How long have you been at Drexel?
I joined in September of 2018.
Where were you before joining Drexel?
I was a postdoc at Jefferson University from 2012 until I came to Drexel. Prior to that, I was a graduate student at Boston University.
Can you tell me about the research that you're doing?
We use melanoma as a model system to study drug resistances and cellular signaling that defines metastatic progression.
How did you become interested in that research?
Since I was a graduate student, I've been interested in cell surface molecules, and coming into my postdoc position at Jefferson, the first thing that I started on was a receptor tyrosine kinase project. The investigator that I was interested in used melanoma as a model system, and he had projects open and available for incoming postdocs looking at cell surface molecules. That's how I got tied in. I wasn't necessarily married to melanoma at all as a model system, but I’ve found over the years that the melanoma research community is great. The people are really welcoming. Everybody's really supportive, especially to young investigators, so I don't see myself leaving this community any time soon.
How are you conducting this research?
We do a lot of tissue culture work. We're in the biological hoods an awful lot. We do a lot of really basic assays whereby we'll take cells and treat them with a drug for so many hours and then either take cell lysates and do this technique that's called Western blotting or we'll do flow cytometry assays – it's really basic-level stuff. We'll use occasional animal models, but really, at least for my group, we use animal models not necessarily as a discovery, but more as a confirmation or the next level of experimentation; the stuff that we'd do in the laboratory.
What drew you to biomedical research?
I look at it as a puzzle, and I think I always have. You do experiments, you get ideas, you find little pieces of data here and there, and you try to build upon what others have done and what you've done in the past to try to solve these puzzles. As many experiments as we do and as many pieces of the puzzle that we get, it's biology, there's no real definitive, hard and fast moment of, ‘this is exactly what's happening and we know everything.’ There are always that extra pieces that you can get in, always extra information that you get. I think that’s what gets me, that there's always something else to learn. There's always another piece to add.
Did you always see yourself wanting to work in academia?
It’s hard to say. I liked being able to pursue what I was interested in and go where the data tells me to go. I think that perhaps it is somewhat different than being in industry unless you're a really high-level person, so in terms of my mindset I think you could say ‘yes.’ I was never necessarily against industry, but always wanted to do my own thing and academia definitely affords that over getting into industry.
What advice would you give to students who want to follow a similar path?
First and foremost, science is tough. I think in this profession more so than in many others out there, you're going to be quote-unquote ‘rejected.’ For instance, you submit a paper and ideally you send this paper to the highest-profile, highest-tier, best-respected journal you can, and it's going to get rejected. They’ll basically say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ And then you have to pick yourself up and say ‘Okay, these people didn’t want it, let’s go somewhere else.’ That happens over and over again. It’s the same thing with grant applications. You think you have a really cool idea, you spend hours and hours and hours on this thing, you get feedback from other investigators and you submit it and the response is ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ To really stick in academia, you need to have perseverance and internal drive. I don’t know if ‘don’t take no for an answer’ is the right way to go, but you really need to be self-motivated because outside sources are demotivating.
What qualities do you look for in students who are coming into your lab?
For students coming into the lab, if folks have a strong work ethic and curiosity, that'll get them pretty far. If you get a piece of data and your reaction is, ‘Wow, I never thought about this,’ or, ‘This is an interesting result,’ that’s huge. It’s a step in the right direction and that's going to serve that student well. As an extension, I think that person is ideally what you want in any laboratory, not just mine. The work ethic comes with that – in other words, if the student gets an interesting piece of data, they also have the desire to take the next step and put in the hours to do a follow-up. I think that is how you get a great student, and truth be told that is the type of students that I have in my laboratory right now, and it's been fantastic.
In terms of being part of the Drexel community, do you have any favorite memories from your time here so far?
One thing I can comment on is that as a graduate student, as a postdoc, I was always in what would be considered sort of the biochemistry or the cancer biology departments. I joined at Drexel under the pharmacology and physiology department, which truth be told I had a little bit of uncertainty about. But with that said, in my interview process and talking to the department chair Dr. Meucci, she was great and all of the other investigators in the department were great. There was still a little bit of anxiety for me just because this isn't a cancer department, I was joining a department that had people that do HIV research and do cardiovascular research, so it was a little bit out of my wheelhouse.
Then during orientation, another investigator who was hired the same day as me was on the same Drexel shuttle going to the Queen Lane campus for our department’s new faculty orientation meeting. We started talking and here, he's a classically trained neuroscientist that uses all these cool techniques, and I'm talking to him and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, he can do X, Y, and Z and these things can really support my research. I think that we can work together to build a cool platform.’ At another institution I would never have had the chance to talk to this neuroscientist, Dr. Jackson – or really any neuroscientist for that matter – at as in-depth a level as we had been. Since that first conversation, we’ve been able to submit – I don’t know how many grant applications – and we have a collaborative project. It’s been fantastic. That stems from jumping into this pharmacology department that was set up in a way that gave me some anxiety to start with. Truth be told, I don't know that I would have been as successful thus far if I was in another place. That’s because I think we're jumping into a niche area of melanoma research that many people aren't able to do, because they don't have the expertise that perhaps this neuroscientist can bring to the table.