Spotlight Archives

Tomás Lagunas Jr.

Tomás Lagunas Jr.​

Molecular Genetics and Genomics, incoming class 2016; 
lab of Dr. Joseph Dougherty

What is your educational/professional background?
I attended the University of California Riverside where I received a B.S. in Biological Sciences with an emphasis in Environmental Toxicology and a B.A. in Chemistry. As an undergraduate, I worked for three years in a lab studying defense peptides in Arabidopsis and one year in a lab studying enantioselective organocatalysis. Directly after undergrad, I worked in ag-biotech for four years at Cibus US LLC. Here, I worked with a group of scientists to optimize oligonucleotide-directed precision gene editing for trait development in plants.

Why did you choose to attend Washington University DBBS?
What is your favorite part about pursuing your PhD training here?
From all the schools I interviewed at, none surpassed Wash U DBBS with regard to the level of support that staff and faculty give the graduate students. Also, the genetics department and program at Wash U has built a strong reputation for creating successful scientists. My favorite part about pursuing a PhD here is the collaborative nature that Wash U has constructed. I feel this type of environment fuels innovation and makes for more efficient science.

What research are you currently working on?
My thesis advisor is Joseph Dougherty and the lab is broadly interested in studying the genetics of neurodevelopment disorders. Currently, I'm working on a collaboration with the lab of Rob Mitra using their Calling Cards technology to profile cell-type-specific enhancers in the brain. I've generated data from in vivo models looking at layer 5 pyramidal neurons and GABAergic interneurons. Recently, I've started a second project where we are using a Massively Parallel Reporter Assay to look for functional variants in the untranslated regions of autism relevant genes. Lots of exciting research going on!

Are you involved in any student groups, volunteer work or other ventures outside of the lab?
I've been involved in the Young Scientist Program since I started my graduate career doing tutoring, continued mentoring, teaching teams, and coordinating Summer Focus events. I'm also one of the core members for the Graduate Association of Latin American Students and coordinate/plan several of the Showcase events. Finally, I've completed and plan to continue consulting with the BALSA group. Needless to say, I'm a busy guy. 

What is your favorite part about living in St. Louis? 

I was born and raised in southern California, so it's nice to finally experience seasons — although, funny story (or maybe it isn't), I broke my arm my first winter in STL by slipping on some ice. Good times.

What hobbies do you enjoy?
I'm almost always discussing music with peers —  it's been one of the biggest influences in my life. My other hobbies are an unyielding dichotomy: I enjoy being outdoors hiking or camping, but I also like laying on my couch watching Netflix.

What is your favorite quote?
“Se dejó llevar por la convicción de que los seres humanos no nacen para siempre el día en que sus madres los alumbran, sino que la vida los obliga otra vez y muchas veces a parirse a sí mismos.” 

Is a hot dog a sandwich?
No?

Who is your biggest role model?
As far as a role model in life, I'd have to say my mom. This woman has made unimaginable sacrifices in her life and you would never know it, since she continues to be this strong-willed and resilient Latina. On the career side, I'd say my previous and current mentor since they have all demonstrated excellence in science and tackle scientific challenges with a fearless demeanor.

What career would you like to pursue after completing your PhD training?
As of now, I'd like to return to industry. I enjoyed and thrived with the structure, research impact, focus, and technical work that industry offers.

What advice would you give to prospective graduate students?
Here is some advice that I've found useful:

 - Graduate school is not easy. It's important to stay productive, but always pace yourself.
 - 
You will gain nothing from comparing yourself to your classmates/peers, since we come from all walks of life.
 - 
Your mental health is just as important, if not more, than your physical health.
 - 
Find a solid group of friends that can provide support in all forms.
 - Have fun. We're all here because we are passionate about research and discovery.​

Leeran Blythe Dublin

Leeran Blythe Dublin

Developmental, Regenerative, and Stem Cell Biology, incoming class 2014, lab of Dr. Heather True

What is your educational/professional background?
I received a Bachelor of Science degree from Western Kentucky University in May of 2014.

Why did you choose to attend Washington University DBBS?
What is your favorite part about pursuing your PhD training here?
I chose to attend Washington University in St. Louis because DBBS is very supportive of students. I was an Amgen Scholar at WashU before coming here for grad school and saw then that DBBS really cares about the students and their happiness. When I interviewed the older graduate students told me about how the coordinators support them throughout graduate school by helping them find housing, arranging tutors for classes they struggle with, setting up advising appointments, assigning student mentors to new students, and more. I also learned about the student run seminar programs that allow students to present to one another and offer feedback. Also, the students told me about the different student groups they participate in, including BALSA, which allows students to get consulting experience, and YSP, which allows students to teach and mentor high school students.​

What research are you currently working on?
I study protein folding fidelity and prion formation in yeast. The NAC (nascent polypeptide-associated complex) is positioned at the ribosome exit tunnel and the first point of contact for newly synthesized proteins. While NAC deletion is embryonically lethal in higher order eukaryotes, our lab has found that NAC partial deletion in yeast leads to protection against prion-induced toxicity, reduction of nascent prion formation, and impaired prion subunit joining. My research explores the mechanisms by which NAC deletion leads to better protein folding and the extent to which NAC deletion is protective of protein folding fidelity.

Are you involved in any student groups, volunteer work or other ventures outside of the lab?
I am Co-President of Connections, a diversity and inclusion student initiative that seeks to improve the experience of those in our community through disseminating knowledge and engaging in intergroup dialogue on topics of diversity. Connections hosts one lecture and one intergroup dialogue meeting a month focused on a social justice issue, such as mass incarceration, health disparities, first generation college students, systemic racism, and diversity in biomedical research. I truly believe that by educating our community on social justice issues we build a better environment for all, which leads to better and more efficient scientific discovery.

What is your favorite part about living in St. Louis? 
Right now I live in the metro east, however for three years I lived in the city and still love going out in The Grove, which is the "gayborhood" of St. Louis. Being able to socialize with other lgbtqia folx in my city is so empowering and affirming. I also love spending time in Tower Grove park and the surrounding shops and restaurants. There is a great variety of cuisine and culture to explore in Tower Grove.

What hobbies do you enjoy?
I love hanging out with my labradoodle Rainer, playing board and card games with friends, and putting together jigsaw puzzles.

What is your favorite quote?
I love Maya Angelou and so here are some of my favorite quotes by her: "We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike." "Nothing will work unless you do." "You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them."

Is a hot dog a sandwich?
NO! You can't cut it in half.

Who is your biggest role model?
As a non-binary individual it has been very difficult to find people to look up to who reflect my identity. However, I have found that most of my role models are women, people in the queer community, and people of color, because I know they all had to overcome barriers to get to the positions they are in today. One of my biggest role models is Dr. Sharon Milgram, the Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Milgram encourages young scientists to pursue their dreams and see their identities as strengths in that pursuit. She has encouraged me to explore my interests in science, teaching, and diversity and find career paths that fulfill me, instead of pursuing a specific career because it is "safe" or seen as the "right" path for someone with a PhD. My PI Dr. Heather True is also an exceptional role model for me. Heather sees PhD training as much more than learning how to do research. She considers what training I need to go on to the next step in my career and encourages me to seek out opportunities to get that training. She has made sure I have had opportunities to mentor students, get experience teaching, and think critically about my project in order to propel it forward.

What career would you like to pursue after completing your PhD training?
I am interested in teaching science, developing curriculum, and designing diversity programming for the scientific community at the college level.

What advice would you give to prospective graduate students?
Graduate school is full of ups and downs. Make sure to surround yourself with friends from within and also outside of your scientific community. It is great to have friends to talk about your science with; it is also great to forget about your science for a little while with other friends. I love science and have loved my graduate school experience, but there are extreme ups and downs that are made easier by having non-scientist friends.​

Kiona Elliot

KionaElliotSpotlight.png

Kiona Elliot

Plant & Microbial Biosciences, incoming class 2017

What is your educational/professional background?
I received a B.S. degree at the Univer​sity of Florida in Horticultural Sciences with a specialization in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology. During my undergraduate career, I worked as a student research assistant in Dr. Kevin Folta's lab studying a novel class of plant growth regulators. Prior to starting graduate school, I worked as a research assistant in Dr. Mark Settles’ lab also at the University of Florida studying Maize genetics.

Why did you choose to attend Washington University DBBS?
What is your favorite part about pursuing your PhD training here?
My decision to attend Washington University DBBS was largely based on the incredible legacy of the Plant and Microbial Biosciences program and the opportunities DBBS provides graduate students. I felt that the resources offered here, such as the Initiative to Maximize Student Development, the pathway program, the courses, seminars, etc., would provide the best training for me as a graduate student. I was especially attracted to how happy the graduate students at Washington University seemed during my interview weekend. During interviews, I found all the students I met to be happy with Washington University's training and support by faculty and fellow peers. I have found support offered by DBBS to be incredible and it is my favorite part of pursuing my PhD training here.

What research are you currently working on?
As a first year in the PMB program, I am currently rotating with different DBBS professors. First, I have rotated with Dr. Barbara Kunkel studying the role of Auxin in the parthenogenesis of Pseudomonas Syringae on Arabidopsis plants. Secondly, I rotated with Dr. Rebecca Bart analyzing pathogen infection of CRISPR-Cas9 edited Cassava mutants. I am currently rotating with Dr. Blake Meyers studying the translocation of mobile RNAs in grafted tomato plants and PhasiRNAs in Maize. The opportunity to rotate in these labs has given me a great opportunity to explore my research interests and learn about different fields of study.

Are you involved in any student groups, volunteer work or other ventures outside of the lab?
I am a member of a new student led podcast called GradCast. On GradCast, we strive to build community at Washington University and beyond by sharing the life experiences and work of graduate and professional students across all disciplines. Additionally, I recently joined the graduate student group ProSPER as the Communication Director. ProSPER serves to promote the use of science in policy-making through science advocacy and literacy, facilitate inter-professional communication, and increase scientist participation in policy.

What is your favorite part about living in St. Louis?
My favorite part about living in St. Louis is the endless events and free activities that are available throughout the year. I love the amenities available in Forest Park such as the Art Museum, the Science Center, and the Zoo. There are also tons of festivals and activities around the year like the Central West End Halloween Party or the Loop Ice Carnival.

What hobbies do you enjoy?
Some of my favorite hobbies include reading (I'm currently on an Oprah kick), and documentary watching. I'm also a huge fan of themed dinner parties and board game nights.

What is your favorite quote?
Due to my current Oprah kick, my favorite quote is, "Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough." -Oprah Winfrey

Is a hot dog a sandwich?
No way.

Who is your biggest role model?
It may be a cliché, but my mom is definitely my biggest role model.

What career would you like to pursue after completing your PhD training?
After completing my PhD, I would like to pursue a career studying ways to use genetic engineering for crop improvement use. Particularly for application in developing nations.

What advice would you give to prospective graduate students?
My greatest piece of advice would be to find a support network you can rely on. Graduate school can be challenging but having mentors, friends, and family you can count on can help you get through the ruts and keep you sane! I would also say take advantage of the many opportunities around you.

Samarth Hegde

Samarth Hegde
samarth hegde.jpgMolecular Cell Biology, incoming class 2014
Lab of Dr. David DeNardo

What is your educational/professional background?
I got my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences in India, at BITS Pilani. I conducted post-baccalaureate research at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) in Bangalore, India. During this time, I worked in the lab of Dr. Srikala Raghavan on epithelial cell biology.

Why did you choose to attend Washington University DBBS?
What is your favorite part about pursuing your PhD training here?
I was attracted to WashU and DBBS specifically for its umbrella program and its close ties to Siteman Cancer Center. I knew my interests in translational oncology would need a graduate program that was wide in its breadth of cancer research but also extensive enough in each arm to allow for focused professional development. I was very impressed by the genuineness and candid nature of DBBS faculty and students. The environment doesn't feel cut-throat at all, but don't get me wrong -- the expectations from you as a graduate student at WashU are always very high.

Slightly off the beaten path, the favorite part of my PhD 'training' has been the weekly student-run seminars (SRS), which are not only a great way to learn how to present without the perceived pressure from faculty, but also a very important way to learn how to give or receive scientific feedback.

What research are you currently working on? What is a fun fact about your current research?
I am conducting research in the tumor immunology lab of Dr. David DeNardo. Our lab focuses on the immune microenvironment of pancreatic cancer, which is a dismal disease with very poor outcomes and high recalcitrance to treatment.

My research revolves around understanding the key physiological barriers to CD8 T cell surveillance in pancreatic cancer. I use a combination of genetic/orthotopic mouse models, tissue imaging and ex vivo T cell-tumor interaction studies to determine why these cytotoxic T cells are ineffective in controlling tumors despite the presence of sufficient cues (tumor antigens). We have a unique model that enables us to study the basic biology of antigen-specific T cell interactions in naturally progressing disease, and presents opportunity to develop combinational therapies that can reawaken the poor T cell response. Results from my research will better our current immunological understanding of pancreatic cancer progression.

Fun fact: As part of my dissertation research, I am slowly learning really cool techniques such as second-harmonic deep tissue imaging to visualize immune cell interactions in the tumor microenvironment.

Are you involved in any student groups, volunteer work or other ventures outside of the lab?
I am closely involved with the BioEntrepreneurship Core (BEC), a student educational group through which students and post-graduates can learn about entrepreneurial skills and opportunities in St. Louis or beyond. This experience has greatly enhanced my understanding of translating graduate research and the 'businessy' aspect of bringing an idea to fruition. 

What is your favorite part about living in St. Louis?
St. Louis never feels like a big city despite being one. I can decide the pace or energy for my day, and not have the city decide that for me. Best of all, the city always surprises me with its hidden treasures; whether it be interesting food places, new bars or fun events. Often it's free or ridiculously affordable, which is never a bad thing on a graduate stipend.

What hobbies do you enjoy?
I enjoy reading literary fiction and collecting graphic novels; I am also into street photography but have been slacking off recently. Having become a craft beer snob, I have picked up home-brewing with some of my graduate school friends and that's been great!

What is your favorite quote?
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" - not from 'Satires', but from the graphic novel 'Watchmen'.

Is a hot dog a sandwich?
I would rather not wade into this trap...

Who is your biggest role model?
I really can't think of one person having that big of an influence, but one of the notable people I look up to is my previous mentor Dr. Srikala Raghavan. During my formative stage in science, I was deeply inspired by her collaborative achievements, unending enthusiasm for scientific discovery, and selfless interest in graduate training. I have seen these traits recurrent in so many successful academics including my current mentor Dr. DeNardo, and hope to follow in their footsteps.

What career would you like to pursue after completing your PhD training?
I plan to pursue academic research in my field of tumor immunology. I will apply for postdoctoral research opportunities in this field to prepare myself for eventual tenure-track research. The NCIF99 fellowship I have received will go a long way in enabling such a transition. I'm cognizant of the current dearth of academic careers, but feel I'm preparing myself well to be a competitive candidate for the research track.

What advice would you give to prospective graduate students?
I'll limit this to three: 

1) Don't join labs/graduate programs just because the Investigator is a big name or the lab's research is the buzzword of that year. It's your research interest foremost, followed by lab environment. You'll be a part of that lab for a large chunk of your life, pick a lab you would enjoy coming in on each day (or most days).

2) There will be a lot of times you will feel inadequate in comparison to peers or other people in lab. Imposter syndrome is very real and very draining. Don't feel ashamed to acknowledge it; having a strong peer support system (helpful mentors, friends inside and outside science) is key. Don't let go of that favorite hobby of yours too!

3) Pick up a valuable skill or technique in your graduate career that makes you marketable or competitive. The earlier you identify that and start working on it, the better.

Please list any grants, awards, publications, or other honors you have received during your time at DBBS.
I am the 2017 recipient of the NCI F99/K00 Predoctoral-to-Postdoctoral Fellow transition award for Washington University. The purpose of the award is to encourage students recognized for their potential and strong interest in pursuing careers as independent cancer researchers. The F99 phase supports 2 years of predoctoral research, and the K00 phase supports up to 4 years of mentored postdoc research. This award can facilitate my seamless transition into a successful postdoctoral appointment in cancer biology, while providing me with opportunities for career development relevant to my long-term academic goals.

I have contributed to two publications in the DeNardo lab:
-Jiang, H., Hegde, S., Knolhoff, B. L., Zhu, Y., Herndon, J. M., Meyer, M. A., et al. (2016). Targeting focal adhesion kinase renders pancreatic cancers responsive to checkpoint immunotherapy. Nature Medicine, 22(8), 851-860.-Jiang, H., Hegde, S., and DeNardo, D.G. (2017) Tumor-associated fibrosis as a regulator of tumor immunity and response toimmunotherapy. Cancer Immunology Immunotherapy, 1-12.

Please list any other information you would like to share for your spotlight.
For more information on the F99 funding mechanism, check out https://www.cancer.gov/grants-training/training/funding/f99

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