Crossing the Grad School Bridge of Self and Scientific Discovery

Since 2010, the CIRM Bridges Program has provided paid stem cell research internships to students at California colleges and universities that don’t have major stem cell research programs. In order to keep in touch with these interns, The Stem Cellar has an ongoing CIRM Scholars blog series, inviting alumni from our training programs to reflect on the importance of their internships, to update readers on their career path and to give career advice to the current interns.

The blog below, written by Mimi Krutein from the 2011 Bridges program at Cal State University San Marcos, is based on a presentation she gave in late July at the 2017 Annual CIRM Bridges Trainee Meeting in San Diego. 

Mimi Krutein

The science graduate school experience is not at all what I was expecting. I imagined it as a mentally stimulating flurry of discoveries and training; before I started I pictured a cross between Harry Potter and The Magic School Bus.  What I got, and what most graduate students get, is a vaguely escorted slog into a land of uncertainty and imposter syndrome, sprinkled with fleeting moments of clarity and excitement.  But don’t get me wrong; it is worth it.

My personal road to graduate school was quite unorthodox.  I entered California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) as a nursing major, because I had a genuine interest in medicine and was fascinated by the complexity of the human body.

 It also didn’t require calculus level math, so I was sold.
I generally enjoyed my courses but everything changed for me when I took microbiology.  It was my first introduction to basic science.  Disease mechanisms of microorganisms blew my mind, sparked my curiosity, and catalyzed a shift in focus that never readjusted.

It was then I decided to add a biology minor to feed the beast, but didn’t have the confidence to switch majors completely.  The pre-nursing program actually advised me not to add the minor; my grades at that point were good but not stellar, and they thought that the new load would be too difficult.  That summer I formally applied to the CSUSM nursing program and was rejected, missing the cutoff by one point.  Chalking it up to fate, I turned gracefully on my heels and belly flopped into a molecular biology major with open arms, calculus and all.

A few semesters passed and I desperately craved more lab time so I applied to 12 summer undergraduate research programs and was swiftly rejected due to lack of experience.  The only position I was offered was a 100-hour, unpaid internship at a tiny biotech composed of 5 people, where we utilized bioluminescent phytoplankton to monitor water toxicity.  Then I joined the only research lab at CSUSM with an opening, and under Dr. Betsy Read I studied the metabolic pathways of the model organism Emiliania huxleyi, also a phytoplankton.

As much as I loved the lab and industry training I was receiving, I wanted to integrate my fascination of human medicine with my passion for laboratory science.  Betsy pulled me into her office one day and asked the very obtuse question “what do you want to do in science?”  To her surprise –and slight disappointment I’m sure- I told her that I didn’t want to stay in phytoplankton, but rather explore medically relevant research, and study human disease.  Happily she lit up and frantically told me about the CIRM Bridges internship that would be perfect, the caveat being that applications were due that very day.  I received a 24-hour extension, and was later accepted for the 2011 program.

I was equal parts inspired and terrified
For my CIRM internship I joined Tobin Dickerson’s lab in the department of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute.  I received excellent one-on-one training in a small lab studying highly infectious agents, primarily botulinum toxin.  Now, botulinum toxin has an extremely simple mechanism of action, however, it is also the most potent neurotoxin known to man.  Approximately 1 gram of aerosolized toxin can kill 1 million people; and the bacteria that produces it, Clostridium botulinum, is relatively easy to propagate, making it a potential bioterrorist agent.

iPSC-derived motor neurons. Image courtesey of Mimi Kreitin/The Scripps Research Institute

For this reason, The Department of Defense gave us a grant to pursue high-throughput screening of small molecule inhibitors that could block the effects of this toxin.  I assisted in the screening and follow up tests on individual inhibitors.  At the same time, I established a robust method for generating motor neurons from human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells.  This work provided us with a virtually endless pool of boltulinum-sensitive cells for the use of cellular studies with prospective inhibitors found in our initial screens.  Deriving the neurons from stem cells also eliminated the need for expensive and tiresome motor neuron harvests from animals.  The cells I produced in the lab presented as bonafide motor neurons because they produced an appropriate dose response to live toxin.

I finally felt like a real scientist
After my internship, I was formally hired by the lab as a part time technician while I finished my last year of classes as CSUSM.  My two years of work in the lab resulted in three publications, one of which was accepted for the cover of ACS Combinatorial Science.  More importantly though, the years I spent in the Dickerson lab provided room for me to grow into myself as a scientist, receive unparalleled training, and gain perspective on what it meant to be in the thick of academic research.

After many discussions with my peers and mentors, I decided graduate school, ideally a PhD track, was the next step for my scientific career.  I knew I loved research, but I wanted to learn how to think, how to approach unanswered questions in a productive manner.  I wanted to be trained by everyone who could provide me with knowledge.

I was just plain hungry.
And like most 20-somethings on the edge of graduation, my passion was mixed in equal parts with indecisiveness.  I really didn’t know what I wanted to study, but I knew I wanted to utilize my stem cell training, and I knew what made my mind light up; I was -and still am- fascinated by how diseases work on a cellular and molecular level.  So, after months of searching, digging, and crosschecking, I applied to a dozen translational research programs across the US.

And then the news arrived
While running late to a class, I got the acceptance email from my dream school; the University of Washington. After reading the subject line I was frozen with disbelief, I called my mom, forgot where I was going and took a stroll the other direction until I realized I had a test waiting for me.  It never occurred to me that I could actually do this for real.

My first day of grad school was one I will never forget.  After a lukewarm five minutes of awkwardly chatting with my new postdoc lab members, we go out to get coffee and I proceed to faceplant in the middle of a puddle-filled crosswalk directly in front of a truck.  I skinned my knee and sliced my hand open, but magically managed to keep my coffee upright.  Understandably, my newly acquired lab members didn’t let me touch anything of real importance for 2 weeks.  Even after being considered a ‘seasoned’ graduate student I still knock over racks of pipette tips or spill liters of E. coli cultures on my new jeans.  Such is the grad school life.  Part of me hopes once I earn those fancy three letters after my name, I’ll evolve to the perfect scientist, but I won’t bet on it.

To those of you considering graduate school
I’ll end with these parting thoughts. Obviously, I’m still not on the other end of this whole grad school thing, but I can tell you from the four years I’ve spent doing this so far, there has been no experience more rewarding and humbling than pursuing a PhD.  If you find yourself interested in taking the leap in a similar direction, know that if you choose this path, it’s a marathon, not a sprint so take care of yourself through the process.  Maintain a strong support system, both for your personal and professional well-being.  Foster relationships with your peers to gain strength in numbers and build mentorships with individuals you admire to perpetuate curiosity.  Choose your home lab thoughtfully; the Principal Investigator to Student dynamic is the cornerstone of the graduate school experience; you can’t be on different pages with the lab’s leader and expect to write the same story.

Imposter syndrome is the greatest barrier to your success
I spent 22 years wholeheartedly believing I couldn’t do the thing I’m currently doing, and I’ll tell you guys a secret, some days I still feel that way. But it’s vital to recognize that you are worthy of success and not defined by your failures.  Lastly, find humor where you can and stay hungry for opportunities that you believe are just outside of your reach. And stay hungry for knowledge, it’s one of few things that doesn’t expire.

Women in Bio on The Influential Paths of Great Visionary Leaders

Powerful women made powerful statements last week at the Women in Bio (WIB) Plenary Event during the 2016 BIO International Convention. A panel of influential women leaders discussed difficult yet critical topics, such as how to brand yourself as a woman in a male-dominated industry, the importance of side hustles, and how to close the gender gap. It was a dynamic and inspiring event that engaged both men and women in the audience in productive conversation about how we can all work together to support women in the life sciences industry.

The panel was moderated by Nicole Fisher, the Founder and CEO of HHR Strategies and Forbes Contributer, and the speakers included Renee Compton Ryan, VP of Venture Investments at Johnson & Johnson and Frances Colón, Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Frances Colon, Renee Ryan, Nicole Fisher.

Frances Colon, Renee Ryan, Nicole Fisher.

The panel was more of a fire-side chat with the three woman talking intimately at a small coffee table, first sharing stories about their career paths and the road blocks along the way, and then delving into the controversial topics that women in the life sciences face.

Career Paths of Influential Women

Nicole told her story about how she got into the healthcare space. She started by ghostwriting about healthcare, innovation, and politics for the Congressional Budget Office director. Her passion turned into an opportunity with Forbes where she now runs the Health Innovation and Policy page and eventually into her company HHR Strategies which focuses on healthcare and human rights.

Renee discussed how she started as an investment banker in healthcare and made an investment in a company that benefitted patients. This experience made her want to be a part of the solution for patients, which she described as “a calling we are all fortunate to have,” and ultimately brought her to her current position at J&J.

After completing a Ph.D. in developmental neurobiology, Frances switched gears and found her strengths and assets in science policy and communications. She wanted to bring science into international affairs and shared that her mission now is to “make science cool to political scientists and diplomats to the point where my job becomes irrelevant.”

Other Panel Highlights

Branding

Renee’s advice on branding was, “challenge yourself to know your brand, and revisit your brand”. Everyone builds a resume chronologically, but she forces herself to revisit her resume every two years. Her trick is to flip the resume over to the blank side and list all her skills but do it through a different lens so you can have perspective. This process helps her decide where she wants to grow and learn.

Having Side Hustles

Frances mentioned the importance of having “side hustles”. These are things that you are really passionate about that will also build on your strengths, raise your visibility and help you take your brand to the next level. She mentioned two side hustles in particular, a non-profit she founded that supports the Puerto Rican Diaspora Network and a group she organized called the Science Technology Table, which brings together government and the private sector to discuss trending topics in science, tech and innovation. Nicole chimed in and said that all three of her side hustles have turned into companies or big opportunities that have significantly advanced her career.

Closing the Gender Gap, No More Manels!

The panelists had much to say about closing the gender gap. Renee encouraged women in high-up positions to mentor other women that show promise and to be a hands-on mentor. She also said that everyone in the biotech and pharma industries should be studying the data to see why there are less women in the life sciences and what can be done about it.

Frances said that the gender policies at companies need to change, and that people at companies have to hold each other accountable and have the conversations that can create change. One of her key points that got a laugh from the crowd was getting rid of “manels”, or all men panels, which are prevalent at major conferences in the biotech and healthcare space. She also spoke about how we need to strive for 50/50 representation on boards and executive management.

What the audience had to say

The panel was a hit with the Women in Bio audience. Dr. Leah Makley, a WIB member and Founder and CSO of ViewPoint Therapeutics, had this to say about the event,

Leah Makley

Leah Makley

“The panelists shared candid wisdom from their own career trajectories, passions, and ‘side hustles’ that far surpassed the typical depth of career panels.  Moreover, I thought Nicole Fisher did an exceptional job of framing the conversation and asking provocative questions.”

She also spoke about the importance of the WIB community and the resources they offer:

“WIB is a supportive community of powerful, inspiring women. Both the members and the events tend to be action- and solution-oriented, and I’ve walked away from each event I’ve attended with new insights, perspectives, and energy. I’m so grateful that this resource exists.”

Marco Chacon

Marco Chacon

A moment that really stood out in my mind was a moving speech by Marco Chacon, Founder of Paragon Bioservices, and a WIB sponsor. Marco shared that he recently attended a meeting in Boston and listened in on a few diversity forums. He was appalled to hear the statistics on gender diversity in the executive suite and boards of directors in biotech and pharma. Passionately he said, “This has got to change, and to the degree that I can affect this in some way, I can assure you I will do so.”

Final Thoughts

Influential leaders like Nicole, Renee, Frances, and Marco and organizations like Women in Bio, are laying the groundwork for the career advancement of women in science. This event was a great reminder that the issues facing women in the life sciences industry can be addressed in the immediate future if we continue the conversation and challenge one another to create change.

Discovery Days; bringing new life to the life sciences

Here are three words you don’t often see strung together: free, science, extravaganza. Yet that’s how Saturday’s Discovery Days at AT&T Park in San Francisco (home of the newly crowned baseball world champion Giants) is being described.

Robots on the rampage at last year's Discovery Days science fair

Robots on the rampage at last year’s Discovery Days science fair

The event truly is a celebration of science. It features more than 150 exhibits on everything from stem cells (that’s us) to rockets and robots and learning how your body and your brain work. It lets you learn about the world through interactive displays, games and experiments that engage and entertain.

Discovery Days is part of the Bay Area Science Festival. The Festival hopes that by making this a fun event it will encourage kids – and that’s the main audience here – to think about pursuing a career in science.

Parents and teachers are an important part of it too. The event gives them both ideas and tools on how to make learning about and teaching science more enjoyable, to help them get young people thinking about science outside the classroom, and to get them to understand that everything they see and do – from throwing a baseball to building a house – involves science.

Engaging the public in science is more than just an academic exercise. In recent years we have seen some fairly sizable cuts in funding for health, medical and scientific research in the US. These cuts are already slowing down our ability to do the research that can lead to new treatments for deadly diseases. Public support for scientific research is essential if we are to stop the cuts and increase funding. Events like Discovery Days can not only educate the public on how fascinating science is, but also how essential public funding for it is.

Bay Area Science Fair logo

So come along tomorrow (November 1) to Discovery Days. The event runs from 11am to 4pm and it’s FREE. It’s at AT&T Park (did I mention that’s the home of the newly crowned champions of baseball, the San Francisco Giants).

Here’s how you can get there