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Molecular Pathobiology Meet Diane Kambach

Diane Kambach, Drexel University College of Medicine, PhD in Molecular Pathobiology


Undergraduate: Carnegie Mellon University, BS in Chemistry
Graduate: Drexel University College of Medicine, PhD in Molecular Pathobiology


Can you tell me a little about yourself before you came to Drexel?

I have a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University. After finishing my bachelor's, I worked as a chemist for Loreal for two years. During that time, I didn't feel fulfilled and wanted to do something more with my degree. I decided to switch gears from chemistry into something more biologically relevant, so I started to apply to graduate schools.

Why did you choose to come to Drexel?

The program I came here for, molecular pathobiology, is no longer offered, but what I liked about it at the time was that it was graduate school in the context of a medical school. This meant you still had that big picture, top-level view, whereas in a lot of programs you get so far into the weeds of your own project, you almost lose sight of why you're even doing it. I liked that there were both of those aspects with the program at Drexel. I also really liked Philadelphia. When I came in for a tour, it just seemed like the right fit for me.

The program I was in has since been absorbed into biochemistry, and molecular and cellular biology and genetics.

What was your experience like in the program?

I came in as a master's student but quickly switched over to the PhD program. I really liked that there was a lot of collaboration across multiple departments. I loved how we did the coursework, too. We were mixed in with people who were doing a lot of different things. Everybody had a different background that you could learn from. It helped to create a broader perspective on medicine and on the research that I was doing.

What was your relationship with your classmates like?

It was great. We had a small class that I got to know well, and I also became friends with immunology and other biochemistry students. We went from strangers to friends very quickly, and I think the programs really support that. Being in a small program gives you the time and opportunity to create relationships that help you get through graduate school, which is important because it's not the easiest or most fun thing to do.

What was your relationship with the faculty like?

It was amazing. There's a very good culture here. I can't speak highly enough about Mauricio Reginato, PhD, and Jane Azizkhan-Clifford, PhD, who I worked with. Honestly, all the faculty that I had the opportunity to work with in course work settings, as well as in journal clubs, were very open and helpful. It's not a super competitive cutthroat environment, which you hear about at other institutions. Everyone's here to help. It was a very supportive place to be.

Do you still have a relationship with your mentors from Drexel?

Yes, absolutely. I have been able to ask Jane and especially Mauricio for advice throughout my career. Their mentorship has been extremely valuable.

Can you tell me about the research you did here?

I started off working with Peter Lelkes, PhD, and the tissue engineering group. We were looking at radiation-induced DNA damage, which involved Jane. Then we started moving into a breast cancer model and that looped in Mauricio. I realized that my passion for that project was more squarely in Jane and Mauricio's quadrant, so I switched over to work with the two of them.

Ultimately, my project was studying radiation-induced transition from a premalignant state to malignancy in breast cancer. We collaborated very closely with the radiation oncology group at Hahnemann University Hospital and a variety of other groups. It wasn't a project that fit squarely in any one department, but it meant that I had a very collaborative experience here.

It was a case where we found an unexpected phenotype, and I had a group of committee members who said, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's see what we can find," which was fantastic. As a graduate student, I was given that kind of freedom to work on something that might be impractical but is interesting and novel. You have a team of people who have the expertise to help you through it and who can also say, "Look, I have no idea for x y and z, but let's find you the resources to get you that information." I spent three weeks in Brookhaven National Lab learning about radiation, physics and chemistry. We also looped in people from the University of Pennsylvania and a number of other institutions. I was very lucky to have such support.

What did you like best about the program?

The collaboration was definitely best. The fact that I could come in here with a crazy idea, pursue it and have everyone support it, I think was invaluable. This was not only for my time here, but also growing into my post-doc where I continued to take risks on projects that were impactful. Even in my position now, that creativity and drive to ask questions and ask other people for help is directly related to the fact that during graduate school, I was not only allowed to do those things, but encouraged to do those things. I had a group of people who were 100% on board to help out. I think that was the strongest thing that I took away from graduate school that is still impacting my career now.

What are you currently doing for work?

I am the Team Leader for the Field Applications Scientists at BioTek Instruments. We create life science instrumentation. About six years ago, BioTek went into microscopy, which is the primary focus of the FAS Team, and one of my personal passions. My team is a bit unique even in the realm of field application scientists, because we not only support the sales process, but we also do ongoing scientific consultation with our customers to help them publish good science with our products. That creativity and collaborative spirit is not only 100% the backbone of BioTek as a company, but also of our team within BioTek. I've got the best gig in science now—all the parts I love about research in one place.

How did you decide to pursue a job in industry rather than in academia?

It was sheer dumb luck. After graduating from Drexel, I did a post-doc. Through the first three years of my post-doc, I thought I was going to be a principal investigator (PI) or some sort of team leader in pharma, I was going to stay on the bench forever, et cetera. I had a tendency to go for crazy, risky projects, publication takes longer, and I was getting frustrated. I hit a point where the research wasn't making me happy anymore. That was a really hard place to be because I had worked so hard to get to that track, and I realized it wasn't what I wanted to be doing.

I probably spent the better part of a year trying to figure out what I did want to do with my life, and I did a ton of informational interviews, but nothing was quite right. I didn't want to lose talking about science, teaching science, or troubleshooting and creativity. Then I got really lucky. A friend forwarded me an email that she had gotten from a recruiter for the position I have now, and it was perfect. It was exactly my resume, my expertise, my background and enough science -- enough still working in labs and working with people. It was a way to make a huge impact and interact with a lot of different people, and it got rid of some of those long languishing timelines that are sort of pervasive in academia and research in general. I also have a huge diversity of things to work on. I'm not only doing cancer biology—I've worked with worms, flies and materials. Getting to help people do better science in this huge swath of different research directions is pretty amazing.

What advice would you have for people who are considering pursuing a PhD?

Be ready to go into it. I think one of the best decisions I made was working for a few years before going back to school. I think I came in a lot more refreshed and ready to go into the course work with a more open mind than when you continue straight in from undergrad. I think that really helped me get through some of the tougher spots of graduate school. I knew this was really 100% what I wanted to be doing, as opposed to finishing undergrad and just going to the next step of getting a master's degree or PhD.

Another piece of advice is to be willing to ask for help. Be willing to say, "I don't know," which will open doors that you can't even anticipate. Having that humility will take you farther than being the know-it-all in the room.

A graduate student in the Biochemistry program at Drexel University College of Medicine.