On Becoming a Scientist

170312 Crystals

If I wanted to know about you, dear reader, what stories would you tell me? Would you tell me about your passions? Your dreams? Your jobs?

For me, the source of my passions, my dreams, and my jobs revolves around science.

Science has always been a part of my life. Ever since I can remember, my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has been, “a scientist.” My childhood visions of myself as a scientist had me working in the basement of my house with beakers containing colored liquids and vapors spilling over the rim.

Honestly, my desire to become a scientist stems from second-grade silent reading sessions. In these sessions, I loved reading the encyclopedia and it was after reading about Albert Einstein that I first dreamed of becoming a scientist. As a second grader, I admired Albert. I loved his hair. I loved his fame. Because Einstein was a famous scientist and I also wanted to be famous, it only made logical sense that I should become a scientist too!

In all fairness, becoming a scientist for fame is a recipe for failure, so I am fortunate that I have passions for observing, experimenting, and pursuing the unknown. As a young observer, I would watch crystals form from saturated solutions, create 3D models of the human body, and perform experiments from the books “175 Experiments to do at Home” and “175 More Experiments to do at Home”.

In one home experiment, I watched condensation form on the outside of a cold glass of soda. The experiment wasn’t groundbreaking, but I loved observing and explaining the formation of condensation.

From a fixation on condensation, I eventually developed a passion for virology when one of my 10th grade English assignments was to complete and write about a job shadowing experience. I shadowed Dr. W., a microbiologist at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Milwaukee, WI. During the day, he showed me a tall tower of blood agar plates that he used to diagnose bacteria infections.

When I asked Dr. W. how he diagnosed viruses, he told me that diagnosing viruses was tricky; I was hooked. I knew that in my future job, I wanted to help answer alluring questions such as: How can different viruses be diagnosed? Why do some viruses cause annoying congestion, while other viruses are life threatening? What therapies can we develop to prevent and treat virus infections?

Throughout the rest of high school, my interests in virology subsided as I focused on general chemistry and biology classes. As an undergraduate student, I planned to major in biology but I still wanted to become a virologist, so when I learned about biology subspecialties, I switched my major to microbiology and immunology. What I was amazed to learn was that our immune systems help us to fight both virus infections and cancer; thus began my interests in cancer biology.

After finishing undergraduate school, I became a research technician at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I pursued my interests in cancer biology by studying apoptosis, the death of cells, and angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels. I was finally a scientist!

Despite my studies, I soon realized that I needed further training to be able to comprehend scientific articles such as “Characterization of developmentally-dependent hyperemia induced by epoxyeicosatrienoic acids.” To grasp papers, I knew I needed a PhD.

170312 Cryovial Tubes

When I began my PhD degree in the cancer biology program at the University of Wisconsin, I was surprised to learn that 20% of all human cancers are caused by infectious diseases, particularly viruses (Parkin). More specifically, human papillomavirus, or HPV for short, is responsible for causing 5% of human cancers. While HPV associated cancers can be prevented by vaccines, vaccines are unable to cure existing infections. Furthermore, when an HPV infection persists for many years, the chances for getting cancer are increased.

As a graduate student, I studied how one of the HPV genes, E6, allows the virus to persist. My research suggests that in order for HPV to persist in cells, E6 needs to inactivate the tumor suppressor gene p53 (Lorenz, Rivera Cardona and Lambert). Based on these results, it’s plausible that if we can reactivate this tumor suppressor in HPV infected cells, we may be able to eliminate persistent HPV infections and prevent HPV associated cancers.

Today, as a postdoctoral fellow, a period of research training after graduate school, I still focus on virology and cancer biology. More specifically, I am studying a group of proteins called PIWI proteins, which regulate retroviral genes and possibly the DNA damage response.

When I first dreamed of becoming a scientist, I never imagined that I would be studying PIWI proteins at the Yale Stem Cell Center (remember, I envisioned myself working in a basement with beakers!). As with many scientists, its hard to predict exactly where science will lead us because when we finish experiments to answer one question, our evidence leads us to ask many more questions and perform more experiments. Yet this process of observing, experimenting, and pursuing the unknown is what I love most about being a scientist.


Lorenz, L. D., J. Rivera Cardona, and P. F. Lambert. “Inactivation of P53 Rescues the Maintenance of High Risk Hpv DNA Genomes Deficient in Expression of E6.” PLoS pathogens 9.10 (2013): e1003717. Print.

Parkin, D. M. “The Global Health Burden of Infection-Associated Cancers in the Year 2002.” International journal of cancer. Journal international du cancer 118.12 (2006): 3030-44. Print.

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