Graduate Student Profiles

Four of our current students write about their experiences below. To learn more about the range of research being conducted in the department, please take a look at recent dissertation titles and publications by our graduate students.

Derek StefanikNelsa Estrella

Cell and Molecular Biology 

As a child I was captivated by the crime television show FBI’s Unsolved Mysteries which solved crimes using cutting edge laboratory techniques to link suspects to crime scenes. Never having been exposed to the concept of DNA, I found it amazing that suspects could be identified by blood, saliva or even a single strand of hair. I found myself completely entranced by the idea that I could be the one conducting molecular experiments in a lab and making discoveries. Several years later I had a chance to fulfill this desire.

My first research experience was in Philadelphia at the Monell Chemical Senses Center where I began as a summer apprentice after graduating from high school and remained as a part-time research assistant throughout college. While at Monell, I developed an understanding of human subject research, research ethics, and basic laboratory techniques. My research focused on psychogenomic and molecular genetic experiments with the goal of identifying genes involved in taste perception. Concomitantly, I performed research in a bioinformatics lab as an undergraduate at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. While there, I developed whole genome microarray technology for the identification of phylogenetically conserved DNA sequences. Because of the fundamental importance of genes to all biology, I decided to apply to PhD programs in order to continue basic genetic studies with the hope of eventually conducting translational genetic research.

I was initially attracted to BU by the plethora of available research opportunities. In addition, I found that BU fostered a supportive and collaborative environment, making me feel welcome. I am currently a Ph.D. student in Dr. Frank Naya’s lab. Our research primarily focuses on investigating the distinct roles of the MEF2 family of transcription factors, which have been shown to play critical roles in muscle development, disease, and regeneration. Vertebrates have four related Mef2 genes, however, mutations in the individual Mef2 genes result in different phenotypes. These observations suggest they each have distinct functions in muscle but little is known about the gene programs each factor uniquely regulates. Presently, we aim to functionally characterize MEF2-dependent gene programs in striated muscle.

Kellen Andrilenas

Cell and Molecular Biology 

Throughout my scientific career I have been interested in how complex biological systems emerge from fundamental principles and mechanisms. I am currently pursuing this interest as a PhD student in the lab of Dr. Trevor Siggers. Our lab studies the innate immune system and inflammation from a systems biology perspective. We use high-throughput techniques, like Protein Binding Microarrays, to elucidate how protein complexes and protein-DNA interactions generate the regulatory logic responsible for signal-dependent gene expression in vital immune responses. With a biochemical model of cellular signal integration at the DNA level, we hope to better understand inflammatory dysregulation and the impact of human genetic variation (SNPs) on disease.

I began my undergraduate career at the University of Washington (UW, “U-Dub”) in Seattle, WA where I received Bachelors of Science degrees in Biology and Psychology. My academic career has been one of iterative refinement of my interests, which has exposed me to a broad range of subjects. I started at the UW thinking that I would go into computer science, but found I was far more intrigued by how human brains worked than writing code. After volunteering in a cognitive linguistics lab for a year, I realized that I needed to pursue biology to reach the level of explanatory power I was searching for.

I really found my passion for research during an Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL). Our laboratory studied the evolutionary origins of nervous systems by looking at gene expression and neurotransmitters in basal organisms like ctenophores and hemichordates. I returned to FHL many times to continue the research I started under the guidance of Dr. Leonid Moroz (University of Florida) and Dr. Billie Swalla (University of Washington). My time at FHL ignited my interest in molecular biology and cemented my decision to pursue graduate school. I chose Boston University because of the people and environment. After interview weekend I knew that I had found an institution with exciting research opportunities and a high quality of life.

Iker EtchegarayIker Etchegaray


The start of my scientific life began as an undergraduate. I started school at BU in the fall of 04’ and at the beginning I was looking to study anything that didn’t involve doing more than a bachelor’s (In other words no PhD). I was completely undecided, trying out various majors including but not limited to journalism, linguistics, and sociology. However, BU has a 2 class science requirement and one of the classes that I took to satisfy it was biology. After a couple lectures, I completely fell in love with the subject. It boggled my mind that nature, and in particular the brain, could be so sophisticated in its machinations. At that point I decided to become a Biology major concentrating in Neuroscience. Once I became a major in Biology I came to the conclusion that lab experience was the best way to get a job after college. With that in mind I started conducting research with Dr. Susan Tsunoda. In particular I was trying to uncover the mechanisms of signaling translocation in the compound eye of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. While trying to discover how these tiny little suckers were able to move proteins responsible for producing what they consider vision, I ironically dropped the no more school attitude and decided to pursue a PhD.

Fast forwarding to the present, I am now a PhD candidate working in the lab of Dr. Kim McCall and surprisingly I still work on the fruit fly. Specifically I work on elucidating the effectors of cell removal, through phagocytosis, in the Drosophila ovary. The Drosophila ovary is a great model for studying phagocytosis. Upon the removal of amino acids from a fly’s diet, the ovaries start to undergo cell death. It is during this time that cells in the ovary, termed follicle cells, begin to remove dead cells that have accumulated in this organ. To study cell removal in the ovary, we use immunohistochemistry and genetics to discover the mechanisms underlying this process. I also plan to work on the brain of the fly. In particular I want to uncover the processes controlling the response that brain phagocytes, glia, engage in when presented with cell death. Hopefully these tiny little suckers will help me once more in answering these engaging questions.

McCarthyElizabeth McCarthy


I received my undergraduate degree in Biology from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I have always loved science, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to focus, so over the course of my undergrad I worked in a Chemistry lab, a Neurobiology lab and even took a semester to do field work in the rain forest of Australia.  After graduating, I also worked for two years in an Immunology lab before entering graduate school in the NEURO program in the Biology Department at BU. The study of neurobiology is both fascinating and challenging, as it brings together so many different aspects of biology and research techniques.
I came to BU because there were multiple faculty members doing exciting research, great research facilities and there was to be a sense of community among the graduate students. I also liked that the program was very interdisciplinary and would allow me to explore the multiple areas of Neurobiology.  I am currently a PhD student working with Dr. Michael Baum and Dr. James Cherry.  Our lab is interested in the role of the main and accessory olfactory systems in pheromone detection and the display of courtship behaviors in adult mice.  I am using optogenetics to selectively inhibit mitral cell projections from either the accessory olfactory bulb or the main olfactory bulb to the medial  amygdala (a critical brain structure for mating behavior)  to determine how silencing these projections in female mice impacts  both pheromone processing and mating behavior. While at BU, I have been a member of the Biology Graduate Student Association, a graduate student organization that organizes events that encourage the sharing of research though lectures, professional development seminars and social events for the department.  I have also participated in science out-reach programs through BU, such as BIOBUGS, where graduate students works with local high school students to expose them to inquiry-based science activities.


Allison Gill

Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution

I received my first taste of the scientific process as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College.  As a biology major, I took great courses with dynamic professors that provided a solid foundation in classical ecology and evolutionary theory, but it was independent research experiences that inspired me to go on in science. My research focused on the influence of invasive species on meadow plant community composition although as my research questions evolved, I became increasingly interested in the role of plant-microbial interactions in community ecology and ecosystem function. Adrien Finzi’s lab at Boston University therefore provided a great opportunity to delve further into ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry as I began my graduate career.

My dissertation research focuses on the role of plant-microbial interactions in soil organic matter decomposition and soil carbon storage in peatland systems. Although peatlands are a major global carbon sink, the environmental and ecological mechanisms that foster carbon accumulation and the potential influence of climate change on this globally important ecosystem service remain unclear. I am therefore using a natural water table gradient in a Maine peatland to explore the role of water table associated changes in plant community composition and root biomass on microbial community structure, enzyme production, and rates of soil organic matter decomposition. I am also monitoring the isotopic composition of methane and carbon dioxide fluxes at the Department of Energy’s SPRUCE (Spruce and Peatland Resposnes to Climate and Environmental Change) Experiment near Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The SPRUCE experiment will study the integrated impacts of experimental warming and elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations on greenhouse gas production in peatlands. The surface isotopic gas flux measurements allow us to separate the influence of warming and eCO2 on plant and microbial greenhouse gas production pathways. The project is part of a large multi-investigator project spearheaded by the Department of Energy and the USDA Forest Service. It therefore provides a great opportunity to work with scientists from all over the country.

BU has been an ideal fit for my graduate work. The Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution group within the Biology Department has diverse faculty with a wide range of expertise that provide unique perspectives on research questions and methodology. BU’s unique Biogeoscience Program also brings together research groups and graduate students focused at the interface of earth sciences, hydrology, ecosystem ecology, biogeochemistry, and much more.  Weekly journal discussions, seminars, and collaborative projects engender a high degree of interdisciplinary interaction that has greatly broadened my scientific worldview.


Stephen Decina

Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution

Most six-year-olds want to visit amusement parks.  For me, however, there was no better place in the world than the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  My young mind was obsessed with nature, and when my parents would ask me what I wanted to do on a weekend, invariably the museum was the answer.  In a pulse of inspiration, I dreamed of being a paleontologist and working at the La Brea Tar Pits.  Like many other pulses in young natural systems, however, my passion for nature was short-lived, leached away by the inert suburban rainwaters that surrounded me.  As with any other equilibrium process, my glut of passion for nature, not shared by the masses around me, was quickly drained until I maintained the same trace level of concern for nature that was characteristic of the bedrock of my hometown.

Fortunately for me, however, cycles are a reality of life.  A fortuitous stint in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Washington State bonded me to people who adored nature, and my sink of passion for natural science was quickly refilled and overflowing again, like it had been in my youth.   I knew I needed to drastically alter the focus of my career from that which my first degree in accounting and finance afforded me.  Consequently, as I transitioned into teaching middle school science in Newark, NJ, I began the long process of obtaining a second degree, this time in biology, from Rutgers University.  Ultimately, field courses in plant biology, three months backpacking through Patagonia, and fieldwork in the Canadian Rockies fixed my zeal for nature into a permanently immobilized love of plants and plant ecology.

I joined Dr. Pamela Templer’s lab in 2013, driven by a profound desire to understand the way that plants and soil regulate the biogeochemical nutrient cycles of nitrogen and carbon, and how those cycles are themselves coupled and influence one another.  The years that I spent teaching in the metropolitan centers of Newark, NJ and New York City have also given me a keen interest in urban ecology, sustainability, environmental justice, and education.  I am looking forward to designing research that marries biogeochemical cycling to urban sustainability, with an imperative to reduce the footprint of our urban centers and make them more livable for humans and the rest of the resident biota.  The strength of the biogeochemistry faculty and a true collaborative spirit and wide range of disciplines among all natural science faculty at Boston University lay a strong foundation for me from which to build my career as a scientist.  I am honored to be in Dr. Templer’s lab and a member of such a dynamic and motivated university community.

BurmesterElizabeth Burmester

Marine Biology

Since childhood, I have always had a natural curiosity about science and nature, particularly the ocean.  As an undergraduate biology major at Franklin and Marshall College, I worked with Dr. Peter Fields on projects investigating the ability of sub-tidal animals to deal with environmental stressors on multiple biological levels.  For my senior thesis, I characterized the effects of acute heat stress on marine and estuarine mussels using shotgun proteomics and mass spectrometry.  While in college, I also had the opportunity to study abroad in the Turks and Caicos Islands with the School for Field Studies.  There, I investigated the efficacy of one of the local marine parks- the Admiral Cockburn Land and Sea National Park in South Caicos- and became particularly interested in coral conservation.  It was after these two important undergraduate experiences that I realized I had an affinity towards scientific research and an earnest interest in coral health and how keystone species like corals are impacted by environmental stress.


My research at Boston University revolves around coral health, recovery, and resilience. Here at BU, I work in the labs of Dr. John Finnerty and Dr. Les Kaufman, as well as with Dr. Randi Rotjan at the New England Aquarium.  My dissertation focuses on wound healing (and the ability of corals to heal from wounds as a model for recovery) in a species of temperate coral found in New England. Unlike most tropical corals, Astrangia poculata has a facultative relationship with its key algal symbiont (Symbiodinium sp.- which provide up to 95% of the energy of obligate tropical corals) and can be found in healthy, stable conditions both symbiotically and asymbiotically.  Working with this species offers us the unique opportunity to investigate recovery in corals with and without Symbiodinium.  This task is impossible with most tropical corals because of the environmental and internal stresses that, respectively, cause and result from a breakdown in the coral-algal symbiosis.

Working at Boston University has offered me a suite of different and interesting teaching opportunities in the field of marine biology- from marine genomics to urban ecology to field courses in Belize focusing on the ecology of corals and other tropical invertebrates.  I’ve also been able to get involved in different outreach programs, such as BU Summer Pathways Program, which introduces high school girls to different careers in science.

Benjamin H. C. CarrBenjamin H. C. Carr

Marine Biology

I received my bachelor's degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University with a specialization in Marine Biology. Dr. Charles Greene and Dr. Bruce Monger of the Geology Department, now the more aptly-named “Earth and Atmospheric Sciences” Department, advised my research project which used IDL programs to analyze ocean color data derived from the NASA SeaWIFS satellite. The research tracked the start of spring phytoplankton bloom events in the North Atlantic.

After graduating I worked on two projects with Dr. Mark Bain at the, now closed, Center for the Environment at Cornell University. The first project studied the biocomplexity of Lake Ontario and its tributary rivers and bays. When the field season for that project came to an end I moved to a position on a project analyzing the estuarine environment along the eastern Hudson River, south of the George Washington Bridge. We spent many weeks aboard the R/V Acipenser, dodging ice flows and piling fields trying to ascertain the health of inter-pier communities that had been damaged by dredging. Which was balanced by lots of time in the warm lab; huddled over a microscope, identifying invertebrates to species, often by their number of sex organs. I then spent two field seasons working under Dr. Roy Stein at the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory at Ohio State University as the head technician on a walleye parental influence study on Lake Erie.

Over the years I have also been involved in oceanographic work, beginning as a hydrographer on the last Western Atlantic GLOBEC broad scale survey for NOAA with Dr. Peter Wiebe as Chief Scientist, aboard the now retired (and very seasickness inducing) Albatross IV out of Woods Hole, MA. I also served as the Chief Hydrographer on a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution cruise from Newfoundland to Greenland and then to Iceland. My job just before joining the BU PhD program was as a Research Associate in the Physical Oceanography Department at WHOI. There most of my time was spent on the ARGO Float network and the remotely operated SPRAY Gliders. One of the greatest perks of this job was getting to launch and recover the gliders from a variety of vessels like the Sea Education Association’s sailing vessel SSV Corwith Cramer, commercial fishing boats like the MV Moreau out of New Bedford, and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences’ RV Henry M. Stommel and RV Weatherbird II, including one cruise on the latter as Chief Scientist.

I am member of Dr. Les Kaufman’s lab where I am analyzing the long-term dynamics of marine ecosystems in the Northwest Atlantic. Central to my research are the exploitation and conservation of two species; the Atlantic Cod (Gadus Morhua), a species fished in the region for hundreds of years, long before permanent European settlement; and the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus Thynnus), a fish that is principally flash frozen, shipped around the world, and consumed as sushi in Japan. My project however looks at more than just these two focal species and takes a more holistic approach to studying the region. I am trying to bridge the gap between basic science and the decisions that affect conservation and policy.

My hope is that my research will in some small way contribute to the creation of Ecosystem Based Fishery Management and Marine Spatial Planning for the area.

Since joining BU I have also served as Vice-President and President of the Biology Graduate Student Association (BGSA), a great organization that brings together all of the disciplines under the Biology Department “umbrella,” allowing the sharing of research and ideas and fostering a sense of community. This past year I was a GLACIER (Global Change Initiative, Education, and Research) GK-12 fellow placed at the Graham and Parks K-8 School in Cambridge, MA. There I helped teach and enrich 7th and 8th grade science classes and curriculum, also serving as a role model and an example of a professional scientist. I look forward to the 2011-2012 school year where I will again be a GK-12 fellow in a middle school, however my placement has not yet been finalized.

New PhD Students

Benjamin H. C. CarrGloria DeWalt


What sparked my curiosity about science was how much it affects us all as we ARE science (every time I take a moment to think about the complex reactions that are happening in the human body I am wowed). What kept me interested in science was the need to understand more and to question what is currently known. During my undergraduate studies at Dickinson College I was fortunate to take courses that raised awareness of the missteps that often exist between scientists and laymen. This inspired me to combine my love of writing and science to inform the public without losing the essential nuances of science.

After graduating from Dickinson I spent three years working both in the medical field and as a freelance writer for several newspapers in Southern California. Interviewing experts from varied disciplines (both within and outside of medicine) caused me to appreciate research more than I already did. Although I did an undergraduate research project in an exercise physiology laboratory, much of what I wanted to become better versed in were cellular and molecular techniques. This desire motivated me to pursue a research based master’s. What attracted me to Boston University was the abundance of research options available and that the faculty sincerely cares about the well-being of their graduate students.

I researched traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the laboratory of Dr. William Eldred. TBI has gained considerable momentum within the last decade due to a severe dearth of knowledge regarding its underlying pathology. We are establishing a protocol that will induce reproducible blast pressures to simulate blast injury in cultured rat hippocampal neurons. Our goal is to identify pertinent molecules and signaling pathways involved in the progression of TBI using various molecular techniques and quantitative image analysis. With insight into the development of trauma firmly established we will examine therapies to alleviate its progression. What I have come to appreciate most about my academic experience in Boston thus far is the collaborative atmosphere. Good science is never performed in isolation. Several of our current projects are in collaboration with labs here on the Charles River Campus (Dr. Hengye Man), Medical Campus (Dr. Lee Goldstein), Children’s Hospital (Dr. James Akula) and The Veteran’s Administration (Dr. Joseph Rizzo). I recently was admitted as a new PhD student in the Neurobiology program, and I am currently involved in the rotation process of my first year. I am very excited to continue on with my studies at Boston University!