The work was tiring. The hours were long. However, Ph.D. candidate Li Su wasn’t affected by any of it. She was in her element
During her undergraduate degree in China, Su studied turfgrass science.
“There was a chance for undergraduates to do some research project, so I tried it and, although it was exhausting, I stayed in the lab and time just passed,” Su said. “I felt quiet and at peace. I kind of enjoyed it.”
As part of the Dong Xu lab at Bond Life Sciences Center, Su works on statistics and data analysis for many research studies throughout Bond LSC.
Originally from China, Su moved to Springfield, Missouri in 2016 to earn her master’s in plant science at Missouri State University. Once she graduated in 2018, she moved to Houston, Texas to work at a biomedical research institution. After a while, she applied for graduate school but wanted to go in a new direction.
“While I was in Houston, at that job, I was confused,” Su said. “I was just thinking about my skills, what I liked to do in the lab and what will make me survive … I realized even a lot of postdocs or senior graduate students were kind of limited in the statistics and data analysis, so I tried to figure out how to do those things.”
Su switched her focus, was accepted by Mizzou in 2020 and soon found her place in the Dong Xu lab.
“As we are trying to handle this big data, the main weapon for us is coding,” said Juexin Wang, Dong Xu’s lab manager. “So, when we are trying to deal with that big amount of data, we have to highly rely on the coding skills and [Su] does that very, very well. She is learning fast and uses all her resources to learn that.”
Su joined the lab while it was strictly Zoom lab meetings and everything was remote. Despite the digital barriers, Su stood out to Wang.
He had found a paper where he believed the lab could replace its methodology with theirs and make the study stronger. Wang mentioned this to Su over Zoom, not thinking much of it.
“Probably weeks later, she came to me and she tells me many things about the other methodology,” Wang said. “So, I was really impressed.”
Su understands what it means to do good science in the lab and what that could mean for others.
“I think a lot of people I work with tell me to be honest with yourself about your science, about your work,” Su said. “I want some work to be like this, so you have a novel idea, you scientifically prove it and make the conclusion helpful to a group of people. I feel like if I have such work, I can be part of the [scientific] community.”
Even though Su isn’t working on any of her own projects right now, her main goal is to publish new and better papers during her Ph.D.
“Smarts, diligence, persistence — I think those are very, very key characteristics,” Wang said. “[Su] is making her weapons much more powerful and much sharper. I think she will get some very good achievements.”
The best piece of advice Ph.D. candidate Billy Schulze ever received was from his father before a baseball game in high school. In past games, Schulze kept striking out. He wasn’t getting any runs. Things seemed bleak.
Schulze’s father pulled him aside and said with a smile, “Don’t suck.”
“That just kind of made me giggle,” Schulze said. “I think the real message behind that story is don’t think about it too hard. Relax. Have some fun…You can’t take things too seriously, having a sense of humor is so important. Working hard and pushing through problems is vital, especially in science where failure is so common.”
Schulze has brought that mentality to his research in the Margaret Lange lab at Bond Life Sciences Center since he joined in 2019. Whether he’s working on innate immunity or becoming one of the first biomedical engineer graduates at Mizzou, Schulze understands balance is vital in and out of research.
Taking after his father, Schulze wanted to become an engineer. However, it didn’t quite tick all his boxes.
“I have always been fascinated with biology,” Schulze said. “I just distinctly remember being in eighth grade when we went out to the pond water behind my middle school and looked at the pond water with a microscope. Seeing all of the protozoa and stuff that are in the pond water was really cool to me, and that just kind of stuck with me.”
Schulze merged engineering and biology when he became one of the first four students to graduate from biomedical engineering in 2018.
Soon after going back for his Ph.D., Schulze founded the Molecular Pathogenesis and Therapeutics Graduate Student Organization (MPTGSO). It’s aimed at improving the MPT degree by facilitating student feedback to faculty.
“I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of that I’ve done here, just being president of [MPTGSO], founding that and really just trying to be a voice for the entire student body of the program to the faculty in an attempt to just make everybody’s lives better within the program,” Schulze said.
When not helping graduate students, Schulze is in the Lange lab studying viruses, the innate immune systems and what causes Toll-like receptors (TLRs) to activate. TLRs are a class of receptors that can recognize various structures and molecules to trigger an immune system response. The Lange lab focuses on nucleic acid detecting TLRs.
Schulze is using a piece of the poliovirus genome (PV-5) known to bind to these specific receptors to create an immune response to the virus. This allows him to see which receptors activate and why.
“We’re asking what specifically is in PV-5 that is activating the receptor,” Schulze said. “So as opposed to looking at the receptor from the amino acids and what amino acids are required for binding, we’re looking at the RNA, and what RNA structures and motifs are required for binding to TLR.”
The Lange lab is creating a library of RNA sequences based on the genetic information of PV-5 to find which receptors activate.
“In this pandemic-affected world, viruses are at the forefront of health right now, and it’s something that everybody’s thinking about, and we’re specifically looking at the host-virus interface, something that is not necessarily the best understood,” Schulze said. “But at the same time, if we can help to modulate the immune response to viruses, we can potentially have better…potential antiviral therapeutics.”
When Schulze joined Bond LSC in 2016 as part of the Marc Johnson lab, he still had to learn all basic bench skills. Johnson lab supervisor Terri Lyddon was the one who showed him the ropes.
“He was definitely a worthwhile undergraduate student to have in the lab,” Lyddon said. “He was dependable, and he liked the work and came in with a positive attitude every day.”
Lyddon remembers how Schulze was always the one to speak up in lab meetings and ask questions about anything from the lab equipment to why they used particular procedures.
“There are certain levels of enthusiasm and inquisitiveness that come with almost anybody that comes to the lab because you have to want to do this kind of work in the first place…but he brought it to the lab in a unique way,” Lyddon said. “He was curious, and while some others may be curious, they don’t go on to find out the answers to those questions.”
When Schulze’s time in the lab eventually ends, he hopes to move on to a biotechnology company he truly believes in. For now, he’ll be in the lab keeping his dad’s advice in the back of his mind.
“Frankly, I think [science] is a frustrating field to work in, but it is also one of the most rewarding fields for that reason because you’ve overcome so much to find what you found, to prove what you’ve proven,” Schulze said. “I think it’s really cool, but it does require a lot of persistence.”
Sara Ricardez Hernandez starts her day in the Chris Lorson lab with a vibrant demeanor while wearing her jet-black lab coat. Within five minutes, the graduate student is already at her microscope.
Ricardez Hernandez’s eagerness has only enhanced since she and principal investigator Chris Lorson won the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Gilliam Fellowship on July 22. HHMI created the Gilliam Fellowship and its three-year funding to award and advance diverse and inclusive environments in science.
For Ricardez Hernandez, fostering a healthy, diverse lab environment hits home. Being from Mexico and president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter at MU, she knows minority students are often left out of the research career conversation and need opportunities to connect to research.
“I went to [University of Missouri-St. Louis], and I was the only Latina in my whole class,” Ricardez Hernandez said. “I also didn’t really have any mentors that looked like me. I was very interested in showing other people from the same background that they can also be scientists.”
Ricardez Hernandez found out about the fellowship in the middle of an online conference.
“I was super excited,” Ricardez Hernandez said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ And then I went home, and I celebrated it with my fiancé.”
The $50,000 per year will be used to better understand disease and therapeutic developments for the infantile disease spinal muscular atrophy with respiratory distress type 1 (SMARD1). The genetic disorder occurs in children with mutations in the Immunoglobulin-μ-DNA Binding Protein 2 (Ighmbp2) gene.
The Lorson lab looks at SMARD1 in mice to better understand the disease and do preclinical testing of treatments, which fills much of Ricardez Hernandez’s day in the lab.
This involves doing anything from perfusing and dissecting mice tissue to staining mice diaphragms to see if there’s a disruption between the muscle and the muscle nerve cells. Often, Ricardez Hernandez visits the mouse room.
“That’s my favorite part of the day because I love mice,” Ricardez Hernandez said. “They’re so cute. We study an infantile disease, so we mostly use baby mice. These mice can die very prematurely, so if we treat them, they can be rescued.”
Lorson is frequently in and out of the lab helping lab members with their experiments. Lorson has been an important mentor and support system for Ricardez Hernandez even before she joined the lab in 2020.
“It was my first semester of my Ph.D., and I really wanted to go to the [SACNAS] national conference,” Ricardez Hernandez said. “We needed some funding, and [Lorson] being in the veterinary school was like, ‘Oh, I heard that you’re looking for funding. I know someone who can help you with that,’ and it was himself.”
Lorson’s mentorship may have rubbed off on Ricardez Hernandez a little since it’s now a passion in her daily life. Usually, she’ll work with undergraduates in the lab and meet with her mentees from the Maximizing Access to Research Careers/Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (MARC/IMSD) program after work. Then, she’ll help students as a teacher’s assistant for a microbiology class.
“She’s honestly an inspiration for any minorities seeking medicine, research, or higher education,” said Zayd Al Rawi, an undergraduate in the Lorson lab. “Although I come from a different background, being Middle Eastern, we share the commonality of being minorities in America, so I see her as a role model. She’s a true inspiration to minorities seeking their goals.”
The Gilliam Fellowship will help Ricardez Hernandez advance her research and gain her Ph.D. in molecular pathogenesis and therapeutics. Until then, Ricardez Hernandez will spend her afternoons helping students and quantifying data with her favorite show on in the background.
“Overall, [she’s] one of the best people, best researchers, and one of the best supportive mentors that I’ve met,” Al Rawi said. “I’m really glad that I’m in this lab and I’ve crossed paths with her. I know she’s going to continue doing great things in the future.”
More information on the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship can be found here, and information on the Mizzou SACNAS chapter can be found on their website.
Lyndon Coghill is the new Director of Informatics Research Core, and he is already making big moves at Mizzou.
By Davis Suppes | Bond LSC
Lyndon Coghill’s official title may be Director of Informatics for the Informatics Research Core, but his job branches out much wider than just a single label. Even as an undergrad, Coghill wore many different hats.
“I was incredibly excited about the way that the MU Office of Research and Economic Development recruited me,” Coghill said, “With these types of processes you can get an idea as to whether or not an institution is actually committed and excited about building something out.”
With his experience and range of expertise, Coghill was an easy choice for Mizzou to fill the role of Director of the Informatics Research Core located at Bond Life Sciences Center.
Before he achieved his doctorate in biology, he completed his undergraduate degree in zoology with minors in microbiology and geology at Western Illinois University. For his dissertation, the research he conducted was focused heavily on evolutionary genomics. Simply put, he wanted to know how changes in the genome lead to changes in a physical organism that allow them to adapt better to different environments and conditions.
With his doctorate in biology, he would go on to his first postdoc at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 2013, and then on to Louisiana State University where he began his role as a senior post doctorate in 2015. He continued to diversify his portfolio there working with the department of biology, focusing on computational biology. He was then promoted to research data scientist which had him take on an even more computationally heavy role. With this, he was able to help biologists learn how to talk to computer scientists, and assist them with building collaborative programs together..
As director, Coghill’s mission is to provide bioinformatics and data science support to all researchers across the UM system. He is creating a central hub where faculty whowant toconduct domain- specific biological or life sciences-related research that is computationally heavy can get the help they need to come up with solutions. He does this by helping researchers wrangle incredibly large datasets and by helping them understand what that data is telling them from an information perspective in a meaningful way.
Coghill mentioned how interim Vice Chancellor of Research and Economic Development Thomas Spencer also made a personal effort to make sure Coghill understood his vision going forward on campus “and for me that was enough of a selling point that I wanted to be a part of that,” Coghill said.
In addition to the thorough recruitment process, Mizzou’s facilities and access were other huge factors that Coghill was looking forward to once he got here. With a hospital, vet school and productive biology program all on the same campus instead of in different cities, Mizzou offers a unique opportunity to build the integrated program all in one place.
“We’re trying to reach out to every department on campus to build these relationships because you can’t have true integration of ideas and solutions if you don’t talk to everyone who might be a benefactor or have knowledge about that,” Coghill said.
Coghill believes that to create a phenomenal translational research program, this core must interact with all these programs so that experts of different fields can come together to collaborate.
“Informatics research, especially bioinformatics is a program that really forces you to keep one foot in both worlds of computer science and biology, and there’s a limited number of peoplewho do that kind of work,” Coghill said, “I think that was one of the big pushes for getting my experience here for this position, to bring in somebody who could bring these programs together and integrate across all these different fields.”
Coghill is excited to be working with the variety of researchers and programs across the MU campus and UM System, and learning from them at the same time.
“We may not know their biological system as well as they do and we may not know the high performance computing system as well as a full-time systems administrator, but we know enough of both that we can communicate with both teams and make sure that we can help get the researchers from the starting point to a meaningful result,” Coghill said.
Their goal is to provide Mizzou and sister campuses with research support allowing faculty to build translational research programs using computing power and informatics. This core brings new opportunities for Mizzou students as well.
“We’re going to have programs for students that can rotate through as part of the Informatics and Data Science Institute,” Coghill said.
This means that students who are interested in research fields can get direct experience related to career possibilities outside of Mizzou and academics by working in this program.
“Students can come to us and learn basic coding skills, learn informatics and bioinformatics, and that will help them build a skillset that will make them quite employable,” Coghill said.
Between helping researchers in their labs and analyzing quantities of data they are gathering for the first time, Coghill has a variety of jobs he has to understand and execute.
“So, I am the guy who wears a lot of different hats and allows these researchers from different domains to talk to each other,” Coghill said. “We’re trying to help them get to the point where their work could be as big as they want.”
Mizzou and Coghill know that there is no way to push modern research without computing, especially at the scale research is done today.
It would be extremely rare for someone who has a doctorate and spent their life trying to understand how one particular part of a biological process works to also have a doctorate in computer science, “That’s where we help… we’re providing researchers with the tools to do research at a scale using computing power, and asking questions that for many, might have only been dreamed about at other times in their careers,” Coghill said.
Kulbir Sandhu’s curiosity had guided him from place to place, but it was his fascination with plant science that has stayed the same.
While Sandhu has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Bing Yang lab at Bond Life Sciences Center for the past six months, his path towards plant science began when he was 18 years old in his home country of India.
In high school, Sandhu was drawn to the biology route because of helpful and enthusiastic science teachers. He grew to like it as time went on and found that the subject came easy to him.
“I always had, you could say, a ‘scientific’ attitude,” Sandhu said. “Even when I had little understanding of the process of science, I always had an attitude that suited this field.”
Sandhu also received support and inspiration regarding science from his father, who was an engineer.
“When I was young, my dad used to help me with school homework,” Sandhu said. “His favorite subject was maths, and so he always insisted that I do well in maths and science. In this way, it became natural for me to develop an inclination for these two subjects. In India, most students interested in science choose either maths or biology streams after 10th grade. Initially, I wanted to be a doctor, so I chose biology, and it was more of a happenstance that I ended up becoming a plant ‘doctor.’”
Years later, Sandhu received his Master’s in plant breeding from the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, India in 2003, and in 2013 he received his Ph.D. at Washington University.
Sandhu first met Bing Yang four years later as a postdoctoral fellow at Iowa State University. Since they worked on a previous project together, Sandhu became a great addition to the Yang lab when he joined in November last year.
While Sandhu is working on a few projects, his main one involves using the gene-editing tool, CRISPR/CAS9, to target genes in Arabidopsis that code for reactive oxygen species. ROS helps plants with signaling, development, stress responses and other processes.
ROS is also part of the plant’s innate defense system against pathogens. Understanding how pathogens overcome this primary defense system of plants is necessary to breed better resistant crops and reduce environmental impact due to chemical control.
By causing these gene mutations, he prevents ROS from being formed in cells. That way, they can compare the mutant plant to a wild type and see the difference in basal-defense responses.
“Now this is exciting again because we are working in CRISPR in field crops as well as in basic science,” Sandhu said. “So, I get to do both things.”
First-year researcher Jack Ogilvy has been working on this project with Sandhu for the past three months as part of the Freshmen Research in Plants program.
“This is my first time … mentoring someone, and by this experience, I have realized that it is equally beneficial to me,” Sandhu said. “I mean … talking about scientific concepts helps create a deeper understanding, and both parties gain from this interaction.”
Together, the two are learning more about ROS and the Yang lab.
“He cares more about just being a mentor in terms of science,” Ogilvy said. “He also is just as interested in my personal life … We’ve formed a relationship between the two of us where it’s not just like, he tells me what to do in the lab. It’s like we are working together, essentially.”
Ogilvy appreciates Sandhu’s curiosity and advice.
“He’s always telling me to try to find the answer on my own before I go for help to gain that skill … just because it’s such an important skill to have to be somewhat self-reliant,” Ogilvy said. “But that being said, he’s always there if I get stuck or if I need help.”
Sandhu found a place for himself in the Yang lab. In a few weeks, he plans on focusing more on his own projects.
As an undergraduate student, Sara Ricardez Hernandez did not have mentors that exposed her to the many opportunities available for underrepresented students — like summer programs and other research initiatives — but now a graduate student and a Life Sciences fellow, Ricardez Hernandez wants to make sure that no one else is ever in that boat.
“I really like advocating for other people like myself. For example, the university that I went to for undergrad had very little mentoring for minority students, so I want to help people not only be able to get a Ph.D. but be even better scientists and have more opportunities than the ones I had,” said Ricardez Hernandez, a current member of the Chris Lorson lab at Bond Life Sciences Center.
She has not wasted any time. She is currently the vice president of Mizzou’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). SACNAS is a program that provides networking and professional development opportunities for minority students.
“We try to help students by hosting workshops and inviting different diverse researchers so students see that they can succeed in academia and become principal investigators too,” Ricardez Hernandez said. “When I first arrived at Mizzou, I knew they had a chapter here and I was very excited about that. I even contacted some people before classes started and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in becoming a member’ — I had been president for the Hispanic Latino Association in undergrad — so I knew that I wanted to keep helping students.”
Ricardez Hernandez also serves as a graduate student mentor with MARC/IMSD (Maximizing Access to Research Careers/Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity) at Mizzou. She currently mentors six undergraduate students where she provides support and advice regarding their research, academics, and any personal issues that may be barriers to their success.
“One of my biggest passions is mentoring and trying to push higher education into a more equitable future,” Ricardez Hernandez said. “Historically, higher education has lacked diversity, so we do not see a lot of role models for minority students like professors or PIs. Showing students that, ‘Hey, I’m here at Mizzou, I’m a minority as well and I’m passionate about what I’m doing,’ can demonstrate to undergrads that they can do that too.”
Ricardez Hernandez’s energy is contagious.
“Her mentees think highly of her. She is transparent and vulnerable in sharing her own previous challenges and that makes her so relatable,” Brian Booton, Undergraduate Director of MARC/IMSD at Mizzou, said. “I think we sometimes put mentors on a pedestal and think of them not struggling themselves or that they’ve never had difficulties, but I think she’s really authentic with the ways in which she’s grown. She’s able to reflect on those lessons and reframe them as social capital making her a very effective mentor.”
Ricardez Hernandez extends her passion for education in the lab and her studies as well. She is in the Molecular Pathogenesis and Therapeutics Program where she studies neuromuscular infantile diseases. She is currently working on the characterization of respiratory defects in spinal muscular atrophy with respiratory distress type 1 (SMARD1) and the applications for potential therapeutics.
“I think it keeps me going. Sometimes it’s hard being a graduate student, and not everything works out all the time or you have a lot of things going on but studying diseases like SMARD1 makes me want to come to lab every day and keep doing what I’m doing,” Ricardez Hernandez said.
With a few years left at Mizzou, Ricardez Hernandez plans on helping as many people as she can.
“She’s a real advocate and champion for her mentees,” Booton said. “She’s so approachable and genuine and she’s been a great asset to the program.”
Whether Ellie Swan is in the gym lifting 200 pounds or in the lab preparing samples, she loves learning how nutrition and exercise affect the body.
“I’ve always really liked exercising and nutrition, and I like learning about that, so it’s interesting to me to learn about it on a very small level on how your body works so that you can have that better understanding,” Swan said. “I feel like once you have that base knowledge, you can take that on a greater scale for your body and use that for exercise and nutrition and not just those basic cellular functions.”
Swan, a sophomore pre-med student, joined the Ruthie Angelovici lab at Bond Life Sciences Center in January and hopes her work there will help her understand nutrition on a molecular level. This semester she maintains the plant growth chamber and helps graduate students with their projects, but Swan plans to work on her own project this summer.
Swan’s love for science started when dealing with medical issues at a young age.
“The type of person that I’ve always been is I want to understand why this is happening so I can fix it,” Swan said. “That kind of generated my love of science because it’s an explanation for everything. Once you have a base knowledge, you can kind of start building on that understanding.”
Exercise and nutrition are a big part of Swan’s life, especially powerlifting. The sport has athletes try to lift a maximal weight in one of the three positions: back squat, bench press and deadlift. Swan currently holds the Missouri state record for the back squat at 285 pounds. She uses the sport to challenge herself.
“I would describe her as somebody who is tenacious, who is extremely caring and sensitive to others, and somebody who is deeply driven goal-driven,” said Ellie Swan’s father Christopher Swan.
Now, Ellie is applying her goals and love of science in the Angelovici lab. Ruthie Angelovici, a principal investigator at Bond LSC, was her former cell biology professor.
“I really really enjoyed her teaching style,” Ellie said. “She’s so knowledgeable. You just could tell in all of her lectures that she just knew what she was talking about. And obviously, I like that she’s a strong female character. That’s something that I can look up to for sure.”
Once Angelovici mentioned she did cell metabolism research in her lab, Ellie realized she wanted to be a part of it.
The lab is currently trying to pinpoint amino acids in seeds so they can fortify these seeds or equip them with all the necessary vitamins and minerals a person needs in a day. By doing so, the lab can bolster food supplies in third-world countries where many people rely on fortified cereals for their vitamins, minerals and proteins.
Now in the lab for about four months, she’s learned that conducting science isn’t what she originally thought it was.
“To learn more about science, you have to be super, super particular and be very, very specific,” Ellie said. “But whenever you find that one it’s like, ‘Ah hah! Here we are. Here we are. We found it.’”
Despite the hurdles, she is known for her positive attitude.
“There’s been plenty of times when she probably had reason to feel down on herself, and maybe did for a little bit, but she was always able to pick herself back up and refocus and get going,” Christopher Swan said. “I think that shows an incredible amount of self-confidence and fortitude.”
A year from now, Ellie plans on taking the MCAT and starting the application process for medical school. She wants to eventually become a dermatologist.
In the meantime, she will be in the Angelovici lab diving into what’s goes on at the molecular level.
Katie Horton feels most at home in the shady woods of the Southeastern United States, so much so that she can name and give out a few facts about almost all of the plants.
Horton, a graduate student in the Walter Gassmann lab at Bond Life Sciences Center, moved to Columbia in August, and has a lot to learn about plants native to the Midwest.
“One of the things I’ve struggled with so far is that I don’t know many of the plants here in Columbia by sight. There are some that are pretty widespread and regular, like I recognized most of the weedy-type plants, but we didn’t have Cottonwoods where I am from and that’s one of the biggest trees here,” Horton said. “I can’t wait to get out and hike the trails and look at all of the plants.”
A plant lover through and through, Horton had more than 50 houseplants the last time she counted.
“My boyfriend and I try to make a garden anywhere we go,” Horton said. “We always tell our friends that if they’re doing yard work and if they pay for the plants, they can call us and we’ll do all the planting and design work. We’re in the process of making a garden for food and for flowers at our current rental.”
This energy has been welcomed in the Gassmann lab where she has already taken some undergraduate students under her wing and is planning her own project.
“It’s honestly impressive how much she knows about plants, like the Latin names and the diseases that they might encounter. She can even look at something that she doesn’t know and go through a list of what type of leaves it has, and so on, and make a conclusion,” Sam Smith said.
Smith, an undergraduate student in the Gassmann lab, has become close with Horton in her short time there.
“One time I had finished all of my stuff for the day, and she wanted to show me a flower that bloomed on campus the day before,” Smith said. “So, we left the lab and walked across campus to see it. Once we got to the flower, she was able to tell me its name and a bunch of facts about it. Mizzou is a botanical garden so she’s basically having a field day.”
While Horton is having fun as a graduate student, this all almost did not happen. When she first went to college, she flunked out, and almost flunked out a second time, too.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” Horton said. “It got to the point where if I failed chemistry one more time, I wouldn’t have been able to be a biology student anymore. I’ve never really seen quitting as an option, though, and as soon as I became interested in botany and plant sciences, that was my only goal. There’s no quitting in life, I can’t just sit down and say ‘okay I’m done,’ I have to keep going. The sun is going to come up again, you can’t just stop.”
Horton credits her previous advisor at the University of North Georgia for keeping her on track.
“The most important thing is finding a mentor or advisor that you really mesh with and is excited about the things that you’re excited about,” Horton said. “If I hadn’t had teachers and professors take an interest in me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
In addition to helping in the Gassmann lab, Horton is also a part of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society (SABS), where she shares her love of plants with others.
SABS has their own science publication and provide scholarships to students and professionals for their botanical research.
“It is a really great way to do outreach for students and to get young people involved in botany,” Horton said. “I want to help rejuvenate the membership needs and get people excited about native ecosystemms and the way that things interact with each other.”
Even though she does not live in the Southeastern United States anymore, Horton is able to stay connected to the program online.
“We mostly meet online because we’re from all over the southeast,” Horton said. “I am able to meet all these botanists from the whole southeast and we share pictures with each other, and I think it’s great, the sense of community that it builds, and the outreach that you get, being part of something that is so wide.”
In the meantime, Horton is preparing for her first committee meeting for her graduate project here at Bond LSC, and plans on going on many hikes this summer.
“I’ve got plans out to go hiking with friends already,” Horton said. “We’ve got plant people, bird people, insect people…It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
When Chiemerie Azubuogu announced his new position in the Bond Life Sciences Center on his LinkedIn page, he thought back to when he first came to the U.S. from Nigeria eight years ago.
“If I get into a time machine and go back to that particular date on the 23rd of August 2013 and meet myself there in the airport and tell myself, ‘Hey, in 2020, you have finished your bachelor’s, and you’ll be going to Ph.D. program,’ I’d probably doubt myself like, ‘Man, get out of here,’” Azubuogu said.
Azubuogu joined the Micheal Petris lab in March as a Ph.D. student.
“This current milestone of mine is one of my proudest moments,” Azubuogu said. “I know there are a lot of them to come, but I just treat every milestone as one of my proudest.”
Azubuogu gravitated towards the Petris lab during his rotation through the labs on campus because of its unique approach to cancer research looking at the intrinsic requirement for copper in tumorigenesis and metastasis.
Copper is a trace mineral in the body that helps with forming red blood cells, brain development and other vital processes. While normal cells take in copper, tumor cells grown in mice have a much higher copper uptake. The Petris lab aims to target this vulnerability to kill cancerous cells.
“What I’ve experienced with [cancer research] is either developing targeted radiolabeled particles against biomarkers on cancer cells which binds and kills the cancer cells, or you can develop imaging agents used for cancer diagnosis, but I haven’t approached the problem as looking at those nutrients that provide nourishment for the cancer cells,” Azubuogu said.
His drive toward cancer research began when he was growing up.
“Nigeria is still a developing country,” Azubuogu said. “We have a lot of stuff going on. A lot of development is happening, but there are still some shortcomings, especially in the healthcare sector.”
Azubuogu said these shortcomings involve a lack of hospital facilities and diagnostic equipment, among other things.
“I would say [I have] a passion in me to try to get into the workforce to try to address those issues,” Azubuogu said. “I just really want to contribute to the field of healthcare or medicine or science.”
His broad ambition narrowed when he was an undergraduate at the University of California in San Diego. He didn’t know whether to go into drug manufacturing, diagnostics or medicine. His mentor at the time, Dr. Schmid-Schönbein, steered Azubuogu towards research.
“He put me on the path of actually exploring research…during my orientation at UCSD, he told me that ‘As a researcher, you can enable thousands and thousands of doctors to save lives,’” Azubuogu said.
He found his niche in cancer research because of its global presence and the healthcare issues in Nigeria.
Azubuogu’s journey to this point hasn’t been an easy one. Obstacles like waiting more than six years for a visa, working as an independent student and dealing with the inferiority complex that comes with being a minority in STEM challenged him.
He credits his ability to overcome these obstacles and his success to his support system of research mentors and family.
“One of my proudest moments I have witnessed and one of the moments that encourages me the most is watching [my father] step up to receive his doctorate,” Azubuogu said. “He was able to achieve that feat while still taking care of his family and working full time.”
Azubuogu said his father had to give up his education to get into an apprenticeship at a young age to help his parents and siblings. Though his father loved education and learning, he never had the opportunity to pursue an education in Nigeria.
When Azubuogu’s father came to the U.S. in the early 2000s, he pursued his passion for education, starting with evening adult classes at a nearby high school. When Azubuogu and his three siblings came to the U.S., his father was working on his doctorate, which he received in 2016.
“No matter how much I work, I’m not going to work as much as my father, who took care of a family of five, and he still got his doctorate,” Azubuogu said. “It kind of makes me draw more inspiration from that and it just keeps me going.”
While Azubuogu will be at Bond LSC for at least five years, he plans to join a biotech or biopharmaceutical company after graduating. He also envisions himself going back to Nigeria to help with cancer diagnoses and therapeutics research with the hope of someday establishing his own biotech company in Nigeria.
Growing up in the countryside of Pakistan, Teka Khan did not have a science class in high school. In fact, his first science class was in college and it was in English — a language he did not know at the time.
“First I had to understand the word meaning. So, what I did for physics, chemistry, and biology is I bought a dictionary,” Khan said. “I had to translate each and every word, and then I had to understand them, so I wrote down the meaning of each word. Sometimes I look back and think, ‘how did I do that?’”
Now a postdoctoral fellow in the Michael Roberts’ lab, Khan knows his stuff, and wants to give back to his community in Pakistan.
To do so, he helps with the Youth Educational & Welfare Organization in Mattani, Peshawar, Pakistan (YEWOM).
YEWOM promotes educational and welfare activities in hopes of improving the community and making students productive people in society.
“We usually have different types of activities,” Khan said. “We visit different schools to observe if there are any deficiencies in quality of learning, if there’s water or if there aren’t any toilets for the kids. Depending on the cost, we try to fix it. If the cost is beyond our limit, we try to find a funding agency or consult NGOs in the government organization.”
Khan was president of YEWOM for two years and still helps out even though he now lives over 7,000 miles away.
“From here, I usually give them suggestions,” Khan said. “So right now I’m contributing by sharing my own experiences, because I’m one of the senior most in the organization. We always promote the young people so they can learn how to lead the community. We provide them the platform to grow.”
Khan has always had a passion for helping others. To him, it is the best way to become a good person.
“It is necessary for each and every human being to do some work to live,” Khan said. “I’m a researcher, somebody will be a teacher, somebody will be a businessman, and so on. The ultimate goal is to get the resources for life, which we are doing for ourselves. But it doesn’t matter how much I’m a good scientist or how rich a businessman is, what matters is if we are good human beings, to me, that is most important. Everyone should be firstly a good human being then you can do other things.”
Toshi Ezashi, research professor in the Roberts lab, has witnessed this positive attitude firsthand.
“He spent a long time to come here but he never gave up and eventually came here in March ,” Ezashi said. “He tried to invite his family here around June, but then the pandemic happened. I think it was hard to him because he couldn’t see them for such an extended time. I don’t think they were able to join him until last November, but he didn’t complain. He just put all of his time and energy into the science and research. Even after his family joined him, he’s still passionate about his work.”
In the lab, Khan is working on developing trophoblasts in the early stages of the human placenta using embryonic stem cells.
“Sometimes experiments don’t work, but he doesn’t get upset,” Ezashi said. “He might be feeling bad, but he doesn’t project that onto others and never gets discouraged by failure. He just keeps pressing forward and tries to improve.”
This tenacity has paid off for Khan. He has developed protocol for isolating nuclei from trophoblast cells and is publishing that work soon.
Now that Khan has settled down here at Bond LSC, he plans on continuing to help others and promote educational opportunities.
“I like to say that as a biologist we can understand the nature of almost all animals,” Khan said. “We can understand if you are just doing things for yourself because every animal is doing things for themselves. As a social animal, humans give back to others. You have to try to give back to other people and help out.”