BPS Summer Research Program: TA Spotlight

Next week, the 2016 Biophysical Society Summer Research Program in Biophysics comes to a close. We caught up with two of the program’s teaching assistants, Kevin Knight and Sam Stadmiller, to learn about their current research, how they became interested in biophysics, and what they’ve enjoyed about the program. 


Kevin Knight

TA_Kevin KnightHow did you get started in science in general and biophysics in particular?

I got really interested in science after I did a summer REU (undergraduate research) program at the University of Kansas. My home institution did not offer research in the natural sciences, so this was truly my first exposure to research. The De Guzman lab at KU was an NMR lab that studied bacterial proteins involved in pathogenesis. I got to personally run NMR experiments on my protein to discover which regions bound to proteins on the host cell surface. The project consumed all of my time that summer, and ever since then I have been fascinated with biophysics and science as a whole.

Are other members of your family involved in science? If not, what sort of work were your parents involved in while you were growing up?

I had almost no relatives involved in science other than one aunt who works to ensure hospitals are meeting safety requirements. My mother and father both worked for Boeing, an aerospace company. Both were strictly on the business end, but I heard plenty about new planes and technologies that the engineers and developers were creating while I was growing up. I’ve always loved to know how things worked and naturally, that love started with airplanes.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up just outside of St. Louis, Missouri in Ballwin, Missouri. It’s mostly suburban with plenty of rivers, creeks, and parks to explore.

What schools have you attended? What degrees do you hold?

I attended an all male private high school (not uncommon for people from Saint Louis) and then went to a very small liberal arts school called Missouri Baptist University. I played varsity volleyball there all four years and graduated with a bachelor’s in science in three disciplines: chemistry, biochemistry, and biology.

What is your current position? Please describe any current projects or research.

I am currently a graduate student in Dr. Henrik Dohlman’s lab working on G proteins. My research centers around three mutations that work to suppress G protein signaling by distinct mechanisms. I am trying to determine how these mutations function so that eventually, I can develop a small molecule drug that will do the same thing. The research I do is at the interface of biophysics, structural biology, and pharmacology.

Why did you want to be a TA for the BPS Summer Research Program? What has been your favorite aspect of the course? What has been the biggest challenge?

I wanted to TA for the summer course because I had heard great things about it from a previous TA and I thought it would be a great way to give back to a program that has taught me so much in this past year. My favorite aspect of the course I think has been watching an incredibly diverse group of students from different scientific disciplines come together to learn biophysics and become friends.

Who is someone you admire, and why?

I admire my mother for working her way through college and eventually a master’s degree on her own. Then, through hard work, intelligence, and perseverance she worked her way up through the ranks of a largely male dominated company for more than three decades to become a senior director while raising my brother and I for the past twenty years. Her work ethic, determination, poise, and problem solving ability continue to inspire me to this very day.

What are your future plans for your career/research?

Currently, I like the idea of becoming a research professor and running my own lab. However, I think there is definitely a part of me that wants to try my hand at creating a small startup with some of my fellow scientists. I am only in my first year of my PhD so I’m sure those goals are bound to change, but that is where I am currently.


Sam Stadmiller

Stadmiller_S_PhotoHow did you get started in science in general and biophysics in particular?

At the beginning of my undergraduate career I thought that I wanted to be a medical doctor, so chose biochemistry as a major. As I got more involved with my coursework, I realized my passion for science, and that being a medical doctor was not for me. Once I started undergraduate research, I was sold. I wanted a scientific career studying the how and why of biological processes. The interdisciplinary nature of biophysics along with the elegant biological questions that the field works to answer are what attracted me to participate in the graduate biophysics training program at UNC Chapel Hill.

Are other members of your family involved in science? If not, what sort of work were your parents involved in while you were growing up?

Neither my mother nor my father were involved in science. My dad owned a franchise of a closet company and my mom works in accounting doing billing for travel nurses.

Did you have any mentors, role models, or experiences that sparked your interest in science? If so, can you tell us a little about them?

 I have been fortunate to have multiple great mentors. Chemistry was always my favorite subject and I owe that to two great high school chemistry teachers. In undergrad, I had a wonderful research advisor, Dr. Julie Champion, as well as a great graduate student mentor, Tim Chang. They both pushed me to be a better scientist and provided constructive feedback on every aspect of my research. It was this wonderful lab environment that fostered my scientific curiosity and motivated me to apply to graduate school. I also have to thank my parents for always allowing me to pursue my own interests and for supporting me no matter what.

 Where did you grow up?

Suwanee, Georgia which is just north of Atlanta.

 What schools have you attended? What degrees do you hold?

I have a B.S. in Biochemistry with a minor in Materials Science and Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. I am currently attending UNC Chapel Hill for graduate studies in Biological Chemistry.

What is your current position? Please describe any current projects or research.

I am currently conducting graduate research in Dr. Gary Pielak’s lab at UNC. My current project focuses on understanding the role of protective small molecules (osmolytes) on protein stability in response to cellular stresses using in-cell protein NMR.

What are the further implications and/or applications of this research?

This work is important as it focuses on studying proteins in the cell where macromolecular concentrations can exceed 300 g/L. This work can not only provide a physiological explanation   for the accumulation of osmolytes in stressed bacterial cells, but it is also a step forward to understanding biological processes in their native environment rather than in dilute buffer systems.

Why did you want to be a TA for the BPS Summer Research Program? What has been your favorite aspect of the course? What has been the biggest challenge?

I have always enjoyed teaching. From coaching gymnastics to teaching general chemistry labs, I love interacting with students and watching them get excited about science. I particularly wanted to be a TA for the BPS Program because it gives me the opportunity to teach something that I am passionate about. My favorite aspect thus far is watching the students transform and grow into future scientists. The biggest challenge is trying to communicate ideas effectively to students from diverse educational backgrounds simultaneously.

Name someone you admire and explain why.

Dorothy Hodgkin for being one of the first female scientists to work in the field of x-ray crystallography of biomolecules.

What are your future plans for your career/research?

As a first year graduate student, I am still considering and exploring multiple career options.

 What do you like to do when you’re not busy in the lab?

I try to stay active and love doing anything outdoors, especially hiking. I also enjoy           experimenting in the kitchen.

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