October 25, 2014

Better Know A Scientist – Byron Roberts

Today’s installment of Better Know A Scientist is Byron Roberts. He was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail recently. Here’s the transcript.

Atoms to Zebras (AZ): Thank you for taking the time to allow us to better know you and your work. Tell us about yourself.
Byron Roberts (BR): I have a somewhat unusual history compared to many graduate students. I grew up in northern California, in Sonoma County, and graduated from high school there in 1991. From high school I went to the local junior college and took courses that pre-med students usually take in their first couple years of college. However, I wasn’t a particularly motivated student at that time, so it took me a few years before I had got enough work done in order to transfer to one of the University of California campuses (UC Riverside). Right about the time that I got accepted for transfer, I decided that I wanted to become a paramedic and work on a 911 ambulance for a couple of years while I finished college. So instead of going to UC, I applied to paramedic school and went through all of that. I had intended to go back to college right after I finished paramedic school, but back when I first got my license, paramedic jobs were hard to come by. My first full-time ambulance job consisted of 24-hour shifts, which made going to school extremely difficult. At any rate, it wasn’t until January 2000 that I was able to switch to 12-hour night shifts and get back to school. However, now I was a much more serious student. I spent another year and a half at the Santa Rosa Junior College and this time got accepted to UC Davis, to which I transferred in 2001, initially as a Cell Biology major. While I was at Davis I participated in undergraduate research, and it was there that I realized that what I really wanted was a career in scientific research and not clinical medicine. However, my research interests are still strongly driven by my past experiences in the clinical world. I graduated from UC Davis in 2003 with a B.S. in Genetics, and took a job there at the Vet School studying the molecular genetics of brain tumors in dogs (pet dogs get brain tumors that are very similar to those seen in humans), as well as developing potential therapies to treat brain tumors. In the summer of 2005 I started graduate school in New York at the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine.

AZ: Explain to the readers your general area of research?
BR: In order for our hearts to be effective at doing their job of pumping blood throughout our bodies, they need to function in a certain way. The four chambers of the heart need to work together in a concerted fashion. Also, the heart can’t beat too slowly; otherwise the needs of the various organs and tissues won’t be met. But the heart can’t beat too fast, either, since a heart that is beating too fast won’t have enough time to fill up with blood between beats. The mechanical pumping action of the heart is regulated by an electrical system within the heart. In order for the various parts of the heart to work together, and with the correct timing, electrical impulses must originate in a specific region of the heart and then be conducted throughout the rest of the heart in a specific pattern and in the proper amount of time. Many people aren’t aware, especially on a day-to-day basis, of this electrical activity that’s going on in the background to keep their hearts pumping correctly, but it turns out that this electrical activity is very complex. Even within individual cardiac cells there are a fairly large number of components that must work together to produce the correct electrical series of events. And on top of that, there are billions of cells in a human heart that must work together, adding additional complexity! The people in our lab use computers, in addition to doing wet-lab experiments, to study different aspects of electrical activity in the heart. In particular we are interested in arrhythmias, which are abnormal (and sometimes lethal) electrical conduction patterns in the heart. By learning more about the mechanisms by which arrhythmias arise, better treatments (and prevention) for a wide range of cardiac conditions can hopefully be developed.

AZ: What is your area of focus?
BR: I’m still in a very early phase of my work, but I’ve become extremely interested in what are referred to as reperfusion arrhythmias. When blood flow is cut off to a region of the heart (as during a heart attack, when one or more coronary arteries become blocked) or to the entire heart (as during some surgical procedures which require the heart to be stopped temporarily), changes occur in the tissue that is not being perfused (i.e. tissue is being deprived of blood flow): the cells aren’t getting glucose that is needed to make energy required to carry out work, the inside of the cells become too acidic, etc. When you restore blood flow (the blocked coronary artery is reopened or bypassed, or the heart is restarted at the end of surgery) and the tissue that was previously deprived of a fresh blood supply is reperfused, you might expect everything to return back to normal. However, in some patients, the opposite occurs: the heart actually gets sicker. The affected region of the heart might not be able to pump as strongly anymore, or severe electrical disturbances (arrhythmias) may occur. There has been progress on this problem in the past, and there are certain things that many people agree are happening when these reperfusion arrhythmias occur. But it appears that the causes of the problem have not been completely worked out yet, not to mention that there still appears to be room for improvement in devising therapies. I hope to be able to make some progress in this arena.

AZ: What led you to your current position?
BR: Back when I was working as a paramedic, a lot of what I did revolved around monitoring cardiac electrical activity, as well as treating emergent cardiac problems. I monitored the ECG (an ECG gives a “picture” of the heart’s electrical activity as seen from the surface of the body) in probably the majority of my patients. In addition, some of the most powerful tools at my disposal acted directly on the heart: either drugs or electrical therapy to “reset” the heart in cases of extremely severe cardiac arrhythmias (the familiar paddles that are used to shock patients when they’ve experienced a cardiac arrest). My first exposure to reperfusion arrhythmias came when I was in paramedic school. We had to spend a couple of days doing a rotation in the cardiac cath lab, where images are taken of the coronary arteries, or procedures such as an angioplasty to unblock a coronary artery using a miniature balloon are performed. During one of the angioplasty cases that I was watching, almost immediately after the coronary artery was reopened, all of these extra irregular heart beats (called ectcopy) appeared, and shortly thereafter the patient went into cardiac arrest. The team was able to shock that patient and get the heart restarted, but I remember thinking, “Whoa, what just happened there?” At that time someone explained to me why reperfusion arrhythmias occur, and I came away thinking that the whole mechanism was already worked out. But recently I learned that the whole puzzle is not in fact solved, and now I’m working on this interesting problem that I have seen directly affects real patients.

AZ: What did you want to do when you were growing up?
BR: When I was a kid, I loved to take apart and tinker with all sorts of machines, and later computers. By the time I was in junior high, I had decided that I wanted to work with with computers and/or robots. But later my interests turned more to biology and medicine, so by the time I was half-way through high school I decided that I wanted to become a physician. I guess I’ve landed somewhere in between: using computers to tackle medical problems.

AZ: What do you enjoy most about your work?
BR: I get to continually learn new things about how nature works, and I get to work on a problem that was largely of my own choosing. Being a graduate student means that your time can be relatively free of rigid structure, and it requires a lot of reading, which is something that I love to do.

AZ: What is the most challenging aspect?
BR: Figuring out which questions to ask. There are always lots of questions that can be asked, but I need to formulate my questions in a way that is specific enough to make them scientifically tractable.

AZ: What’s on the horizon in your line of work?
BR: I’m still in the early phase of my program, so my next steps will be to finish courses and take my Advancement to Candidacy Exam.

AZ: Any advice for students interested in your field and science in general?
BR: Communication is an important part of science that I think is too often overlooked. Whether it’s writing or public speaking, try to get feedback from your colleagues after you’ve given a talk or written something. My two pet peeves (actually, I think I have a lot more than just two!) are presentations that have not been targeted to the audience correctly, and presentations that are comprised of disjoint pieces of information that don’t tell a cohesive story. The latter is especially easy in this age of PowerPoint where people tend to put lots of pretty pictures or huge amounts of text onto their slides. My personal feeling is that even if you feel like you’re “dumbing down” your presentation too much, there will probably still be a sufficient number of people in your audience who will appreciate it and actually get more out of your talk or paper than if you had done otherwise.

Many thanks to Byron. For more information on his work check out the website for the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine and the Cardiac Electrodynamics Laboratory. Stay tuned to learn more about his and for more chances to Better Know A Scientist (index).

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Posted by Tim Roth, author of the political blog Think Anew and Act Anew

Better Know A Scientist – Dr. Pete Jordan

Today’s installment of Better Know A Scientist is Dr. Pete Jordan. He was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail recently. Here’s the transcript.

Atoms to Zebras (AZ): Thank you for taking the time to allow us to better know you and your work. Tell us about yourself.
Dr. Pete Jordan: I’m originally from Australia, where I pursued a degree in mechanical engineering at Queensland University of Technology. After graduating from QUT, I wanted to spend an extended period of time overseas, and fortunately I managed to find sufficient funding to study for a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. However, I left UBC after a year, and started working on a PhD at Cornell University in New York. My PhD research was in the field of cardiac arrhythmias and computational modeling. I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation in December 2006, and am now working as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD.

AZ: Explain to the readers your general area of research?
Dr. Jordan: I am currently working in the area of human metabolism and body composition. We are interested in determining the important factors regulating the long-term composition of the human body, in particular focusing on the sequence of events that lead to obesity. We are looking at these problems using mathematical models of human body composition regulation, as these provide us with insights that cannot easily be obtained experimentally.

AZ: What is your area of focus?
Dr. Jordan: I am currently developing a mathematical model of the way body composition changes during infancy, using data for infants aged 15 days to 2 years to calibrate the model.

AZ: What led you to your current position?
Dr. Jordan: I didn’t ever wake up one morning and think that I was going to be a human body composition researcher. As with so many things in life, it was a lucky confluence of events that lead me to be here. For both professional and personal reasons, coming to the NIDDK made the most sense as the next move in my career – my mentor here at the NIDDK knows my doctoral advisor very well, and thus I know that I am in good hands here; in addition, my fiancee lives here, and we wanted to live in the same city.

AZ: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Dr. Jordan: The eureka moments – those times when you “see” something that you didn’t see before, or when everything that you’ve been working on finally falls into place. The joy of discovery is a great motivator.

AZ: What is the most challenging aspect?
Dr. Jordan: The solitude. Being a researcher can be lonely, and I find that I don’t always have the motivation to keep going. Being part of a team can certainly help offset these concerns – it all depends on the nature of the work that one is doing at any point in time.

AZ: Any advice for students interested in your field and science in general?
Dr. Jordan: No matter what area of science you’re interested in, study as much mathematics as you can. Biology is becoming increasingly quantitative, and having a mathematical structure on which to hang all one’s biological knowledge is extremely helpful for organizing what can appear to be a very disorganized body of knowledge. Similar mathematical “themes” appear in a wide variety of natural phenomena, making mathematical tools a means by which one can study probably a wider array of phenomena than one can study with any other set of scientific tools.

Many thanks go out to Dr. Jordan. Stay tuned to learn more about his work and more chances to Better Know A Scientist (index).

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Posted by Tim Roth, author of the political blog Think Anew and Act Anew

Kelly Egan – Better Know A Scientist

Today’s installment of Better Know A Scientist features Kelly Egan, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Herb Chen’s lab in the Department of Surgery at the University of Wisconsin Hospital.

Explain to the readers what you do?  
My most recently completed project involved doing a risk-benefit analysis of parathyroidectomy for primary hyperparathyroidism in patients 80 years of age and older. (Parathyroidectomy is removal of parathyroid glands. They glands located behind the thyroid gland in your throat and regulate calcium levels. Hyperparathyroidism is a condition of overactive parathyroid glands that leads to elevated calcium levels). Basically we were trying to prove that surgery (the only cure for primary hyperparathyroidism) is safe and effective in elderly patients.

What led you to your current position?  
I was looking for research experience before I start medical school and a friend of mine had a great experience working for Dr. Chen.

What did you want to do when you were growing up?  
I’ve wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember.

What do you enjoy most about your work?  
I like the clinical aspect of research and hearing patient stories on how their quality of life improved after the surgery.  I was also able to scrub in and assist on surgeries this summer, something that is almost unheard of for undergrads.  Every new experience that I have convinces me more that I have chosen the right career path.

What is the most challenging aspect?
My paper that I wrote is going to be published this spring and surgeons all over the world will be reading my research (and critiquing it).  That’s a lot of pressure!  Also, presenting my research at a surgical conference in February was scary, but rewarding.

What’s on the horizon in your line of work?  
I’m starting medical school at the University of Wisconsin in the fall, specialty undecided.

Any advice for students interested in your field and science in general?
Start getting experience while you are young.  I was the only undergraduate at the Academic Surgical Conference, but I didn’t let that stop me from networking and talking to surgeons in many different fields.  Be willing to put in the extra hours and go above and beyond what is required of you.

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Kelly Egan is finishing up her senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She will be attending the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in the fall of 2007.  Her paper, “A Risk-Benefit Analysis of Primary Hyperparathyroidism in Octogenarians and Nonagenarians” will be published in the Journal of Surgical Research in spring 2007.

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Posted by Tim Roth, author of the political blog Think Anew and Act Anew

Stephen Gaeta – Better Know A Scientist

Welcome to the first installment of an interview series called Better Know A Scientist (index). Stephen is in the Weill Cornell / Rockefeller / Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-PhD program and is a member of David Christini’s Cardiac Electrodynamics Lab.

Explain to the readers what you research?
I’m currently working towards my thesis in David Christini’s Cardiac Electrodynamics laboratory at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, where I use a combination of mathematical modeling and more traditional experimental work to research the mechanisms of cardiac arrhythmias.  Specifically, I am currently working to probe the underlying cause of a specific electrical rhythm disturbance, known as “alternans”.  Alternans is a precursor to potentially fatal arrhythmias including ventricular fibrillation, a major cause of death worldwide.  Understanding its genesis and dynamics will allow more insightful research into means of controlling its formation and progression.  Alternans could be controlled through pharmacological means, or through more effective implantable devices.  My research could contribute to advances in either of these approaches.

What led you to your current position?
Starting in this lab was a fairly big departure from my previous work.  As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin– Madison, I studied molecular biology and neuroscience, working primarily in a neuroscience laboratory.  The brain has always been my scientific passion, and– for better or worse– until recently i have dedicated most of my work and energies solely into this field.  Following graduation, I began here at the Weill Cornell / Rockefeller / Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-PhD program, where I am now nearing the end of my third year.  In the first two years of this program, students complete the first half of medical school, and rotate through multiple labs of their choosing before deciding upon a thesis laboratory.  With the exception of my current lab (which I have declared for my thesis), all of my rotations were in neuroscience labs.  I was drawn to this departure by the power of computational research to answer a different kind of question than is possible in more traditional laboratories, and by the prospect of gaining expertise in computational research, which is becoming an increasingly important and powerful technique in biological research.  Though I retain my passion for the study of the brain, I could not be happier with my decision for this phase of my training.

What did you want to do when you were growing up?
Looking back, I can’t identify a particular job I looked towards, and in a way I find that telling.  I’ve always had diverse interests, and relished learning anything and everything available to me. Deciding to complete a dual degree program has allowed me continue to leave as many doors open as possible for my future, and continue on a path towards an uncertain, but promising future.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
In the right graduate school environment, learning is not only encouraged, but is essential.  My lab is an amazing forum for scientific discussion and education, and I find this both personally satisfying as well as motivational.

What is the most challenging aspect?
As I think any researcher can tell you, science can be a harsh mistress.  Research has been a continuous lesson in perseverance, but fortunately the successes (even the modest ones of my experience) far outweigh the failures.

What’s on the horizon in your line of work?
As I mentioned, computational research is an increasingly powerful and essential tool in research, and I believe as it continues to mature it will become mainstream in more and more fields of research.

Any advice for students interested in your field and science in general?
I have a great deal of advice for students interested in MD-PhD programs, too much to include in a brief interview.  For those interested in science in general, my advice is not to pigeon-hole yourself too early on.  It’s impossible to know if you’re interested in a field until you’ve been properly exposed to it, and I think it’s important to gain a diversity of experience before honing in strongly on one area in particular.  Even if your experience with an area leads you away from it, there are always lessons and skills that you can carry with you from any scientific situation.

Many thanks go out to Stephen. Stay tuned to learn more about his research and for future installments of Better Know A Scientist (index).

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Posted by Tim Roth, author of the political blog Think Anew and Act Anew