Pre-conference Musings: Academic Diversification

A few days ago, my labmates and I had lunch with Dr. Pietro De Camilli, Eugene Higgins Professor of Cell Biology and Neurobiology at Yale University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and (among many, many other honors) recipient of the Bernard Katz Award for Excellence in Research on Exocytosis and Endocytosis by the Biophysical Society in 2012.  Over sandwiches and chips, he told us the story of his impressive academic journey.

His experiences spanned from medical school at the University of Milan, to studying the mechanisms of secretion and expanding our understanding of endo- and exocytosis.  At Yale, he took a cell biologist’s eye to the field of neuroscience to study the molecular mechanisms and regulation of synaptic vesicles.  From there, his work took him to understanding how phosphoinositide metabolism regulated vesicle recycling, and then back to the bedside, where he investigated human diseases caused by defects in membrane dynamics.

The morale of this story, said Dr. De Camilli, (quaintly using the Italian word for it), is the importance of diversifying your academic training.  Your individual experiences shape you into a one-of-a-kind scientist, which ultimately gives you a unique perspective on scientific questions.

I found myself nodding enthusiastically.

Without really knowing it myself, diversifying was something I had started to do already.  My undergraduate work was in molecular biology and bacteriology, where I studied the mechanisms of quorum-sensing in establishing symbiosis.  When I interviewed for Immunology graduate programs back in 2011, I was often met with a quizzical (but interested) brow – in reality, the leap from trying to understand how bacteria communicate to wanting to understand how the immune system fights them isn’t too far of a leap!  As a rotation student, I transitioned from being a microbiologist to a cell biologist (proud to say my first attempt at tissue culture did NOT result in contamination).  And as I scoped out the spectrum of Immunology research at Stanford, I found myself attracted to something I never expected to be attracted to and knew very little about: store-operated calcium channels and signaling in immune cells.

Currently, my knowledgebase continues to be more cell biological than biophysical, although my understanding of ion channel gating and electrophysiology has greatly improved thanks to the work of my labmates (speaking of whom, check out Michelle Yen’s poster #1601 titled “STIM1 BINDS TO PAIRS OF ORAI1 SUBUNITS TO OPEN THE CRAC CHANNEL” on Monday and Franklin Mullins’ platform presentation “ORAI1 PORE MUTATIONS AND CALCIUM-DEPENDENT INACTIVATION” on Wednesday!)

For me, the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting is an opportunity to reinforce what I know, to learn a lot of new things relevant to my own research, and also to learn about cool things outside my field.  It is one of hopefully many more chances in my graduate training that will expand and diversify what I know.

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