the lab rooms are still outfitted with everything you’d need. However, it still feels like the lab is a repurposed classroom, which isn’t a bad thing…just different. He was extremely charismatic and quite young, which made him really easy to relate to. He does work with curli (curl-eye), fibers secreted intentionally by bacteria in order to form biofilm, a network of bacteria better able to infect other organisms. He found that these natural fibers are extremely similar to those fibers and plaques produced in diseases like Alzheimer's and mad cow disease.

Also, before I continue, a clarification of nasty things: the difference between pathogens and antigens is kind of confusing, and often the terminology is used interchangeably: pathogens are biological agents which disrupt the normal functions of an organism, causing what is commonly considered to be disease or illness; antigens are parts of bacteria, fungi, or other cells (usually a sugar or a protein) that cause an immune response.

Dr. Wes Dunnick is basically my dad. He is slightly crotchety, has a love affair with coffee, and expects a lot from his students. A bit of background on immunology: within the immune system, there are two main types of cells: B cells and T cells. T cells are known as “killer” cells, and actually phagocytosize (=eat/internalize) bacteria and other nasty things. On the other hand, B cells are considered “memory” cells, and there are always a few B cells running around that remember each infection you’ve had, from the chicken pox you had that Christmas when you were three to the cold you had that summer in Mexico. So, if you come back in contact with those same pathogens, B cells are activated and begin to divide, producing T cells that will take care of the infections quickly. That’s why there is the advice to expose your children to lots of runny noses when they are young: they are in effect building up their arsenal of B cells. It’s kind of like going through a video game and getting more and more specialized weapons. Each B cells has one type of infection that it can defend against, so you need a lot of different B cells to be ready for any range of infections. However, if you are exposed to an unknown pathogen or antigen, you don’t have a B cell to remember it. So, a process occurs called antigen-driven recombination. Genetic material is reshuffled and cleaved by enzymes in order for there to be the correct antigen-recognizing sequence on the surface of the cell. Picture a brightly colored plastic chain (the kind you played with when you were in kindergarten) and taking those bits of the chain and reordering them into a different sequence. This means that a different protein will be produced, and this different protein will “match” with a different antigen. As soon as the B cells are finished undergoing this response, they begin to divide and differentiate into killer T cells and take on the infection. After they have done their work, the T cells die, leaving only a faint memory of the infection within the residual B cells. Dr. Dunnick’s lab does work with this sort of genetic modification, and he is looking for the way in which genes recombine.

My next interview was with Jocelyn’s PI (= principle investigator), Dr. David Miller. He did his MD/PhD at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, so we chatted a bit about Minnesota before getting to the work his lab does with host-pathogen interactions. Jocelyn works with the more immunology side of his research, which deals with the role that viral genes (=RNA) activated innate immune responses of the central nervous system. She’s actually doing some work with differentiating stem cells into neurons for her studies, as well as lots of work with interferons (proteins produced to prevent viral replication inside a cell). Other members of the lab work more with the actual viruses themselves. He was really kind, and seemed like he would be a great mentor.

Next, the recruits had lunch and watched a fourth-year graduate student present her work on intracellular pathogens: this is actually part of a required class to prepare yourself in speaking and presenting your work (you have to do a half-hour talk as a second year and an hour-long talk as a fourth year). For your qualifying exams your second year, you do an “antithesis,” which means you present a bit about three recent articles in top journals, your faculty committee picks one, and you have a month to write an NIH grant proposal and submit it to the committee for perusal. Two weeks later, you present your proposal and defend your choices. Scary. But excellent practice for the real world.

The next interview was in the newly-built science building, which has an auditorium shaped like a pringle. No joke.

Unfortunately, my interviewer, Dr. Beth Moore, read the schedule wrong, and came back about five minutes before our interview was scheduled to end (and they put us in a very tight schedule, especially with the walks between buildings, so I couldn't stay any longer than those five minutes). She was really sweet, though, and felt terrible. She didn’t talk much about her lab (which works with pathogenesis of pulmonary fibrosis and also bacterial complications on bone marrow transplants). However, she did have some helpful advice about the financial side of things. She said that it would be a good idea to email those professors I met at schools regarding their funding situations for the next few years, given the tough times at the NSF/NIH right now (these are the primary governmental organizations that award grant money). She also made sure to note that this low funding period is usually cyclic, and by the time our class would be looking to start their own labs, there would be money again. I’m not so sure the PI route is for me, but it’s still good to know that it may be an option.

My final interview was with Dr. Alex Ninfa, and of everyone I have interviewed with so far, he has been the most disappointing. I was asked two questions: “How do you like Ann Arbor?” and “When were you born?” The second was in reference to the paper he published on nitrogen regulation in bacteria in 1986…the year I was born…and how it has over 400 citations, and he has X amount of money to continue this investigation…and how he is also flush with money to play with “trick bacteria.” Now, people should be proud of their accomplishments and what they have done, but I left feeling patronized and knowing that such a lab is not for me.

After my five interviews, I took part in a new tradition being started in the Microbiology and Immunology Department to try and build community in the department. Every day from 3:00 – 3:30, professors and students gather to have tea and a sort of snack, getting out of lab to chat and just do something else besides stare at a computer screen or pipette. Being a bit of a tea addict myself, this would give me just the boost I would need in the afternoon to get through my remaining 4-5 hours of work.

We had a quick meet and greet with our second choice from the thirteen of the PIBS departments, so I went to the adjacent building and met with the faculty of Molecular and Cellular Pathology. Many of the doctors here do a lot of clinical work, and observing an autopsy is actually a requirement of the first class you take within that track. Hardcore.

Dinner was at the home of Dr. Alice Telesnitsky…I don’t know how she found so many chairs and tables to seat almost 100 people and cook such a wonderful meal. The professors seemed a lot more relaxed and willing to chat about everything from the weather (which people consistently apologized for, but after Minnesota, nothing shocks me). Many of the prospective students went on to Leopold’s, a local microbrewery, for an after-party, but I was exhausted and went back to the hotel instead.

Early the next morning was a tour of campus on a charter bus. Ann Arbor really is the University of Michigan, but it seems a bit more well-rounded than Yale with the combination of arts, sports, music, and science. The “Big House” where the infamous University of Michigan football team plays is gigantic…I cannot believe that 110,000 people fit in that stadium. It is unreal. I can’t even imagine what game day is like.

There is also a Target, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Zingerman’s about a mile from campus: perfect. Also, as a University of Michigan ID-holder, you have free unlimited access to the bus system, which must be almost completely subsidized by the university: so exciting!

The final event of the weekend was a lunch reception with representatives from all 13 departments with posters about their specific programs and both faculty and students pitching their programs…one of the odd things about the umbrella program is a tendancy it has to be redundant: there is Cellular & Molecular Biology, as well as Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. Okay…I guess so.

I took a taxi with three other students to the airport, and we parted ways, me arriving back in Bloomington just in time to go to work (I play in the pep band, a paid position here at IWU) to watch the men's basketball team beat Elmhurst. Fantastic!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rejection...and pictures!

I received my first letter of rejection yesterday from Rockefeller University in New York City...I was definitely a bit bummed, and I had to console myself in brussel sprouts slathered in butter ( roommates do think I'm odd). However, this does mean that there is one less weekend I have to miss and one less crazy travel schedule I have to set up. Ah well...rejection gives you a more realistic view of this whole process. For every person that goes on to interview, many more are rejected...and those that are rejected in effect pay for those who are being wined and dined.

Also, if you would like to see pictures from my travels, please see below:

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Yale University

Yale is located in New Haven, Connecticut, and on the advice of the program, I flew into LaGuardia airport in Queens, New York. As we descended, familiar landmarks came into view: the Statue of Liberty became more than just a toothpick in the harbor, and the Empire State Building began to distinguish itself from the dense buildings of Manhattan. I landed around 5 pm, and met my shuttle at baggage claim. Unfortunately, due to an accident on the interstate, the drive to New Haven took over four hours, and I ended up arriving long after the dinner was over. So, I checked into the hotel and went searching for dinner. Lucky for me, there was a Mediterranean restaurant across the street, and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner of a Greek salad, falafel and babaganoush. My roommate, a biology major named Iris from the University of Washington in Seattle, arrived back from the dessert and wine session, and she gave me the briefing for the next day, an exhausting experience spent under the scrutiny of faculty and graduate students.

The day began with breakfast at TAC (The Anylan Center), a building attached via skyway to the Medical School (let’s just say I felt right at home…). It apparently cost about 175 million dollars to build, and their money was spent very well. Windows are everywhere, and open bays dominate the lab space. We saw a presentation by Dr. Richard Flavell, the chairman of the immunology department at Yale: he talked a bit about the history of the department as well as how immunology is the connection between many of the fields of biology as well as immunology as the foundation of almost all diseases. Dr. Sankar Ghosh talked for a bit about NF-kappa-B, one of the most famous regulators of immune function and inflammatory response. Finally, Dr. Kevan Herold talked about the connection between the bench and the clinic, and the process by which new scientific developments transition from the lab to utilization in a medical setting. One of the goals of his research is injecting human immune cells into rats to better study the mechanisms of diabetes development within the pancreas, and I brought up the work that Dr. Griffith has done with artificial scaffolding for cells, and I apparently really threw him for a loop. One of the professors (a lovely British gentleman) gave me props during dinner for the look on Dr. Herold’s face, and Dr. Schatz interrupted and laughed at my horrified look, saying that this is one of the reasons it is so good to present your work often, because you never know who will be in the audience and ask a question you never would have thought about. (for those immunology buffs, Dr. Schatz is the guy who discovered RAG1 and RAG2, the main enzymes involved in VJD recombination; it is through this process that the immune system is able to respond to so many different pathogens).

Next followed interviews with members of the immunology department. We had four half-hour interviews with different faculty members, as well as an information session with graduate students. Surprisingly, the interviews were a combination of typical/expected questions like “Why immunolgoy?” “What are your weaknesses coming into this program?” as well as miniature presentations about their research. Being one-on-one was really a great opportunity to talk with professors about their research as well as get a good feel for who they are as a person.

My first interview was with Dr. Tian Chi. His research involves chromatin (DNA) structuring and how things called histones (a family of proteins) remodel how the chromatin coils in order to regulate protein production (=epigenetic modification). Epigenetic modification is why identical twins can have different traits (eg one with autism and one without autism). It is also something that is actually inheritable, an interesting throwback to Lamarck (a scientist before Darwin who worked with the idea of environmental heritability…the most famous example of his research is the idea that giraffes stretched their necks to get food that is higher on the tree, so giraffe offspring had longer necks due to this environmental factor). He really appreciated that I wanted to eventually work within a field that would require me to do lots of speaking to people of all different levels of experience within biology.

Next, I interviewed with Dr. Bob Means. His lab does work with pathogenicity and host response mechanisms of herpes viruses (especially Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus and the diseases it causes in immune-suppressed HIV/AIDS patients and transplant recipients). He is actually the faculty advisor for Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA), an organization which searches to broaden the effect of science from the bottom up (local/grassroots organizing) and top down (giving scientists the tools to work with policy-makers). It seems like my cup of tea for sure. (in that vein, my new favorite idea to broaden the appeal of science for all curious and inquiring minds: )

My next interviewer was Dr. Craig Roy, a member of the microbiology department that specializes in those pathogens that replicate within other cells, and the host cell’s immune response to such stresses. The main organism he studies is legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease. He seemed to be supportive of my indecision regarding what sort of topics I would like to research in graduate school. “Really, what is most important is that you leave graduate school knowing and understanding science, from the doing to the reading to the talking to the writing…you want come out of there prepared to go anywhere and do any sort of research.”

The final professor I interviewed with was Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, and she really seemed so compassionate about science and why I loved what I did. We talked so much about the excitement of science that she didn’t really even talk about her research (which actually has to do with how nerve cells in mucosal lining function in immune response), but it was great just sitting around and talking with her about my hopes and dreams for science. It’s funny, but the professors really have such a tongue-in-cheek view of their own profession. I like that they all have maintained their own sense of person even as they have become world-class researchers in their own right.

In addition to just being on such a science dork high (which…let’s be honest…can sustain me for quite awhile) I was definitely quite spoiled by the food here! Lunch was delicious: an Italian salad with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes and vinaigrette, croissant sandwiches, and waaay-too delicious brownies. I also got a chance to talk with Mickey, a second year in Akiko’s lab. She is from Israel, and is therefore a bit older, having been required to finish her service in the army and traveling before going back to school. She loves Akiko, and has nothing but great things to say about her: she recently had a baby, so obviously, her time has to be split between lab and her baby. However, according to Mickey, this just means that you begin to learn to be the most effective and efficient scientist, because once you go home at night, you have to be a mom. It was just so heartening to hear that yes, even if you do work in the number one research institute in immunology in the country, you still can make time to do other things and not feel like you are short-shrifting research. It gives me hope that I can still continue music and environmental advocacy while working on my PhD, as well as still being able to see my family and friends every once and a while.

Happy hour is actually a normal event on Fridays here, although the fare was slightly elevated due to our presence…brie with almonds and wine tasted quite lovely after a long day! Usually, two graduate students or post-doctoral researchers will present thirty minute talks on their research in progress, and take questions from the crowd: about 100 people (pretty much the entirety of the department) attends, and goes to the happy hour afterwards in the lobby to discuss research and current plans, etc…it really creates a feeling of community within the department. The talks and happy hour were reversed as well so the faculty was able to spend time in one of the conference rooms and talk about us.

Dinner followed at the Yale Graduate Club, a very fancy old building on campus. Next was drinks and socializing at the GPSCY bar (pronounced gypsy; it stands for Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale) – now, I know my mom and brother would laugh at the thought of me nursing a Stella and gabbing about my research projects, but it was fantastic. For the first time in my life, I felt completely at ease in a bar. Iris and I walked home after about an hour since we both have exams on Monday, one of those unfortunate parts of still being in school. Most of the other students either graduated in December or last May. It makes me feel quite young and inexperienced, but it’s the way it is, I guess. I’m also a generalist in a sea of specialists: only three of twenty students are straight “biology” majors, and the research I do is quite different from the work that many of them do with T cells or lymphocyte therapy techniques.

Saturday began with brunch and a poster session at the hotel: I wish I would have had more time to walk around and learn, but my lack of immunology experience made this a bit rough. Next, graduate students took us on a tour of New Haven and two student apartments. East Rock is really gorgeous: think Summit Avenue neighborhoods, but with less yards and no real promenade. But the architecture…wow. They also have two months of rent required for deposits, so you do have a reason to keep these houses really nice (most are converted into apartments). One of the apartments we visited was three bedrooms, plus two bathrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen; for each roommate, it was $600 a month with heat and water included (New Haven standard procedure). I think I just have to be realistic and know that my current $325 monthly rent isn’t going to last forever.

The stipend for next year will be $29,000, and when I asked the other students if this was enough, one laughed and said, “Well, I just opened an IRA last month.” Another said that she saves $500 a month, and is paying off her college loans. Another said that she eats out all the time and goes out a lot since she hates to cook, and money hasn’t been a problem. Some grad students actually have enough to put down down payments on houses after their second year. I was floored: the amount is already extremely competitive as far as fellowships go, but since the cost of living here is lower, you are really able to save or spend a good deal of money. In addition, you get a $4000 yearly bonus if you win an external fellowship, or $5000 extra if you teach or TA extra courses.

Next was a walking tour of the old campus of Yale, an area about 4 blocks from the medical school and laboratories. I should bring up that New Haven basically IS Yale. There are some banks, and a couple hotels, but really…all that is here is the campus surrounded by cute New England-esque neighborhoods. Actually, a lot of the people living in New Haven work in New York City (an hour and a half train ride). According to the tour guide, the campus has primarily “Neo-collegiate Gothic” which is code for a surprising degree of opulence and grandiosity in every single building, including the gym.

In fact, there is a little bit of urban legend about the gym, which was apparently built with the money from a very rich and elderly patroness who wanted a church built with her money…since Yale already has a great deal of churches, the administration built a gym instead, but made it look like a church, so they could point it out to her when they drove past. It’s not that this architecture is bad by any means – the campus is beautiful. It’s just so different from what I’m used to. We also were able to stop at Skull and Bones (I was the only one who had the guts to touch the door!).

Also, there is a 15% discount at the J.Crew on campus for anyone with a Yale student ID (that has totally sold me on the school…right…). I should also stress that as a graduate student associated with the medical school, I won’t spend all that much time on old campus – the vast majority of my time will be spend in TAC.

Saturday night was spent at a microbrewery called “Bar” having such delicious foods as mashed potato and bacon pizza (do not judge until you’ve tried it…it is fantastic). I was lucky to have a chance to sit with two graduate students and just chat. Truly, so much of the graduate experience is determined by the other members of your program, so it was nice to spend time with them and get a better feel for the people I would be seeing all the time as a graduate student at Yale. Also, nightlife in New Haven was a lot more than expected – Iris and I stayed up quite late on both Friday and Saturday because downtown was so loud!

All in all, I’m shocked about how much I liked this weekend. I have no basis for comparison, but Yale seems like somewhere I could live for five years. Professors are brilliant and kind; students are supportive and have both work ethic and a life. We’ll see what happens.

The backstory

In the past few months, I have heard a combination of the following questions: “Where are you going to graduate school?” “Wait---you’re not going to med school?” “So, have you started looking for a job after graduation?” “So – when are you going to start your master’s program?” What follows is my attempt to answer all of the above questions (a recap of the last four years of my life).

When I was very young, I had a dream to go to medical school. I wanted to go to Harvard and be a doctor.

Grand pause….and then I went to Illinois Wesleyan University with a major in horn performance. Oops. Music turned out to not be right for me, but the general biology class I took for fun was difficult, busy, and completely intriguing. Since then, I have changed my major to biology, taking classes in invertebrate zoology, developmental biology, animal physiology, genetics, and biochemistry. And I love it. I have still stayed in touch with music, and I’ve been able to play in the orchestra at IWU as well as a brass quintet and horn ensemble. It’s funny – I ended up at one of the best schools in Illinois for biology, in a program that, while not being billed as pre-med, has one of the highest med school acceptance rates in Illinios (about 95%; for comparison, the state average is around 50%). The classes are challenging and diverse, and IWU is not “med school part one.” Requirements range from a botany course to an anatomy course to an evolutionary science course. IWU doesn’t cater to the pre-med students, but it provides them with an extremely rigorous preparatory environment to really learn HOW to learn and in addition, how to understand your short-comings as a biologist and prepare you for the working closely with others of different specialities. At the end of the day, there is a slight amount of recognition that you will never need to remember the characteristics common to the nemerteans and the annelids, but you will need the ability to process relationships, understand nuances in complicated biological terminology, and truly comprehend all sides of a given problem or issue. They are well-preparing students to make the best decisions with one million dollars in grant money, or how to collaborate with a fellow surgeon on a high-risk surgery. However, even among so many talented students planning to go into the field of medicine, it just didn’t feel right to me. I don’t agree with the methods pushing students out of medicine if they don’t do well on the MCAT (or the fact that Kaplan offers a $1,600 course to prepare you for the test). I realize that there is some truth to the idea that you should have to learn how to prepare lots of material and show that you have adequately learned it, but I think that it is an extremely harsh way to cut those passionate people of the population who just can’t take tests well out of the pool of potential doctors. And on the flip side, I see those students who are brilliant and able to prove it on a multiple choice test at the drop of a hat but are without drive or that essential reason of why they want to be a doctor. I know both of these students, as well as the spectrum inbetween…I have classes with them every day. And I just don’t see myself in that spectrum. Maybe one day I’ll think about going to medical school – now isn’t it. The competition would drive my poor collaborative soul up the wall, and the world doesn’t need another disillusioned doctor.

In the throes of decision-making, I went home my sophomore year of college confused and searching after a year of music and biology that left me painfully stretched thin. I spent much of that summer in a biochemistry lab at the University of Minnesota, learning to navigate a wet-lab (eg, a lab with chemicals, biological materials; something where active experiments are being done and quantitative results are being measured). After the research I had done with protozoans (= pond scum that moves) it was nice to deal with slightly more predictable work that “Dr. Balser – I can’t find my protist again!” However, the other thing that came hand in hand with this summer was an hour and a half bus ride each way from my home in Maplewood. I got to spend a lot of quality time listening to audio books, but in addition, I spent a good amount of my commute thinking. What did I like? Why? What can I do with this? How can I put everything I like into one career? I came up with a zillion answers, and while I was still overwhelmed, my life seemed to make a little more sense.

After all my time in Camp Fire USA and public service, a professor at school suggested that I look into the Truman Scholarship, a $30,000 educational grant to be given with the caveat that the recipient spend three of their seven years out of graduate school doing some sort of public service. I had the application folded up in my purse, and looked at it daily, thinking about what I had to offer such an award as well as my short-comings, given I had never taken a public policy course, didn’t plan on being a lawyer…odds were not in my favor. But, on the other hand, as a biologist, my thoughts on public service were very quality-of-life oriented, and my knowledge of environmental sustainability issues could make me a viable choice, even if I never wanted to pursue law. One hero was Edward O. Wilson, a continual advocate of biodiversity and preservation of the human species through our own self-awareness and realization that altruism is the characteristic that will save our world. Another was Gregory Poland, an IWU alum and world-renowned expert from the Mayo Clinic on the bird flu, a scientist declaring that the human race needs to change their paradigm of food, health care and social justice in order to prevent disease and increase the quality of life worldwide.

After talking things out with the faculty advisor for the Truman, we chose to do a policy proposal on urban greening projects, stressing my science background, plans for some sort of higher education in the sciences, and my public service experiences as a member of Camp Fire. I zeroed in on what seemed to be the perfect marriage of the environmental sustainability I saw as an unquestionable part of being human, and the prevention of disease. This career would be environmental toxicology, and more specifically inhalation toxicology, the science of the bad things we breathe and what to do about them. As part of the application process, I had one of the scariest interviews in my life with three extremely intelligent professors grilling me about weaknesses in my application, public policy decisions I would support, and how I thought my chosen career could REALLY enact change. Being in the line of fire, so to speak, as well as thinking on my feet to explain biological principles in a coherent manner to those not familiar with scientific terminology was quite the experience. With the help of my faculty advisor, I made it to the finalist stage, interviewing at St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis with eleven other candidates, almost all students preparing for a career in law. The interview was intense, but along with spending a day in a room with eleven other public policy advocates (and trying to study for an organic chemistry test the next day) I realized a great deal about my personal strengths and what I have to bring to other individuals in the world at large. While environmental sustainability is still at the root of my concerns, and a way of life I strive to achieve, sitting in a lab measuring levels of pollution in air samples is not how I want to spend my day. I want to spend my life talking to people about what they can do to improve their quality of life: how to more effectively understand biology and how to take advantage of known biological solutions to better their own lives. I want to be a new class of teacher-advocate for the sciences, working towards broadening scientific literacy and making biology relevant and exciting. While I did not win the Truman Scholarship, there is no way that it would be considered a loss. I was able to meet a great mentor, as well as get a much better feel for how I want to use biology in the rest of my life.

That winter, I applied to eleven summer programs, hoping that my summer spent researching at the University of Minnesota would help me get into a paid program. I applied to a variety of programs, including NYU, Johns Hopkins, UC Irvine, and MIT: they all looked so cool, but miles out of reach. I got really lucky, and I was offered a position as a summer fellow to do research within the Bioengineering Department at MIT. I ended up in the middle of a busy and incredibly intense lab doing work elucidating the mechanisms surrounding a particular gene therapy construct. There are no words to describe how fantastic my summer was, living in Boston, spending all day immersed in science, and spending extra time with other members of my program seeing the sights of Beantown. After a summer filled with great memories and the thought of MIT for graduate school, it was time to return back to the reality of school and classes.

After taking the GRE in Minnesota and cramming in family time for a scant five days, I headed back to IWU for my last year of undergrad, a tough transition after Boston. Being a pseudo-graduate student for a summer really didn’t help matters much, although living off campus in a house with three really different but equally great girls definitely helped. I made the mistake (a consistent one, apparently) of taking too many classes. I never learn.

As I spent most of the summer focused on research, this fall was the time to search for graduate schools. For the most part, I had no clue where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, or where would be the best place to do what I’m not sure I want to do yet. Basically, it was a crapshoot. And it’s also frustrating that there are going to be places that I think about down the road that I wish I would have applied and visited (my undergrad wistful school is defintely Carleton). I ended up applying to the following schools, finishing my applications on reading day (the day before finals; another strategy I do not recommend):

-Columbia: Department of Microbiology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons

-Harvard: Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (Harvard Integrated Life Sciences; HILS)

-MIT: Department of Microbiology

-Rockerfeller University: Department of Immunology, Virology, and Microbiology

-University of California at Berkeley: Department of Bioengineering

-University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC): Department of Microbiology and Immunology; School of Medicine

-University of Michigan: Department of Microbiology and Immunology; Program in Biomedical Science (PIBS)

-University of Minnesota: Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology (MICaB)

-University of Wisconsin at Madison: Department of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology

-Yale University: Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS); Immunology (microbiology concentration)

As of now, I have heard back from all of the above schools except Harvard, MIT, and Rockefeller. As the latter two are my top two choices, I am definitely sitting on pins and needles.

In the meantime, my life is full of school, working on my thesis, tutoring, working out, music, and cooking really good food to keep me healthy in these next months of craziness...

An introduction

During the interview weekend at Yale University, all the students and participating faculty ate dinner at the extremely fancy Graduate Club. Dr. David Schatz, a professor in the Immunology Department, made the following “rule” for dinner: “No faculty member was allowed to sit next to another faculty member. Each must satisfy both their left and right binding sites, and binding affinity will be measured by the end of the night.” Everyone burst out laughing. And I felt completely at home.

For those of you unfamiliar with biochemistry, Kd (the "d" is actually a subscript) measures binding affinity, or how well something fits into something else (for example, an oxygen molecule to the iron within hemoglobin, or an antigen to an antibody). As I am looking for that perfect fit as far as graduate school and life goes, Kd seemed an apt subject for a blog title. So…here goes!