Category: Homepage Spotlights

Spotlight on Faculty: Dr. Gene Blatt

December 15th, 2011 in Faculty Spotlight, Homepage Spotlights

Dr. Gene Blatt PHOTOWhen 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.

Spotlight on Students: Maria Vasilakos

October 27th, 2011 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Maria Vasilakos--Choosing a career is not always an easy task.  A graduate from the M.A. in Medical Sciences – Oral Health Sciences track and a first year dental student at the Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (BUGDM), Maria Vasilakos provides some insight on her unique path into the dental field.

What made you choose the field of dentistry?

Ever since I was a young child, I wanted to be a dentist.  As I grew up and during college, the idea of dentistry disappeared, and I ultimately earned a degree in Biology, with a marine biology concentration, from Northeastern University.  After graduation, I taught scuba diving but eventually wanted to further challenge myself.  I decided on teaching.  In my third year, as a high school biology teacher, a student sought me out for advice on class choice to better prepare her for dental school.  As I was researching prerequisites for programs for my student, I rekindled my childhood interest in dentistry and began to look for dental schools for myself.

I understand you graduated from the M.A. in Medical Sciences (MAMS) Oral Health Track.  How did you hear about the program, and how was your experience in the program?

I met my husband while I was studying for the DAT.  As my husband was a graduate of the GMS MAMS program, he encouraged me to apply to the Oral Health track within MAMS in addition to dental schools.  The MAMS Oral Health program was perfect for me, as it had been a while since I had been a student.  Without the program, dental school would have been a struggle.  I had to work hard to get my work done and earn the grades, but it prepared me for the heavier course work in dental school.  The Oral Health track equipped me with study habits that have been critical for me to get through my current academic work.  Because I took classes with BUGDM while in the Oral Health track, I am able to fully focus on elective courses that require the basic science knowledge for this first year.  In one sense, I would definitely say I have an advantage over my classmates that did not graduate from the MAMS Oral Health track, or another similar program.

Congratulations on being elected Class President!  What made you decide to run for office?

Entering BUGDM, I wanted to become more involved as a student representative.  I am a different type of dental student – I am older than most of my classmates, I have a Master’s degree in Oral Health Sciences, and I have years of experience in a field other than medicine.  I wanted to be able to use my unique situation to contribute to the first-year class.  As President, I will be responsible for academic issues students face, such as the scheduling of exams and courses.  I also will get to plan some social activities to unite the class, including a possible ski trip this winter.

What are your future plans once you graduate from the dental school?

I want to practice dentistry, but I also want to teach.  My past experience as an educator was an influential aspect of my life, and is something I want to continue.

What advice can you give current GMS and/or MAMS students as they work to complete their degrees?

GMS offers very unique opportunities to its students. Particularly with MAMS, the program can make you, or break you.  The MAMS program is a second chance for you if your undergraduate career was not as appealing as needed to get in to medical school.  If you do well in the program, then you have a very good chance continuing on into medical, dental, or other professional school.  If you do poorly, then you lose the second chance, and there may not be a third.  It is so important to strive for success in the GMS programs, and to do that, you will have to study hard.

Balancing academics and a social life can be difficult, especially for students new to the Boston area.  Set aside time both during the week and on the weekends for studies and extracurricular activities.  I also surround myself with people who are passionate about their studies, who I can talk to about classes, and who are supportive of my goals.  You can find many ways to combine your social and academic interests.



Spotlight on Students: Geunwon Kim

August 4th, 2011 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Kim, GeunwonNot many people can say they enjoy waking up and going to work every day.  Geunwon Kim may be an exception.  A current MD/PhD student in her fourth PhD year, she mixes research with passion as she attends conferences and prepares for her MD years at Boston University School of Medicine.

Welcome back to Boston!  I understand you were just at an International Conference?

Yes, the 2011 Gordon Conference “Stress Proteins in Growth, Development & Disease,” which was a six-day conference in Lucca, Italy focusing on the role of stress proteins as regulators of disease and life span.  I had to forego an MD/PhD conference here in the States, but overall, it was worth it.  The conference was small with approximately a hundred people, but there were some big name scientists, and the quality of research was outstanding.  I was a bit star-struck actually, especially when I had to approach them.  I’ve read about their research, and having the chance to talk to them was inspiring.

What was the research you presented?

I presented my research in a poster session on the mechanism behind the attenuation of heat shock factor in senescent cells.  The experience gave me exposure, and many of the prominent scientists who were there came to see my poster.  They commented and discussed my research with me, and they gave many ideas to further my research.  More importantly, I found the more I talked about my project, the more familiar I became with it.

What PhD program are you in here at BU?

I am in the Molecular Medicine PhD program.  I absolutely love my program.  When I was considering PhD programs, I knew I wanted one with a diverse group of faculty with experience ranging from basic science to translational science.  In addition, the Molecular Medicine Program at BU offers a variety of seminars that keep me engaged in other areas of science, besides my narrow field of research.

What made you choose the combined MD/PhD program?

I always knew that I would be a doctor. In college, a professor took me under her wings as a freshman and showed me what research was all about. After that, I wanted to incorporate research in my career and MD/PhD seemed like a good idea. Since starting this program, I have realized how important it is to understand how disease affects a person, but also to do so at the molecular level.  Even though I am working with cells in the lab, I and other researchers are always thinking about how the bench work would translate to the clinics. The MD/PhD program facilitates this translational thinking and research.

What are your future plans/goals?

I love to balance the clinical and research work.  I haven’t decided if I will go directly into clinical medicine or become a researcher.  Right now, research makes me want to get up in the morning and go to work where I might find something new.  My work in the lab is exciting, and I love when I can see the applications of my research in tangible ways.

What have you found to be the most challenging part of your academic career as a MD/PhD student here at BU?

I am in my 4th year as a PhD candidate, and it has been a very challenging experience.  The education I am getting now is very different from all my past degrees.  When you are a PhD student in a lab, there are no answers, you must find the answer yourself and back it up with your research.  There are no right and wrong answers that can be verified with a textbook.  You have to utilize what you already know to venture into the unknown, and this is definitely something I struggled with in the beginning.  When I first started the program, I needed and wanted some validation that my research and progress was either right or wrong.  But then I soon realized that it is okay not to know what will happen.  I learned that the whole process of a PhD is about exploring your subject, building thinking skills, and learning how to get an answer to your question from your own work. This was the hardest part, and I am still getting used to it.

Are you involved in other activities outside of research?

I am also on the Volunteerism Committee for United Way Women’s Initiative.  The purpose of this organization is to involve women in Greater Boston area to make a difference in the lives of other women and families.  We recently compiled a demographic survey to better understand the volunteer pool in the area.

Do you have any advice for current GMS students?

Don’t give up.  Be passionate and take pride in your work.  Also, if you have the opportunity, present your research.  For Masters students considering a PhD, make sure you love the research, which is a process – process of asking the right questions.  Always be asking why/how, and then find a logical solution in any way you can.  Boston University is a great school, so take advantage of the faculty and resources.

Spotlight on Students: Flavien Leclere

June 30th, 2011 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Flavien Leclere PHOTO--6.28.11Balancing graduate school and all that comes with it—classes, research, exams—is not easy.  We sat down with Flavien Leclere, President of the Graduate Medical Sciences Student Organization (GMSSO) and the recent recipient of the   Robert F. Troxler Award in Biochemistry, to hear how he maintains a busy schedule, and has fun doing it.

Can you tell me a bit about GMSSO and how you got involved?

I was heavily involved in a lot of activities during undergrad and really wanted to participate.  I initially wasn’t planning on becoming too involved.  I kept receiving emails about the Executive Board, but it wasn’t until some of my peers convinced me to run that I ended up becoming the President of GMSSO. So far, things are running relatively smoothly.  It’s a little hectic during this transition as we lose some members and gain new ones.  But the old Executive Board members have been very helpful and supportive of the new board members and me.

As the newly elected President, do you have any plans for the upcoming year?

There is nothing set in stone as of yet.  We hold an annual blood drive, and would like to add a second one.  We also work with Project Gratitude by staffing collection booths and assembling leisure items, clothing, food, and personal hygiene products for troops overseas. A new organization we would like to begin working with is Freedom House.  Part of its mission is to promote educational excellence in Boston’s most distressed urban neighborhoods.  Freedom House has found that students are having a difficult time with the sciences, and we hope to participate by tutoring them in basic science subjects.  We really want to tie the GMSSO to a charitable organization, and Freedom House might be it.  We also want to host a screening for the film Life of a PhD Student, and we are currently very focused on the upcoming 2011 Fall Orientation.

What other activities are you involved in here on campus or in the Boston Community?

I am a member of the American Red Cross of the Massachusetts Bay area by participating on the Disaster Action Team.  I had participated in the Disaster Action Team in Milwaukee and enjoyed it so much that I chose to participate here in Boston.  It involves being on call for a certain time period and being part of the first response to fires.  It has been hard being a graduate student and responding to those kinds of calls, especially when the call is at three in the morning and there is an exam the next day.  Seeing people lose everything in a fire is very emotional, but the experience is extremely rewarding.

What program of study are you in?

I’m in the Master of Arts in Medical Sciences (MAMS) program.  When I completed my undergrad, I was looking for a program that would help me in medical school, but I didn’t want to jump right into a PhD program.  I chose BU because everyone I talked to was very straightforward and upfront.  I knew what I could expect from the program, and I knew what BU expected from me.  It seemed like the best decision I could make.

As a second year MAMS student, you must be putting a lot of though and work into your thesis.  What is the most rewarding or the most difficult part about the research?

I will begin my thesis research this July in a laboratory at Harvard Medical School.  My research will focus around p53 and the HPV virus.  I completed previous research as an undergraduate, both with a mentor and independently.  I have also worked in projects that involved organizing and analyzing years of data using statistical methods. Research can be very rewarding but it requires a lot of patience, especially in the laboratory.  Things don’t always work, and tests can go wrong.  It is a lot of repetition.  But it is part of the bigger picture, and I am looking forward to beginning my thesis work.

You were recently awarded the Robert F. Troxler Award in Biochemistry.  Do you have any advice for incoming or current students on how to set high academic standards while still maintaining involvement in other activities?

Balancing everything will be different for everyone.  I was lucky that my undergraduate institution had a very rigorous biochemistry program, so I obtained a very significant background in the subject.  But ultimately, you have to have fun while learning the subject.  Hopefully everyone who is considering medicine as a career is doing so because they enjoy it.  I also think it’s important to look at your studies from a practical aspect.  Don’t study by memorizing everything in the syllabus.  You have to understand how the material all fits together.  Once you understand the bigger picture, then memorizing the little details becomes easy. But it all starts with enjoying the subject.

My advice for studying is to go outside and stay out of the library.  I like to study somewhere I can talk to other people involved in other things, like at home.  My roommates are not science majors, and I cannot talk to them about Biochemistry. That keeps me open and prevents me from thinking on one track.  You have to split your studies up and, if need be, take a break to enjoy other things too.  And definitely don’t cram for those tests.

Spotlight on Students: Stephanie Seidl

May 19th, 2011 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

seidl photoCompleting a graduate degree requires hard work, dedication, motivation, and the sacrifice of free time.  Even when it seems that there is no end in sight, the final degree does pay off.  Stephanie is one of the many GMS students that will be graduating this May and entering the work force. One of GMS’s involved and successful students, she is here to provide some hope, insight, and advice for current students.

Q. What are some of the activities you have been involved in while here at BUSM?

I received a travel award the past three years that allowed me to travel to Atlanta, Washington DC, and San Francisco. I presented posters in all three cities at Atherosclerosis Thrombosis Vascular Biology (ATVB) meeting, along with 500-600 other presenters. I have also been teaching ‘Cell Culture Techniques’ at City Lab, and I participated in Whizkids for three years, an organization that teaches hands-on science projects to elementary and middle school aged students in addition to how to complete a science project and present it in a science fair. And I was part of GMSSO for four years.

Q. Can you tell us more about GMSSO and your involvement?

The Graduate Medical Sciences Student Organization’s (GMSSO) goal is to help bring students from all of the GMS departments and programs together to share ideas or concerns as a united student body. We also organize various social and volunteer activities. I was a member and President of GMSSO until this year, but I decided to give up my involvement while I focused on school my final year. The driving force behind GMSSO is the desire to create a better life for students.  With this organization, one of our main accomplishments was to get better student healthcare coverage and a maternity leave policy in place for students. We also do community service activities, such as organizing blood drives. We have been extremely fortunate to have Dr. Hyman’s support, and she has been an excellent advocate for our causes. Participating in GMSSO activities and being on the committee is a great way to meet everybody around BUSM, especially the faculty.

Q. You are finishing your time here at BUSM this spring and graduating. Tell us about your program and graduating.

I was in the Cell and Molecular Biology program, but later joined the Biochemistry department.  I just defended my thesis on the effects of inflammation on smooth muscle cell extracellular matrix on March 30th!  It was definitely a challenge to write a thesis that covers four years of experiments, but as long as you tackle a little at a time and stay on top of the corrections, it is very manageable.  Going into the oral defense, I really did not know what to expect, but it really is one big discussion about what you have done for the past four years and it closely resembles that of a committee meeting.  It provides an opportunity to think about the ‘big picture’ and how it relates to your research.

Q. Do you have plans for after graduation?

I recently accepted a job working for a company in Danvers called Cell Signaling Technologies. It is nice to have something lined up after graduation, but it was challenging to balance schoolwork and the job search; it took a while.  The economy turned slightly better and job openings were slowly posted. I guess it hasn’t even really hit me yet that I am done.  Maybe it will on Saturday’s commencement ceremony.

Q. Any advice for other graduating students looking for jobs?

  • I sent out twenty-five or more résumés.
  • You really have to look for job postings, and send resumes, every day. Employers are only looking at the résumés they receive in the first few days. It has a lot to do with good timing.
  • Start job-hunting early!
  • Talk to committee members and reach out to classmates that have graduated to develop connections.

Q. What about advice for those still in GMS or writing their thesis and ready to defend?

  • Try and write your thesis in sections; do a little bit here and there. Tackle it early on and you’ll have less to do at the end.
  • Before your seminar and defense, take a deep breath and just relax (which I was told but found it difficult to actually do).
  • Try and enjoy it! The faculty are really approachable, and they want you to succeed.
  • Go to a conference. Try to attend at least one. National or international. You never know what information you will find that will drive the direction of your research.

Good luck to Stephanie and all the graduating GMS students!

By GMS Student,

Maggie Wentworth

Spotlight on Students: Crystal Oechsle

April 8th, 2011 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Crystal2Fighting crime can start from GMS!  Often, the most influential information in a court case is built from the evidence obtained at the crime scene and processed in the lab. With all the terrible crimes that can be committed, it is comforting to know there are individuals like Crystal working to gather and analyze essential evidence that identify suspects. Not only has she been practicing forensics at the State Police DNA Unit, but she has been working to create a more effective system to analyze DNA collected from a crime scene.

Q: What program are you in enrolled in and why that program?

I am in the Masters of Science in Biomedical Forensic Science Program. This is my third year in the program attending part-time. I studied forensics and chemistry during my undergraduate studies at Ohio University. Forensic science has so many disciplines, which can be applied to many places. I was working in the State Police DNA Unit and a number of my coworkers were already in the Forensic Science Program at BUSM. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue school, so I took one year off. Then I sat in on a class here. There are not many opportunities like the program at BUSM in Forensic Science.

Q: Recently, you attended a conference and presented a poster. Can you tell us about that experience?

My advisor, Dr. Grgicak pushed me to do the poster. I was initially uncertain as to if this was a good idea, but once I actually saw the poster hanging up in the hallway, it was like: Wow, I did that! I ended up being extremely pleased with the poster and proud of the work I did. Now I am even looking into publishing a paper based on this poster. The poster, titled ‘A Comparative Study of Biological Fluid Identification Methods:  Lateral Flow Immunochromatographic Test Strips and Real-Time PCR Quantitation using Quantifiler® Duo,” presented information on analyzing DNA from sexual assault kits. When analyzing these kits, the initial step is to determine if there is any male DNA and then, if there is, further testing is done to determine the exact DNA.

I presented my poster at the 2010 Annual Meeting for the Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientist. Presenting my poster at the conference allowed me to gain a new appreciation for the peer review process, and I was pleased with the receptive attitude my poster received. It also provided me with interesting feedback and new questions to investigate. The best part of the conference was the free-form case presentations from different labs. It was open to the participants to introduce  their own interesting topics, and was a great opportunity to gain a feel for the experience of different labs throughout the region. The conference taught me that there is still a long way to go in the field and it ignited thoughts of ‘what next’ and ‘where do we go from here’.

Q: What does working in the State Police DNA unit involves?

There are two aspects of the job. One is the crime scene response unit. This means I get to go out to the scene of a crime to collect evidence. Doing so, I get to interact with victims and suspects, although I am really just collecting evidence from them, not asking them questions or interrogating them. The other aspect of the job is criminalistics, which includes working on the evidence in the lab. Overall, I don’t interact frequently with the people involved in the investigation, although I have received a ‘thank you’ from a victim in one case.

Q: Does your job ever require you to testify?

Yes. I am often called to court, but I have only actually testified 10-12 times in four years. Often, when I am called to the courtroom there tends to be a lot of “hurry up and wait” occurring. It’s not like you see on TV.  The courts are unpredictable, and I don’t often actually testify.

Q: What is next for you and your career?

I don’t have a life plan right now. My advisors are definitely encouraging me to continue my education with a PhD, but I am thinking that I need to develop my lab skills and gain more hands on experience in the field. It is a challenging career to have, as one must live near a city with crime to have the most opportunities. My husband recently accepted a job in Chicago and has been living there since this fall.

Q: Wow, how long have you been married for?

We were married in October of 2009. We have been together for ten years, since high school, and it just worked out that we went to the same college after graduating. He moved out here for a year, but had a better opportunity in Chicago. Now it is just me and our Irish Wolfhound, Apollo, who is a gigantic, wonderful dog that requires lots of playtime.

Q: Between working full-time, attending classes, creating posters, maintaining a marriage, and taking care of a dog, what do you do for yourself?

Don’t forget thesis writing and comprehensive tests.  Well, I enjoy being involved in sorority life in Boston. I was in Delta Gamma at Ohio University, and I am able to give back to that organization as the treasurer for a chapter here in Boston.  It is a small chapter, but I am excited to report we have been able to lease a small space for the women of the chapter to gather and organize, and we are now in the process of renovating it.  It has really allowed me to stay connected to my past and connect here in Boston.

Q: Any words of advice for others presenting their posters or interested in the Forensic Science field?

  • It is a rewarding career if you are truly interested in it and can handle it.
  • Take a class if you think you may be interested in Forensic Science; you don’t necessarily have had to be a forensic major to get into the field.
  • For presentations: Be prepared and confident in what you have done.

o   No one else knows what you’ve done or as much as you know about your research.

Crystal Oechsle has given us a small taste of what it means to be involved in the Biomedical Forensic Science Program and the type of opportunities one can gain from this field. While she manages her career, school, a husband, and a personal life with grace and a smile, she is making an impact in the field of forensic science.

Spotlight on Students: Conor Smith

January 27th, 2011 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Connor SmithDo you know what it is like to present a poster at a conference with over 30,000 attendees? Conor Smith, a graduate student in GMS, presented a poster at the Society for Neuroscience meeting where attendees came from all over the world.  He was able to attend the meeting with the help from a travel grant from the GMS office and he sat down to share this exciting experience with all of us.


Q: You recently attended the annual Society for Neuroscience 2010 meeting in San Diego. Can you tell us a little about what you were doing there?

There were really two main activities I was concerned with at the meeting. The first was to present my own poster entitled “Mechanisms of Pregnenolone Sulfate-Induced Increases in Plasma Membrane NMDA Receptor Expression in Rat Cortical Neurons”. During my presentation I fielded questions and received input from other scientists at the conference.

The second part of the meeting basically involved seeing as much as possible. This conference covers the cutting edge in research. It is a sample of the most advanced research conducted worldwide. There was such an abundance of poster presenters at the meeting that it took approximately 20 minutes just to walk straight across the room holding them all. That doesn’t even include walking through the aisles and seeing all the posters. It was also a great opportunity for networking, it gave you personal contact as you met with people face to face.

Q: What stands out to you the most from this experience?

I really enjoyed learning about the cutting edge research. You can tell which research is popular and new by the crowd surrounding it and I noticed that a BU poster being presented on optic genetics always had a mass of people surrounding it throughout the conference. Some of the best new research is right here on our own campus. All the vendors at the conference was another exciting opportunity to learn about new products that could potentially help my research. The new technology presented by vendors can provide new methods for investigation, and many of the new inventions have reduced in size. For example, this one machine, which takes up about the same floor space as a washer and dryer, has now been reduced to approximately the size of a small microwave. This is something I can bring back to the lab at BU and inform the people here of better methods for conducting research.

Q: How has this shaped your current research?

Presenting my poster and observing the other posters has really formed the direction of my research, especially what not to do. It has helped me understand why the novel studies have the most impact. It is guiding the direction of my research as it has given me new ideas. I found it extremely helpful to hear others comments on the posters, to hear their own experiences and useful tips they offered.

Q: What program are you in and why did you choose this program?

I originally started as a lab tech in the department of biophysics. As I became familiar with this lab and visited labs at other institutions, I realized that the Pharmacology department at BU was the best department for my interests in neuroscience and pharmacology. I just liked what this lab had going on and the structure of the program. There was the right balance of academics and research.

Q: Can you tell us more about your research here at BUSM?


 Pregnenolone sulfate (PS) is a neuroactive steroid that enhances NMDAR mediated synaptic transmission, augments LTP in hippocampal slices, and acts as a cognitive enhancer in impaired animals. This is important because of its possible role in synaptic plasticity, memory formation, and neuropsychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia. To test that PS induces an upregulation of NMDARs at the surface of cortical neurons we exposed cultured rat neurons to 100uM PS for 10 minutes. We observed that PS is sufficient to induce increases in intracellular calcium in the absence of extracellular calcium.


Q: So when you aren’t in the lab, what other activities are you involved in?


I like to hang out with friends when I can. I read a lot or just spend time at home with my wife. We’ve been married for 2 years now and we still like to go out to eat together and find new places to dine in Boston. We’ve been to a wide variety of restaurants in Boston. It’s a great city for excellent varied dining as well as for receiving a higher education.

Q: Any advice for other prospective students?

Go to the Society for Neuroscience meeting. It is a great way to see a wide variety of research as well as a great way to get more information on how to do research. Also, go as early in your Ph.D. career as possible and see what interests you. You don’t have to be a presenter to go.

Take the advice from Conor and try to attend national and international meetings.  It is a great way to meet scientists from all over the world and get lots of exposure. You can learn more about travel grants by visiting the website

Spotlight on Students: Daniel Dworkis

December 10th, 2010 in Homepage Spotlights, Student Spotlight

Dan DworkisHave you seen the amazing photography—all created by our own GMS students—displayed in the GMS office? If not, please stop by and enjoy these beautiful art works. One of the photographers is Daniel Dworkis, an MD/PhD student, who is not only passionate about science but balances his life with many activities such as photography, volunteering, etc. He sat down to share with us his perspectives on science, medicine, and the game rock, paper, scissors.

Q: So you’ve been doing some traveling recently? Can you tell us about where you’ve been and what you were doing there?

Yes, that’s right. I recently became involved with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and spent a month in Haiti working with that organization at the displaced persons camp Kam Lespwa / Klinik Lespwa (meaning camp or clinic of hope, respectively). It was an amazing experience that provided me with a unique opportunity to help people. Applying some of my lab experience in the field, I conducted some public health research, looking at different types of malnutrition present in the camp.

Q: What is one of your strongest memories from this experience?

Working with the children in the camp was amazing, and since I speak Haitian Kreyol, I was able to really interact directly with them. I would walk by a group of kids and they would be so surprised when they realized I actually understood them—my favorite part was trying to teach them the game ‘rock, paper, scissors,’ a game I’ve been playing since I was a kid. They really didn’t buy into the idea of paper beating rock, but that did not stop them from surrounding me and demanding to play every time I went by!

Q: How has this experience changed your perspective?

Being able to bring my research skills to Haiti and apply them in the field really reminded me of why I’m in this program: I worked alongside wonderful doctors and nurses who were trying to address the medical issues they saw, and by bringing my research skills to look at the public-health data we collected in a new way, I was able to expose some previously unrecognized trends and concerns. So I could really see how the PhD and MD parts of my training were working together. It also really solidified my desire to work for at least part of my career internationally, probably in post-disaster or refugee settings.

Q: What program are you enrolled in and why did you choose this particular program?

I am an MD-PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Molecular Medicine, researching factors affecting the severity of sickle cell anemia. After studying biophysics at Brown I began working at BU in the bioengineering department, and entered the MD-PhD program here intending to work on developing new bio-optic devices for research. However, during my first year of medical school, I went to a series of great talks focused on medicine and research in the setting of poverty both at home and abroad; the speakers posed some very challenging questions, and I realized I really wanted to devote a large part of my career to addressing both the bio-molecular and socio-economic etiologies of disease. Just before starting at BU, I had volunteered as a summer-camp counselor for kids with sickle cell anemia, and had seen first-hand the complex physiological and socio-economic havoc this genetic disorder wreaks. I was fortunate enough to be able to join the Center of Excellence in Sickle Cell Disease under the guidance of Dr. Martin Steinberg in the Program in Molecular Medicine. Currently, I’m researching how genetic variation modifies endothelial processing of inflammation in an effort to identify molecular pathways that might alter the severity of sickle cell disease.

Q: Why BUSM?

The mission of this school is extremely meaningful and congruent with my personal perspective. I am thrilled to work at an institution where the guiding principle is service for the underserved, and I see such a real passion here from the people I meet and work with. I also consider myself to be very fortunate to be in a place like BU that does so much to guide students toward reaching their goals, even when those goals include atypical things like temporarily leaving the laboratory to work in a displaced persons camp!

Q: So when you aren’t in the lab, what other activities are you involved in?

I am a co-leader of the emerging advocacy program here at BUSM. It is a 4-year comprehensive curriculum, from teaching advocacy for patients to changing national policy. As part of this curriculum, I am currently teaching a class with a couple of other students on how legal status effects healthcare. I love the challenge of teaching the class and the opportunity to work with so many talented and motivated individuals. I am also part of the advisory council of Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (, and have learned a tremendous amount from that organization about addressing larger-scale public-health issues. I also teach a kickboxing class, which I learned as a kid from my father (who actually trained with Chuck Norris). In my non-existent free time, I also enjoy include running, yoga, and, of course, photography.

It is clear that whatever Dan may face next, it is certain that he will excel. Beyond that, Dan is also challenging us to set an exceptional standard to care for others and strive for continued improvements and excellence.

By GMS student,
Maggie Wentworth