Student Spotlight​​

Sohini Sengupta.jpgJustin Miller

Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Structural Biology program, incoming class 2015; 
lab of Dr. Audrey Odom John

What is your educational/professional background?
I received a B.S. in both Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry at Iowa State University before starting here. As an undergrad I worked in a biochemistry lab trying to understand the structure-function relationship of very long chain fatty acid enzymes in corn.

Why did you choose to attend Washington University DBBS?
What is your favorite part about pursuing your PhD training here?
I absolutely loved the collaborative, interdepartmental, and interprogram nature of DBBS. The people here (grad students, post-docs, staff, and faculty) were incredibly genuine, caring, supportive, and humble, and made WashU feel like home immediately. As I've continued here in DBBS I'm continually amazed by just how true my original assessment was.

What research are you currently working on? What is a fun fact about your current research?
I study how proteins choose the substrates they accept and the products they make (both in vitro and in vivo) in the laboratory of Dr. Audrey Odom John. Specifically, I now focus on how ester pro-drugs are activated in pathogens and am trying to bias activation towards specific activation in a pathogen, rather than activation in the host. We hope that this will lead to better pharmacokinetic properties of drugs. 

Fun fact: I’m absolutely enamored with puns (don’t get me started, I’m punstoppable), and through time have warmed my lab to the idea that puns are great. Now we start our weeks off by solving a visual pun every Monday morning.

Are you involved in any student groups, volunteer work or other ventures outside of the lab?
I'm currently serving as the senior co-chair of the Student Advisory Committee, the governing student body of DBBS. We mediate discussions between students and the administration, provide social outlets for students, and develop resources for students in the division. I also spend time with Future Educators, where I coordinate journal club discussions on current best practices in teaching and mentoring. Additionally, I sit on a few committees in the Biochemistry program/department, and am helping out on DBBS’s curriculum reform committee. 

In my free time I volunteer at the St. Louis Science Center as an interpreter for the life sciences department. I help lead discussions with the public on genetic modifications of crops and lab animals, synthetic biology, and evolution. This past summer I put together a hands-on synthetic biology summer camp for 7-10th graders. We had tons of fun exploring why tomatoes are red and carrots are orange by cloning* the lycopene and b-carotene synthase genes into E.coli. *some shortcuts taken.

What is your favorite part about living in St. Louis?
So much! I'll parrot the past few featured students in saying that the truckloads of free/cheap activities (both in and out of the park) are incredible. There's an overwhelming number of things to do and try — from restaurants on South Grand, to glass blowing demonstrations at the Third Degree Glass Factory — which perpetually fill my "to-do" list. Lastly, we're not far from cool hiking and camping which is a huge bonus. 

What hobbies do you enjoy?
I absolutely love to rock climb, hike, swim, and camp (bonus points for all four in a weekend). I've also recently developed an interest in baking sourdough bread and pickling. The latter I'm sustaining by gardening in a community garden plot!

What is your favorite quote?
I have two that I try and keep in the back of my brain on a regular basis:

"One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world." ― Malala Yousafzai
"We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” ― Stephen King

Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Only if you eat your hot dog with the buns parallel to the ground ... which would be weird ...

What movie would be greatly improved if it were made into a musical?
Next on Broadway: “Star Wars the Musical.” It's got the story setup for it all: two drastically different best friends (Han and Chewie), an awkward love story (redacted, spoilers), and I personally can't wait for a song by Yoda.

Who is your biggest role model?
My post-doc turned staff scientist mentor during my undergraduate career remains a huge role model for me to this day. She constantly amazes me in the way she balances science and teaching — from hands on mentoring of undergraduate researchers in lab, to developing new research-based lab courses, to leading initiatives to help freshman get involved in research.

What career would you like to pursue after completing your PhD training?
I would love to have a career with equal parts outreach, teaching, and research. I love the moments when I'm able to sit down with someone and talk science with them. It's amazing to see their faces light up when they realize just how many cool things are possible.

What advice would you give to prospective graduate students?
Find something that you love (both in science and outside of lab) and pursue both with gusto. As many have highlighted it's important to maintain a balance between lab and life. Additionally: Fail fast and fail often. We often dream of all the ways that our hypothesis might be successful and look to prove it correct. However, I’ve found that when I’m in that mindset I think of the experiments I “could do,” rather than the “killer experiment(s)” which really tell me if my hypothesis is correct. Don’t be afraid to fail, take what data you have and move on! 

Work smarter, not just harder. It's so easy in graduate school to pile on extra experiments, class time, seminars, papers, etc., that you must have a way to prioritize what is the most important, not only for you right now, but also for your future self. Look to your mentor(s) for help with prioritization! Don't be afraid to ask for help. We've all been at the point of an experiment where we don't know what to do or we're just confused about the results. Trying to find the answer on your own may be a useful exercise sometimes, but often you'll get a more complete answer (in less time) when you ask for help.

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