We recently had a chance to catch up with Manuel “Mac” Castro from BPS’s Summer Program in Biophysics Class of 2015. Mac is currently finishing up his BS in Biochemistry, with a focus in Medicinal Chemistry, at Arizona State University (ASU) where he works as a Research Assistant in the Van Horn Lab. Starting in the fall of 2016, Mac has accepted an offer to attend Vanderbilt University through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP), a PhD program intended to help students transition from undergraduate to graduate style biomedical research. Additionally, Mac has also recently been awarded a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.
What is your research focus?
My current research focus in Dr. Van Horn’s lab can be generalized as structural and functional studies of Transient Receptor of Potential (TRP) ion channels, transmembrane proteins that are involved in a plethora of signaling pathways in larger organisms (metazoans). Namely, I work on TRPM8, 1 of 27 TRP channels expressed in humans, which has great implications in pain and cancer therapy and offers an overall better understanding of neurology and physiology. To study these ion channels, I produce the proteins in bacteria, purify them, and probe them using solution –state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and circular dichroism (CD) spectroscopy techniques.
When and how did you first become interested in this type of research?
To be honest, I was thrown into this research as a college sophomore and had no idea what the bigger picture was. However, throughout my time in this lab, I have come to fall in love with both the problems that our research is trying to address and the various techniques we use to address them. Now that my time in this lab is nearing its end, I can say that I enjoy this research because neurology has always been one of my favorite topics in science. The Van Horn lab twists the traditional approaches that neuroscience generally employs by taking a more biochemical and biophysical approach towards understanding how these proteins work both inside and outside of cells.
What was the most important thing you learned or took away from the summer program that helped you get where you are at now?
The summer program was a fantastic review of my physical chemistry, biology, and biochemistry classes. It really solidified what topics from my classes were going to be central to my future as a biomedical scientist. However, I think the most immediately beneficial part of the summer program was working with Dr. Matt Redinbo in his crystallography lab. I learned a series of new techniques while I was there and also solidified my last necessary letter of recommendation for graduate school. Without the experience and connections I attained that summer, I may not have made it where I wanted to be.
What was your favorite thing about the summer program?
My favorite thing about the summer program was how much the people who sponsored the program tried to make the interns feel like they were being taken care of. The hospitality that was offered was unlike anything I had experienced and the excursions that they planned for us made for some of the best memories of my life. I also made some good friends who will likely be so for the rest of my life, and that type of experience is hard to replace.
Have mentors played a role in your success? If so, how?
I have had two impactful mentors during my undergraduate years, and each of them offered different insights in my life. Wade Van Horn helped me turn my education around and would consistently challenge me to do better than I was already doing. He would never accept mediocrity from me and his guidance kept my eyes on the prize (being a successful scientist). David Capco encouraged me to channel my desire to help other students into becoming a legitimate mentor for freshman undergraduates and middle/high-school students alike. My mentoring experience helped me understand the importance of being a mentor to others in a similar way that Drs. Van Horn and Capco were to me. It is safe to say that the person I was before my interactions with them was a very different person than I am today.
What have been some of your toughest challenges so far in advancing your career?
The toughest challenge in my career had to be my grades. In my early college career, I was a terrible student and had no motivation to excel in my classes. This left me at a huge disadvantage after my sophomore year because my GPA hit a trough of cumulative 2.8. Since then, I have had to get basically all As in every class in every semester in order to prove to graduate admissions committees that the person I was in the beginning of college was not who I became during the middle and at the end. I ended up applying to graduate schools with a cumulative GPA of 3.25, which was the best I could get to. However, I plan to make up for my poor decisions by hitting the ground running in graduate school and not letting my prior habits from early undergraduate translate into the future of my career.
What advice would you give for current undergraduates interested in pursuing a higher degree?
Do it. That is my advice. Don’t think too hard about it and just do it. Although, since I have not started graduate school yet, I would argue that my opinion isn’t the most important. Another piece of advice I could give would be that if you are serious about pursuing a higher degree, look into PhD programs and not masters programs. They offer you more training, a more qualified degree, and they will give you great financial support. Don’t sell yourself short and shoot for the stars!