Science and Improv: Spotlight on CIRM Bridges Scholar Jill Tsai

As part of our CIRM scholar series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students.

What do science and improv have in common? The answer is not a whole lot. However, I recently met a talented student from our CIRM Bridges master’s program who one day is going to change this.

Jill Tsai

Jill Tsai, CIRM Bridges scholar

Meet Jill Tsai. She recently graduated from the CIRM Bridges program at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and is now starting a PhD program in cancer biology at the City of Hope in Duarte California.

Jill received her Bachelors from UC Merced general biology and went to Cal Poly Pomona for a Master’s program in cancer research. While at Cal Poly Pomona, she successfully applied for a CIRM Bridges internship that allowed her to finish her Master’s degree at Scripps in the lab of Dr. Lazzerini Denchi.

I met Jill at the 2016 Bridges Conference in July and was immediately impressed by her passion for science and communications. I was also intrigued by her interest in improv and how she balances her time between two very different passions. I’m thrilled that Jill agreed to an interview for the Stem Cellar as I think it’s valuable to read about scientists who are pursuing multiple passions not necessarily related to science.

Enjoy!

Q: What did you study during your Bridges internship?

JT: I was a research intern in the lab of Dr. Lazzerini Denchi. In his lab, we study telomeres, which are the pieces of DNA at the end of chromosomes that help protect them from being degraded. We’re specifically looking at proteins that help maintain telomere function in mouse stem cells. We do big protein pull downs to try to figure out what new and novel proteins are surrounding the mechanisms that maintain telomere function, and then we do functional assays to figure out what these proteins do.

Lazzerini Denchi’s lab focuses on basic research and how certain proteins affect telomere length and also the telomere deprotection response. One function of telomeres is that they suppress the double and single stranded DNA repair mechanism. If you don’t suppress those mechanisms, then the ends of those linear chromosomes look exactly like double stranded DNA breaks and repair proteins try to fix them by fusing those chromosomes together.

There are great pictures from Lazzerini Denchi’s first author publication showing chromosomes hooked end to end to end like long strings of spaghetti as a result of telomere deprotection. We are studying novel proteins that assist telomeres with the deprotection response and determining whether these proteins have some other kind of function as well.

Telomere deprotection results in chromosomes that are linked together (right) instead of separate (left). (Source Denchi et al. Nature)

Telomere deprotection results in chromosomes that are linked together (right) instead of separate (left). (Source Nature: Denchi et al., 2007)

Our larger focus in the lab is being able to understand cancer and specific telomere related genetic disorders that are associated with cancer.

Q: What was your CIRM Bridges experience like?

JT: CIRM was really amazing, and I credit it a lot for being able to start a PhD this fall. I’d been working in my lab at Cal Poly Pomona for five years, and my research unfortunately wasn’t working out. I was probably going to have to quit the program or take an out with an easier project. When I applied to CIRM, I was hoping to get the internship because if I didn’t get it, I was going to go down a completely different career path.

The CIRM internship was very valuable to me. It provided training through stem cell classes and lectures and allowed me to immerse myself in a real lab that had real equipment and personnel. The experience took my research knowledge to the next level and then some. And I knew for sure it had when I was at the poster session during the Bridges conference. I was walking around and asking students about their research, and I understood clearly the path of their research. I knew what questions were good to ask and what the graphs meant without having to take them home and dissect them. It was extremely satisfying to be able to understand other’s scientific research by just listening to them.

I am so excited to start my PhD in the fall. For the first time, I feel confident about my foundational biology and research skills. I also have a better understanding of myself and where I need to improve in comprehension and technique. I am ready to jump into grad school and improve as a scientist.

Q: What are your future career steps?

JT: I want to do something that involves teaching or being able to educate people. I’ve worked as a TA in my master’s program for a few years, and I really enjoy that experience of clarifying complex subjects for people. But to be honest, I also don’t know what I want to do right now so I’m keeping my options open.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about being scientist?

JT: Being a scientist forces you to never be complacent in what you understand. If I had never gotten my master’s, there would be this whole level of critical thinking that I wouldn’t have right now. Learning more is one of the biggest reasons why I want to get my PhD even if I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet.

I want to be able to think at a higher level because I think it’s valuable. And I see my Professor at Scripps: he has all these publications under his belt, but he’s always tinkering with things and he’s always learning new software and he’s always reading new papers. As a scientist, you can’t be stagnant in your learning, and I think because of that you’re always pushing yourself to your best potential.
Q: Do you have advice for future Bridges students?

JT: For anyone who is interested in doing a PhD, this is the world’s best preparatory program. After you start a PhD, you hit the ground running. If I were to give advice, I’d say to not be too hard on yourself. There’s going to be expectations put on you that you might not be ready for and you might not do the best job. But you should try your best and know it’s going to help you grow.

Usually people who go into PhD programs are people that have always done well in school. But it’s important to know that learning in grad school is very different than how we are taught to learn elsewhere. Every other time it’s just like show up, listen, take the test you’re done. A PhD relies on a little bit of luck, getting the right project, and doing everything meticulously.

Q: What are your hobbies?

JT: My favorite hobby is improv comedy. What I really like about improv is that it is so different from science and it helps me to relax after work.

Improv is performing comedic scenes on stage with a bunch of people without a script. Skills that it requires are not being stuck in your own head and really paying attention to what’s going on around you. You also need to take big risks and not worry so much about what the end result is going to be, which is very different from research. It’s a nice break to be able to make big giant mistakes and know that after that day it doesn’t matter.

As a researcher, it’s hard to make friends, and even if you have friends, it’s hard to find the time to hang out with them. I love improv because it’s a built in activity. All of my friends outside of work are in improv. We show up and we play make believe together on stage – it’s just a really nice atmosphere. In improv we teach a philosophy that everything you have is enough. Everything you come in with is enough. It’s really nice, because being an adult is hard and life is hard. So it’s a nice thing to hear.

Jill's Improv team.

Flyspace Improv team.

Q: Do you see yourself combining your passions for science and improve in the future?

JT: I do. I don’t know what I want to do yet as a career, but improv is such a big part of my identity that it will always play a role in my life. Improv is so important in communication and interpersonal connections. I believe everyone in science could benefit from it. Ideally, I will find a career that allows me to use both of these passions to help people.

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