By Gerard Lavoie
The recipient of a new T32 training grant and an advocate for underrepresented minorities, Dr. Caroline Attardo Genco, Research Director for the Section of Infectious Diseases and Professor of Medicine (Section of Infectious Diseases) and Microbiology, is an influential member of the BUSM faculty. Encouraged by her interdisciplinary research with graduate students and colleagues, Dr. Genco continually dares students to challenge themselves, and inspires them to make a difference in the field of science.
You were recently awarded a T32 training grant. What can you tell me about this?
I was recently awarded an interdisciplinary training grant to study inflammatory disorders. This grant will address the current need for research that encompasses basic science and clinical work through different departments here at Boston University. I work in the Department of Medicine in which a number of investigators are studying inflammatory disorders, including atherosclerosis, autoimmunity, and obesity. Specifically, I am interested in inflammatory pathology induced by pathogens, inflammatory pathology associated with sterile conditions, and therapeutics used for inflammatory disorders. For many years, I have worked with faculty in the BU College of Engineering and observed how they create diagnostics that can be applied to Medicine. Ultimately, we were both studying the same topic, just from different perspectives. Engineering and basic science graduate students were already interacting with each other, and I thought to apply for a grant that would combine the two disciplines, as well as train graduate students and post-doctoral students together.
How many pre- and/or post-docs does the grant support?
The training grant will support four pre-doctoral students and two post-doctoral students. It is a great opportunity for the students to really work with each other along with other members of the laboratory.
How did you get involved with scientific research here at BUSM?
Before coming to Boston University, I served as a faculty member at Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine, both in Atlanta. Much of my research focused on sexually transmitted diseases. BUSM had a center for such research, and I was recruited in 1997 into the Department of Medicine.
Along with my research, I am also very interested in developing a unique training program for BUSM’s graduate students. Such a program would require students to participate in an internship outside the norm of their academic work. An internship might be to work for a non-profit organization, such as the Gates Foundation, volunteer in a clinic in a third-world country, or work in an intercity school district teaching English as a second language. No matter what the internship is, the experience would force students to utilize the skills they gained as a Ph.D. student while exploring all the possibilities their degree has to offer.
Over the past couple of months, you mentored a student in the GMS Summer Undergraduate Research Program. What was that experience like?
During my time at Morehouse, I trained underrepresented minorities and solicited NIH support for their research. GMS approached me two years ago to serve as a mentor to an undergraduate and underrepresented minority student in the Summer Research Program. I was thrilled at the opportunity. This past summer was my second year participating in the program, and my student was mature and enthusiastic about her work. Because the program is for such a short period of time, it was important for her to become immersed in the laboratory immediately, and she interacted with everyone including graduate students and post-doctoral students. Sometimes the social aspects of being a minority student are difficult, and I was impressed at how well GMS Division Office was able to support my student and her peers in the program academically as well as socially. It was important that my mentee felt comfortable in and out of the laboratory. Though the summer went by too quickly, I could see a substantial level of growth in my student. We have been in contact through email since the end of summer to discuss research.
What advice do you have for current GMS students?
No matter what field you are in, self-confidence is a necessity. When you have confidence in yourself, you can do anything.
Graduate school is the time to explore all your options and truly define your passion. You will be better at what you do and you will enjoy your career more if you feel like you are making a difference in your field. Explore all of your options, and though it is not a requirement, participate in an internship that challenges you to utilize your degree in a new way, or think about the world differently. Such experiences open you up to all the opportunities that are out there for you.
With a passion for gardening and cooking, Dr. Gregory Viglianti stirs up more than a delicious Italian meal. Making great strides in HIV research here at Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Viglianti shows the same commitment to mentoring students and participating in GMS administrative committees that he does to his research. A model faculty member, Dr. Viglianti describes his path into the Microbiology department and offers some advice for all GMS students.
What brought you into the field of Microbiology?
I entered the field of Microbiology through the back door. When I started my research as a PhD student, I focused on gene regulation in fruit flies. For my postdoc, I studied transposable elements in fruit flies, which eventually led me to study bona fide viruses. I ultimately began to research HIV. Now, working at BUSM, I can devote my time in the Microbiology department to laboratory research as well as teaching.
HIV research is especially important today. Can you tell me a little more about your current research?
My laboratory group is currently working to understand how certain factors affect HIV transmission. For instance, we have found that other diseases, such as gonorrhea, particularly in women, tend to increase transmission by activating innate immune receptors. By fully understanding how and why HIV is transmitted from person to person, we can develop a way to prevent the spread of the virus, possibly through the use of a topical microbicide. Along those lines, we are also studying drugs that target certain nuclear receptors to see whether their activities can block transmission.
What is the best part about mentoring students?
I have had the pleasure of mentoring a number of outstanding students and have found it to be very rewarding. My favorite part about mentoring students is helping them become independent thinkers. You can almost see the light bulb go off in their heads when they transition from novice researchers to full-fledged scientists. It is at that point that you realize that they “get it”.
I understand that you also have some administrative responsibilities with GMS?
Yes, I am a member of many GMS committees including the Academic Policy Committee, the Ph.D. Steering Committee, and the Faculty Senate. Participating at this level in the GMS and BU community is very important to me, though it can be a challenge. It is hard to juggle these administrative responsibilities with things I enjoy more, like research and teaching.
I am also involved with the recently designed Foundations in Biomedical Sciences (FiBS) curriculum for PhD students. About a year and a half ago, I was asked to join the FiBS discussion because I had shown interest in revamping the old curriculum for our PhD students and bringing their education up-to-speed with the twenty-first century. After a long discussion, and when the new curriculum began to take form, it made sense for me to serve as a course co-manager for a FiBS module.
What is the most interesting part of your work?
Definitely my research. Beyond the details of my lab, research in general is fascinating. Science is one of a few fields that allows you to discover something new about the universe on a regular basis. It is forever changing, and I am constantly learning new things.
What do you enjoy doing outside of the office/lab/BU?
My wife Sue and I love to garden and cook. At home, we have a 1,200 ft2 vegetable garden. The garden produces enough to eat from early spring all the way through late autumn. I would also consider us pretty good cooks. I am Italian, so cooking and food has always been a part of my life. It is something I really enjoy. We also enjoy our border terriers, Wilma and Bruno. They are incredibly energetic, some would say over–the–top. But they are endlessly entertaining.
Do you have any advice for GMS students?
Science is hard, but more importantly it is a lot of fun. You should enjoy it. Also, I think it is easy to get bogged down in the details of one’s own research. Every once in a while it is important to step back and think about how what you are doing fits into the big picture. If science is your calling you will know it.
Medicine is not always about hospitals and biomedical research. For this reason, Dr. Linda Barnes and Dr. Lance Laird worked to create the Medical Anthropology and Cross Cultural Practices (MACCP) program here at BUSM. A “program by design,” students in this program experience a new way of examining medicine and the process of health and healing in cultures from around the world, particularly as these cultures have entered the United States.
Can you tell me a little about the MACCP program?
Dr. Barnes: Medical Anthropology is a branch of cultural anthropology. The field focuses on how cultures view and respond to sickness, suffering, healing, and medicine. The MACCP program highlights four areas: 1) We take students through the practical skills required to practice medical anthropology after graduation. They design a fully detailed study, participate in field work, and learn how to write for various audiences, in addition to receiving training in specific professional skills. 2) The students also gain solid training in theoretical analysis and its application to their data. 3) Our program teaches students how to develop a study within a local community or group. While medical anthropology often focuses on global health overseas, our program teaches students to relate global health to Boston. 4) Finally, this program offers students the chance to customize their program. In addition to core required courses, students choose their electives from offerings throughout the university, to fulfill their long-term goals. Because the program is so customized, it is a small program, ensuring a lot of one-on-one interaction with the faculty.
Dr. Laird: MACCP is not only about how cultures view health issues, but also how they define health. It is important to remember that a culture does not have to be foreign or ethnic. Our program examines the cultural views of mainstream biomedical science to understand the people who work in healthcare within the local community. After studying world-view assumptions of medical sciences, we can better understand how a culture influences professions and professionals. For instance, what beliefs, values, or norms is a physician considering when he or she prescribes the HPV vaccination or an anti-depressant to a patient? We study the cultures of the clinic.
What kind of career do students in the MACCP program pursue after earning their degree?
Dr. Barnes: Our students have a variety of backgrounds and experiences. The element that ties them together is their willingness and ability to “see outside the box.” Some students have completed pre-medical tracks during their undergraduate education and want to continue on to medical school with a different perspective. Others have an anthropology background, but want to focus in on medical anthropology. Some students have heard about the field of medical anthropology but don’t yet have the necessary knowledge and experience to pursue a Ph.D. program. Others are drawn to public health kinds of careers, but want to focus on a more localized population using anthropological methods.
Dr. Laird: It is important to recognize that the program focuses on cross-cultural practices as well as medical anthropology. Students will learn how medicine is practiced in many different cultures. We often have public health students enrolled in our classes.
How did you become an educator? Is there any research in your field you are working on?
Dr. Barnes: I was trained at Harvard in an interdisciplinary program that combined medical anthropology and world religions. My research focuses on Chinese medicine and healing traditions, how these came to Boston, and how they have spread throughout the United States. I have worked extensively with the Boston Healing Landscape Project, which was the basis for our Masters program.
Dr. Laird: As a graduate student at Harvard, I studied Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, and I also received training in anthropology to better understand religious boundaries. I taught out West after completing graduate school, and it was the interdisciplinary class “Body, Mind, and Soul,” taught by a ballet instructor, psychologist, and myself, a comparative religion instructor, that I became interested in how religion is expressed through the body. It was a profound experience to watch as students danced to express a serious illness. After five years, I moved to Boston with my family, and Dr. Barnes invited me into the BU community. Currently, I am researching the Muslim community, focusing on the healing practices and spiritual needs of Muslim patients and providers and reaching out to improve the overall health of this community.
What advice would you give to GMS students regarding courses, or in general?
Dr. Barnes: You can pretty much do anything you really want to do, as long as you find someone to sign off on it. If you have a good idea, there should be a way to do it. Take the extra steps and jump through the hoops if that is what it takes. Such a philosophy provides an approach for an interesting life and career. Similarly, be passionate about the field in which you are working. There is a difficult job market right now, and life does not always go in straight lines. Nothing happens immediately, and you will need the passion to carry you through the difficult times. Work closely with your advisor, your peers, and the faculty to take full advantage of your education. Be sure to think long-term, particularly when choosing your electives.
Dr. Laird: Be prepared to work hard, and challenge yourself to see the world through others’ eyes. Examine your blind spots and think outside the box of traditional medical sciences. Find support in the BU community, the program, and among your faculty and peers.
Science is constantly evolving, and with that comes the need for graduate education to adapt. Dr. Shoumita Dasgupta of the Genetics and Genomics program and Dr. Karen Symes of the Biochemistry Department agree. With a group of other dedicated GMS faculty, they have transformed doctoral education at BUSM through the development of a new and engaging curriculum.
Can you tell me a little about the Foundations in Biomedical Sciences (FIBS) curriculum?
Dr. Dasgupta: The evolution of the new FIBS curriculum is based on redefining what scientific literacy means for doctoral students in the biomedical sciences. It is a series of courses designed for first-year doctoral candidates that will serve as a foundation for the rest of their doctoral education. The curriculum integrates many fields of science to teach Ph.D. students interdisciplinary thinking.
Dr. Symes: The courses incorporate topics from a wide range of disciplines including biochemistry, biophysics, cell and molecular biology, genetics and physiology. Touching on all of these fields, the courses are designed to reflect the way interdisciplinary science is conducted, as well as to coordinate content across courses and programs.
Dr. Dasgupta: The FIBS curriculum has been designed so that the students take four core modules. The fifth module consists of electives whose purpose is to allow the student to take an integrated course in an additional discipline.
Why is an integrated curriculum so important?
Dr. Symes: Science has evolved so much over the past decade. It is not only important to have the knowledge of other scientific fields, but also to have the ability to use that knowledge critically. Science is increasingly an interdisciplinary endeavor and it is important to be able to incorporate elements from other fields into your own research.
Dr. Dasgupta: This new curriculum will really focus on the process of intellectual development. The courses will encourage students to take what they already know and expand on it as they ask and answer questions across scientific disciplines. A curriculum like FIBS allows the students to put together a scientific story from multiple perspectives at once.
Is BU the first university to use this kind of curriculum?
Dr. Symes: No, integrated science curriculums can be found at a lot of other colleges and universities. When the movement to form such a curriculum for Boston University was initiated, the committee looked at other graduate school models, however, FIBS is truly a BUSM derived curriculum. No other school has done it quite the way that we have.
How did you get involved in graduate education?
Dr. Symes: I took a very typical route into graduate education. I established myself as a researcher first. However, as I began to teach, I found that I loved it. I soon became interested in the development of higher education, which led to my involvement in designing the FIBS curriculum.
Dr. Dasgupta: I began in higher education as an educator when I was hired to develop graduate and medical curricula in genetics and genomics. I have always been interested in working with students both in the classroom and as a mentor, so I greatly enjoy my roles as course director and program director.
Do you find you still have time to research and participate in the sciences?
Dr. Symes: My lab worked on understanding the molecular basis of cell movements in early embryonic development.
Dr. Dasgupta: My current research is in education, focusing on different teaching strategies and methods in the context of graduate and medical education.
What advice would you give to GMS students regarding courses, or in general?
Dr. Symes: Invest in your own education, because the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. I know it sounds clichéd, but it is true.
Dr. Dasgupta: Work collaboratively with your peers, faculty, and mentors. Try to find people with expertise relevant to your area of study to enrich your own education.
Medicine is not only about healing—it is about prevention. Ridda Hasnain, a Ph.D. student in the Medical Nutrition Program, understands this concept and hopes to use her BUSM education to establish preventative health measures around the globe.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue science?
From a very young age, I was interested in human health. Throughout my undergraduate education, I planned to pursue a career as a medical physician. When I arrived at Columbia University for my Master’s, however, I grew a specific interest in human nutrition. As I completed my degree, I realized that I wanted to prevent, rather than treat, medical conditions. When I understood how my research in nutrition could prevent diseases, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree.
What brought you to BU?
When I started searching for the right doctoral program, Boston University School of Medicine stood out. BUSM was different from a lot of other schools because it offered an integrative and collaborative experience. Graduate students, regardless of what program they were in, worked with multiple departments and multiple investigators from different labs. Students interact with faculty and peers outside of their own program. I thought this interaction would be a valuable part of my graduate education and prepare me for a career where there is much collaboration and interaction. Also, BUSM has a diverse student body. My peers and I come from all different backgrounds, and we all have varying research interests. I believe that this diversity and transfer of ideas will help me in the long run.
Can you tell me a little about the program you are in?
I am in the Medical Nutrition Sciences Program. Compared to other nutrition programs in the country, this program is relatively new. Because it is new, the current students really have an opportunity to shape the future of the program. There are three tracks in the program tailored to meet the needs of each individual in Medical Nutrition Sciences program: molecular/biochemical nutrition, clinical nutrition, and nutritional epidemiology.
The basic sciences track explores the biochemistry behind nutrition and how nutrients interact with the body while the clinical track is designed to educate students on how nutrition research can be applied to preventative measures in the clinic. The third track, epidemiology of nutrition, is the track that I am pursuing and examines causes of disease and their association with nutrition.
What do you hope to do after you earn your degree?
In a general scope, I want to research and find components of the human diet that prevent diseases, but I also want to have clinical exposure to teach patients that there are wholesome and natural approaches to preventing disease. I hope to be able to impact the community and improve public health policy. In Pakistan, where I am from, there is little awareness of how diet can affect lifestyle, and I hope to develop a program here and abroad to fill this gap in knowledge.
You recently presented at the 2012 Future of Food and Nutrition Conference and won the award for best presentation. Can you tell me a little about your research and that experience?
The Future of Food and Nutrition Conference is a student-led conference at Tufts University. I presented a poster on dietary protein and its impact on body composition and risk of obesity. Overall, it was a great experience because it gave me the opportunity to learn about the research my colleagues from other institutions were performing, and to think of novel questions related to my own research based on my presentation and discussion with other scientists.
Are you involved in other activities on campus?
I am involved in the admissions and recruiting process for the Medical Nutrition Sciences program. This is an interesting and rewarding role because it really does help to shape the future of the program. I get to meet with prospective and incoming students to advise them in any areas they may need help.
What do you enjoy doing outside the walls of BU?
I love trying new cuisines! Given my field of study, it’s not secret that I absolutely love food. I also enjoy traveling whenever I can. And I love to just spend time with my family and friends and take advantage of all that Boston has to offer.
What advice can you give other postdocs, or GMS students?
I think it may be helpful to many students if they start a PhD program with a general interest, rather than a highly specialized goal. PhD students will go through many rotations in different labs with different principle investigators, and these experiences will help them develop their general interest while finding a lab environment they can work in. Also, rotations are a time to apply your knowledge to novel questions.
Students should take advantage of all the BU campus has to offer. For instance, taking a class that is unrelated to your field may help you in some way later on in your career. Also, talk to your peers. These discussions will help shape what it is you want to accomplish while here are BUSM.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue science?
When I was in grade school, I remember telling my parents that I wanted to be an ambulance driver when I grew up. Not the EMT in the back helping the patient on the way to the hospital; the actual ambulance driver. When I entered high school, I started volunteering for the local rescue squad. I think it was then that I knew I wanted to go to medical school. At Bates College I majored in neuroscience, which exposed me to the unique interplay between mind and body, and had various shadowing experiences which solidified my decision to study medicine.
What brought you to BU?
After I graduated from Bates, I took two years off from school to work at the NIH in a lab that studied Pediatric Bipolar Disorder. I heard about the MA in Medical Sciences program here at BUSM and thought it would be a great stepping stone back into academia and help prepare me for medical school. I looked at some other similar Masters programs, but BU seemed to have the best one, and the best location. I really enjoy living in Boston.
Can you tell me a little about the MAMS program you are in?
I am currently finishing up my second year and just completed my thesis. The first year is class-driven and focused on academics, which I really enjoyed. It gave me a realistic glimpse to what medical school will be like. I have definitely gained confidence in my capability to succeed in medical school based on my success in this program. The greatest adjustment for me in the MAMS program was the class size. I remember on the first day of class in Bakst Auditorium, I suddenly felt very hot. The room was filled with 200 people! That was a huge difference from Bates, where the class size was much smaller. Despite these large classes, however, MAMS and GMS create a small community, and if you put in the effort, you will realize that the professors do want to get to know the students.
What are your plans after completing the MAMS program?
I applied to medical school last year, and will be attending the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Right now, I am considering primary care, specifically obstetrics and gynecology. I really enjoyed the research I did for my thesis, but I am mostly interested in clinical medicine. Eventually, as a practicing physician, I would hope to participate in research as it fits in with my practice.
You have helped to organize a Sarcoma Awareness event for this Friday. Can you tell me a little about that?
In January 2012, the MAMS community lost a member to sarcoma. As a member of the GMSSO, I helped organize an awareness talk in her honor to help raise money for sarcoma research. Sarcoma is a type of cancer that originates in bone or connective tissue. It is relatively uncommon and is very difficult to treat. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is performing innovative and interesting research on this cancer, and the speaker we invited is a member of the sarcoma team there. Approximately 40 people attended the event.
Are you involved in other activities on campus?
I serve on a small committee as a liaison between the MAMS students and Dr. Gwynneth Offner, the director of the program. We meet with her every month to discuss issues and ideas that my peers may have. Additionally, I volunteer with the GMSSO for events such as orientation, commencement, Project Gratitude, and blood drives, and I tutor three first-year MAMS students in Physiology and Endocrinology. Last summer I volunteered for the Outreach Van Project and enjoyed spending time with community members from East Boston who are in need of food and/or medical support.
What do you enjoy doing outside the walls of BU?
I like to stay active, whether I am hiking, biking, or riding one of my horses when I go home to Vermont. I also enjoy baking, and I love going out to eat when I can. Boston is such an exciting city, and I love to explore all the opportunities it provides. Traveling is another fun hobby, and I visit my friends in different parts of the country whenever I can. I also work part-time in retail.
What advice can you give other GMS students?
My two years went by so quickly. It is important to take advantage of all the opportunities BU and the city of Boston have to offer, whether it be playing squash at FitRec or visiting a museum. Also, the professors are very knowledgeable, not only about the subject they teach, but about medical school, and life in general. Importantly, they are always willing to help, so don’t hesitate to contact them. Finally, don’t forget to have fun and meet new people. GMS provides a great community that you will want to participate in.
Recruitment season at the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences continues through the winter and spring with many programs offering rolling admissions. Take at look at the Top 10 Reasons To Come to GMS here at BU School of Medicine. Our PhD students gain valuable research, mentorship and professionalism skills including the opportunity to publish. Check out their publications for 2011 . To learn more about our MA/MS programs take a quick GMS Video Tour or check out the MA in Medical Sciences program.
For more information contact the program directly or complete the inquiry form. Our staff is helpful, dedicated and resourceful. Also, don’t forget, many of our programs offer open houses, webinars or campus visits throughout the year.
GMS: What We’re Made Of
|Size||900 Graduate Students|
|Time To Degree||M.A./M.S. (1-2 years); Ph.D. (4-6 years)|
|Outcome||M.A., M.S., Ph.D.|
|Faculty||Enthusiastic, Collaborative, Multidisciplinary, Committed|
|Mentorship & Professional Development||Journal clubs, Conferences, Travel Awards, Fair Expectations, OneBU Access to Courses|
|Research Opportunities||Interdisciplinary, Translational, Entrepreneurial, State-of-the-Art|
|Career Paths||Academia, Biotechnology, Consulting, Government, Law, Pharma, Regulatory Affairs|
|Graduate Community||Graduate Medical Sciences Student Organization|
|Boston, Massachusetts||World-class city of unique neighborhoods, historic, multicultural, vibrant, artistic, recreational, student-oriented|
Ph.D. Degree Programs
|Interdisciplinary Training||Departments||Umbrella Programs|
|Behavioral Neuroscience||Anatomy and Neurobiology||Graduate Program for Neuroscience|
|Biomedical Neuroscience||Biochemistry||Cell and Molecular Biology
|Genetics and Genomics||Oral Biology|
|Immunology Training Program||Pathology & Laboratory Medicine|
|Nutrition & Metabolism||Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics|
After growing up in Tunisia and moving to France to complete a Radiology internship, Mohamed Jarraya is no stranger to adventure. A Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Radiology at Boston University Medical Center, Mohamed compares his transition to American life to walking in a jungle. Navigating between cutting edge medical research and various opportunities through the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at GMS, he finds ways to give back to the BUMC community, earning the respect and admiration of his colleagues.
What brought you to BUMC?
Originally I am from Tunisia, but right before coming to the United States, I was living in France completing a medical internship in radiology. I have a MD degree from the University of Sfax School of Medicine. When I decided to do a postdoctoral fellowship, I really focused on locations in the United States, a place I had never previously been. I wanted to complete a research project and really experience America. I found my current position in the BUMC Radiology Department, and I had to jump on it. I love Boston.
What kind of research are you involved in?
Right now I am working in clinical research within the Quantitative Imaging Center at the BUMC Radiology Department studying knee osteoarthritis. A lot of my work requires examining and reading MRIs of the knee. By studying these MRIs, lesions related to osteoarthritis can be scored depending on their severity. This information allows for an objective follow-up of patients with knee osteoarthritis, and helps for comparisons before and after special medical treatments.
Why did you choose radiology?
I have always been interested in architecture and the arts, which I initially planned to study in school. My father, who was physician, always encouraged me to pursue a career in medicine which I ultimately decided to do. When I took the residency exam, I only knew which specialties I didn’t want to practice, surgery being one of them. My sister, at that time was in her first year of radiology residency and I was curious about her specialty; I guess she is the one who pushed me in radiology!
How did you adjust to American life?
The only person I knew before moving to the United States was my PI, who had interviewed me for my current position. I viewed the move from France to the United States as an adventure, and I found Americans to be friendly and open to other people. My colleagues are spectacular.
When I first arrived in Boston, any time I had outside of the lab, I spent going to the gym and becoming acquainted with the city. It didn’t take me long to start meeting people, and now I am kept very busy with my research and my social life. I also spent the recent Thanksgiving holiday with an American family in the area. They were awesome, and the food was delicious!
Besides your research, how else are you involved in the BUMC community?
I am a member of Toastmasters International, a group recently established by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at GMS. It is a very interesting organization, and has been beneficial to me in many ways. Arabic is my first language, though I have been studying English for seven years. Since joining Toastmasters, I have been obligated to prepare a speech. Though there have only been six sessions, I feel my English has drastically improved. I am much more fluent, and my writing skills are enhanced. Additionally, I have met many great people through the organization. It is a very positive and friendly group. Besides Toastmasters, I also offer support for events sponsored by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, including the Ice Cream Social we had this past fall, and an the recent Holiday Party. The Office also sponsors career development luncheons I try to attend regularly.
What are your future goals?
I would like to acquire a clinical experience the United States and work as a Radiologist. Beyond that, I am not really sure what my long-term plans are. When I came to America, my goal was to dive into research, and I have come to discover that research is something I really enjoy. I think a combined medical and academic environment will provide me with the benefits of working both in the clinic and in research.
What do you enjoy doing outside the walls of BUMC?
I spend most of my time outside of BUSM with my friends. I have also traveled to New York City in the past six months of living in the country. There is a Tunisian consulate where I was able to participate in a vote back in Tunisia. The vote was for the constituent assembly who is drafting our new Tunisian constitution right now. That was the first democratic election in Tunisia for more than two thousand years!
What advice can you give other postdocs or GMS students?
Join Toastmasters, or other group activities, that will help you socialize. Most importantly, take advantage of working or studying here at BUMC; it is an opportunity and a great experience.
A challenging and rewarding program, the Boston University School of Medicine MD/PhD Combined Degree program produces exceptional physicians and researchers. Though only halfway through his time here, Andrew Ferree is no exception. An addict to research, Andrew has traveled internationally to present his scientific findings, and continues to investigate new ways to improve BUMC’s sustainability efforts here in Boston.
What made you decide to pursue both a MD and PhD in BU’s combined degree program?
You could say I have an addiction to research. I have spent the past ten years researching Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and I can’t stop. I initially earned a Master of Arts in Medical Sciences here at BUSM, working with Dr. Benjamin Wolozin in Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics on my thesis and various other projects. I knew I wanted to continue with research, but also wanted to experience the clinical side of medicine and see my research applied to people. When I was accepted into the MD/PhD program, it seemed like the most obvious choice for me because it combined the lab and the clinic.
What PhD program are you in here at BU?
I am completing my graduate research through the Department of Pharmacology but I also work extensively with the Departments of Neuroscience and Medicine.
I understand you will be defending your dissertation soon. What research have you been involved with?
My research has always been related to neurodegeneration. To date, most of my research at BU has been focused on studying the function of genes that are linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. I will never lose interest in PD and AD, but I am broadening my horizons and beginning to be lured into the study of how mitochondria play a role in diabetes and peripheral neuropathies. Ultimately, I want to help cure these diseases.
You recently attended a conference in Sardinia. What was that experience like?
Blissful would not be an exaggeration. The conference was absolutely sublime; it was relatively small and packed with very prominent researchers in mitochondrial biology. I presented some recent data from experiments on a new potential therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease. I tested how the drugs effect mitochondrial transport and function in hippocampal neurons. At the mitochondrial dynamics conference, I made some great contacts and got a lot of helpful feedback, encouraging comments, and new ideas. I would like to extend a very warm and appreciative thank you to all those that helped me with the travel expenses.
What have you found to be the most challenging part of your academic career as a MD/PhD student here at BU?
The MD years and the PhD years are very different from each other. Medical school is an inch deep and a mile wide; you learn lots of information across many areas. With research, the focus is narrow, and you try to learn everything there is to know about one topic. The learning approaches are very different as well. Medical school requires memorization and the retention of a lot of information to succeed. In research, the real value is placed on imagination and creativity.
Are you involved in other activities outside of research?
I spend a lot of time with my family, especially my son, Thomas, who will be turning two in February. They keep me laughing on the rough days and offer a lot of support. For the past few years, I have been very active in various sustainability projects here at BUMC. One quick plug, if anyone would like to join us in these efforts check out our website to get involved (www.bu.edu/sustainability/)! When time permits, I also enjoy playing a good game of basketball and teaching self-defense classes in Michael Galperin’s School of Combat Sambo.
What are your future plans/goals?
The best part about the MD/PhD program is that it allows you to explore your options by giving exposure to both the clinic and the lab. I am still not sure where my path will take me but I do know I will never escape the brain. If I practice medicine, I plan to specialize in neurology and focus on treating age related neurodegenerative diseases. It seems unlikely that I will be able to kick my addiction to research so that will definitely be part of the picture.
Do you have any advice for current GMS students?
Pay attention to what truly interests you and pursue it. If you find that the passion fades, then do not feel obliged to follow the current course just because you started it. If you enjoy what you are doing, then it is probably a good fit for you. Beyond that I would like to say something corny, such as, believe in yourself and in your efforts. Your hard work will pay off though sometimes not the way you expect.
When faced with administrative meetings, teaching, laboratory research, and writing publishable articles and books on a daily basis, coming to work can seem daunting. For Dr. Gene Blatt, Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology, multi-tasking is the key to perform at his exemplary level in all these areas. Making greats strides in autism research while participating in multiple facets of the Boston University community, Dr. Blatt easily earns the respect of his colleagues and students.
You recently attended a meeting in Washington, DC on autism. What was that experience like?
The meeting was over the course of three days, and there were approximately 300 attendees. Overall, the meeting presented a global view of the state of autism research. There was focus on genetics, animal models, cognition, and behavior from many different experts in the field through oral presentations as well as poster presentations.
You actively research autism. Can you tell me a bit about your research?
My research focuses on neuropathology and neurochemistry of autism using post mortem human tissue. Obtaining both frozen and fixed tissue from brain banks, including the one at McLean Hospital, we cut thin 20 to 40 micron sections and mount them on slides. With the formalin fixed sample, we stain the tissue to see the cellular cytoarchitecture of the brain using NISSL to determine if there are any abnormalities present within specific brain areas. With the fresh frozen samples, we dip sections of the tissue in radioactively tagged ligand solutions to label neurotransmitter receptors and transporters. The radioactivity on the slides is shown on film is then quantified. The neurotransmitter profile in brain regions in individuals with autism, are compared to age and gender matched controls of individuals without autism. Thus far, the research has shown that there is a profound defect in the inhibitory GABA system in the brains of people with autism.
How did you get into research on autism?
I earned my Ph.D. degree from Thomas Jefferson University studying the cerebellum, and then went to Salk Institute for two years for a post-doctorate position working in neurophysiology. When I came to BUSM, I worked with Dr. Rosene researching the limbic system. In the late 1990’s, I was completely inspired to change my research focus upon meeting Dr. Margaret Bauman, a pediatric neurologist, who showed me slides from autism cases that had similar abnormalities in the cerebellum and limbic system. Very few people have the opportunity to engage in significant research that combines every aspect of their education. Slowly, I made a transition from mainly animal research to pursue post-mortem human research. The transition was timely as autism research was just becoming a burgeoning field that was receiving much attention.
Do you think the research on autism has made significant progress, or do you think we still have a long way to go before we fully understand autism?
Autism is a heterogeneous disorder, which means that there are many different factors to consider, such as genetics, environment, immunology, and even a mother’s condition during pregnancy. The progress in the field is progressing as new technologies emerge. I am currently collaborating with a lab in London who is performing a three-year study on children with autism using a new imaging technique, Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS). This technique allows for the sampling of a particular part of the brain in an MR scan, and MRS shows how the neurochemical levels of specific brain areas are impacted. This in vivo research with the London lab supplements my in vitro studies of the post mortem brains here are BUSM. Collectively, there is more awareness of autism today, and it remains unclear why the prevalence rates are increasing although better diagnosis may be a contributing factor.
As well as being a professor in Anatomy and Neurobiology, you are involved with a number of administrative committees, such as the Academic Policies Committee (APC). What pushed you to become so involved in such activities?
Participation on a department-wide, division-wide, campus-wide, and university-wide level is critical to understand the workings of the institution. All GMS faculty should participate to some degree, and I joined the APC about seven years ago. After a year, I was nominated by Dr. Franzblau and voted for by the committee to be the Chair. Mostly all of the current MA and MS programs were approved since then. It is a very busy committee. I also serve as the liaison to the Ph.D. Steering Committee, as Chair for the Faculty Appointments and Promotions Committee for the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, as a member of the Department Qualifying Examination Committee, as a member of the department Faculty Search Committee, as a member of the GMS By-laws Committee, as a MA in Medical Sciences faculty advisor and conduct mock interviews for MA students, as an Advisor-At-Large for the Crumpler Academy of Advisors, and as an interviewer for potential M.D./Ph.D students.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Along with teaching lectures in some graduate-level courses in GMS, I also teach medical students in Neuroscience and Medical Histology. Teaching is very important to me, but I am also very committed to research. I am constantly working to keep up with current projects and new information on autism. The best part of my job is that there is a balance between teaching, research, and administrative duties. On top of that, I do a great deal of writing. Though it can be hard to find time to write in between everything else, my lab produces between three and five journal articles a year, as well as one or two book chapters a year. And there is always a grant to write. Last year I edited and contributed to a book, The Neurochemical Basis of Autism: From Molecules to Minicolumns with Springer Publishers.
What do you enjoy doing outside of your office, lab, and Boston University?
I am an avid golfer, and I love nature. My Master’s degree had an emphasis in Ornithology and Field Biology. Much of my time outside BU is spent outdoors hiking or bird watching. I spend a lot of time with my wife, and my son and daughter-in-law who recently had our first grandchild. I love being a grandpa!
Do you have any advice for GMS students?
I agree with the philosophy that I quickly learned from Dr. Deborah Vaughan in Medical Histology when I first came to BUSM in the 1980s: It is so important to be an active learner. Understand the material rather than just memorize it; work in study groups; ask your teachers questions because we are here to help you. From one of my mentors here, Dr. Douglas Rosene, I learned that if you plan to go into research, make sure you choose a productive talented lab team that will provide good training and involve yourself in many interesting and creative projects. Learning multiple techniques will allow you to build a repertoire of skills to tackle projects in many different ways. Finally, take the same active attitude to research as you do to teaching and learning: make it a priority to contribute to your field, through talks, collaborations, and publications. Receiving valuable feedback is essential to deepen your understanding of your research endeavors.