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.
Cell and Molecular Biology
I am currently a PhD student in the lab of Dr. John Finnerty. I received a bachelor of arts degree in biology from Lafayette College; however, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated, so I took some time to explore a variety of ways to use my biology degree: I interned as an aquarist at the New Jersey State Aquarium, participated in field research in southwestern Madagascar with Frontier Conservation, and then spent the next two years as a lab technician in a stem cell lab at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine under Dr. Sunday Akintoye. My two years as a lab tech at Penn enabled me to gain experience in cell and molecular biology research – and an affirmation that I liked doing it – that helped me decide to pursue a PhD. In choosing to attend BU, I liked the dynamic and broad range of research topics in which the Biology Department’s faculty and students are engaged, and that the graduate students seemed genuinely happy at BU.
I am currently funded through a NIH predoctoral fellowship to study regeneration in the sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis. Nematostella is a member of the phylum Cnidaria, an ancient lineage of animals whose members -- despite their relatively simple appearance -- are extremely diverse with respect to morphology, development, ecology, and life histories. My work in the Finnerty lab utilizes the natural diversity found between cnidarian taxa to investigate the evolution of developmental mechanisms underlying diverse cnidarian life history trajectories. In addition to studying regeneration, I am also interested in the molecular mechanisms of asexual reproduction and the evolution of parasitism. My research involves bench work, field work, and computer-aided analysis of transcriptome-wide changes in gene expression and phylogenetics.
I am also passionate about communicating and teaching science. BU has several exceptional programs for engaging young students in science, including BIOBUGS, and UBMS. Both programs aim to expose Boston-area high school students to inquiry-based science activities that utilize BU’s educational resources and equipment. BIOBUGS, for which I have volunteered since 2009, is run and staffed entirely by BU graduate students.
Cell and Molecular Biology
I began my involvement in research as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut where I studied molecular and cellular biology. In a lab studying at the interface between organic chemistry and biology, I became familiar with molecular techniques and gained experience in research working on a project studying DNA mutagenesis. It was this experience that inspired me to pursue graduate school.
The breadth of research areas in the Biology department at Boston University allowed me to initially consider a variety of possibilities for thesis research. In addition to being a strong research program in the biotechnology hub of Boston, the Biology department at BU provides many opportunities for students to develop essential career skills, ranging from teaching the sciences to giving presentations. Close proximity to the BU Medical Campus has allowed me to attend lectures and workshops in my research area that bridge basic and clinical research. As a member of the Waxman lab, I study the effects of metronomic chemotherapy with the DNA damaging drug cyclophosphamide on the innate immune system. This work at the molecular and cellular level aims to understand how chemotherapy affects the host defenses in addition to tumor tissue and provides a framework for developing improved cancer drug treatment regimens in the clinic.
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.
I have always liked adventures and exploring beyond what is familiar. This curiosity was one of the reasons why I first decided to leave my native home country Austria and come to the US to do research for my undergraduate degree. Although I was studying Biotechnology in Austria, working for eight months in a developmental neuroscience lab at the Dana- Farber Cancer institute got me really interested in basic research. During my time in Boston I also fell in love with the city which with its unique research environment unites scientists regardless from which country they are from. Therefore, I decided to extend my stay by pursuing a PhD here. Deciding on a specific school was not easy but a good friend of mine at the time gave me an important piece of advice: “Go to the school where the graduate students seem most happy, because you still want to like research by the time you finish your degree!” So I ended up at Boston University. Additionally I was really impressed by the breadth of research in the Biology department that really fosters collaboration across many disciplines.
Because of my former research experience in developmental neuroscience I entered the NEURO program but I actually ended up working more on developmental biology. I joined the Frydman lab where we study how Wolbachia, obligate intracellular bacteria, get transmitted vertically through the female germline of insects. Our lab has evidence that Wolbachia target the stem cell niches that maintain stem cells in the Drosophila ovary. I am currently ending my fourth year of graduate school and being in the graduate program at BU has definitely strengthened my desire to continue a career in science in the future. I am excited to figure out where my next research- adventure will lead me to.
Katie Faust Stryjewski
Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution
Ever since I was young, I have been interested in birds. As an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, I had the opportunity to work in a laboratory at the Museum of Natural History, where I was first exposed to molecular genetics and how to use it to learn about the evolutionary of populations and species. While birds remained my passion, I developed a broader interest in evolution, particularly questions related to the processes of speciation and adaptation.
Here at Boston University in the lab of Dr. Michael Sorenson, I am working with a group of 12 species of estrildid finches in the genus Lonchura that occur in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and surrounding islands. While these birds vary greatly in plumage coloration and to a lesser degree in bill size, they are genetically almost identical, which indicates a very recent, rapid radiation from a common ancestor—one of the fastest reported in birds. Additionally, several of these species have widely overlapping ranges, yet do not appear to extensively interbreed, implying that barriers to gene flow developed very quickly. I am using a combination of field studies, next-generation sequencing methods, and morphological analysis to determine the phylogeographic history of this clade, infer current and past levels of gene flow, look for evidence of reinforcement of reproductive isolating mechanisms, and identify regions of the genome potentially under selection.
Attending Boston University was a perfect fit for my desire to do research combining traditional field ornithology and specimen collection with cutting-edge molecular techniques and analyses. BU’s ever-growing Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution program has faculty engaging in a wide range of research topics and laboratory techniques, and the friendly atmosphere fosters collaboration and discussion among labs. Its location in Boston, the home of so many educational and scientific institutions, puts a number of additional resources in reach. BU has given me the opportunity to pursue my passion, equipping me to explore and discover new things in both the field and the laboratory.
Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution
From the first time I set foot in a forest I have been captivated by the beauty of these ecosystems. While getting my bachelor’s degree at Binghamton University my perspective was broadened and I became intrigued by all things related to the natural world. My research experiences were largely focused on the ecology and behavior of birds and small mammals; however, my research interests always wandered back to forest ecology. I went on to get a master’s degree in forestry at the University of Maine where I studied the impacts of tree harvesting on nutrient cycling in spruce-fir forests. As a master’s student I developed an interest in biogeochemistry and the ‘real world’ applications of ecological research.
After completing my master’s research I was a biologist for a non-profit environmental research institute in New York. I worked with municipalities to incorporate biodiversity conservation into town planning and created a framework for quantifying the carbon footprint of different types of land-use change that could be applied to municipal-level climate change mitigation strategies. Working at the interface between science and policy I became keenly aware of how the gaps in our understanding of ecosystem processes can limit the efficacy of policies aimed at addressing environmental problems. With an interest in improving our understanding of the variables that influence carbon sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems I came to Boston University to work with Dr. Pamela Templer.
My dissertation research is focused on quantifying the role of winter climate change in carbon storage in temperate forests. Forest ecosystems play an important role in mitigating climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; however, the extent to which climate change may alter their ability to store carbon remains uncertain. We are conducting a snow removal experiment at Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts to study the effects of reduced winter snowpack on forest carbon dioxide exchange. We are also looking at the relationships between plant phenology (i.e. timing of leaf-out and root biomass production), photosynthesis, stem carbon dioxide efflux, and soil respiration to elucidate the importance of the interaction of these processes in total ecosystem carbon dioxide exchange.
The Biology Department at Boston University has proven to be a perfect fit for me as I pursue a career in forest ecology and biogeochemistry. The diversity of research interests among students and faculty in the ecology, behavior, and evolution program has fostered the development of unique ways of approaching science. This program has also provided me with opportunities to conduct research at world renowned field sites and collaborate with scientists across many disciplines and from many different universities.
Early on in my undergraduate career at Middlebury College, I decided that I wanted to become a field biologist. As I later developed specific interests in population ecology and population genetics, I decided to complete an undergraduate thesis to figure out if I wanted to apply to graduate school. For my thesis research, I collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and studied historic demographic changes in sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) in Lake Champlain using coalescent models. This experience convinced me to apply to graduate programs and pursue a career in research.
I chose to pursue my Ph.D. at BU because my research interests were a great fit with my advisor, Dr. Peter Buston. The marine program at BU is small, but professors and graduate students work on a diversity of projects both in the lab and at field sites around the world. Our department is friendly and supportive, and Boston is a great city to live in as a graduate student. Since coming here, I’ve been fortunate to split my time between working in the lab in Boston and conducting field work in Belize.
I am generally interested in marine metapopulation dynamics and applied marine conservation research. My dissertation research is focused on quantifying patterns of marine larval dispersal across spatial scales on the Belize barrier reef, using the sponge-dwelling goby Elacatinus lori as a study organism. Using a combination of direct and indirect genetic techniques and GIS spatial analyses, I am quantifying a dispersal kernel for E. lori and developing a predictive framework for linking local-scale dispersal measures to regional-scale dispersal patterns. Such a framework will be important for incorporating population connectivity data into marine conservation planning. This research is part of a larger collaborative project with other members of the Buston lab.
Benjamin H. C. Carr
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.
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 am currently researching 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).