PhD Student Spotlight: Anna Tseng

Anna Tseng is a current PhD student in the Department of Virology, Immunology & Microbiology through the Graduate Medical Sciences Program in Biomedical Sciences (PiBS). She graduated in 2022 with a Master of Science in Pathology Laboratory Sciences. Currently, Anna is conducting her PhD research under Assistant Professor of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine Nick Crossland, DVM, DACVP, and Assistant Professor of Virology, Immunology & Microbiology Florian Douam, PhD at the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory (NEIDL), where she plans to focus on the design and characterization of a new mouse model for hemorrhagic or encephalitic viruses. Learn more about Anna below!

Tell me a little bit about your journey to Boston University. Are you from the Boston area?

I am a Boston transplant. My family moved around a lot, and by the time I moved to the Boston area in third grade, I had already lived in eight different houses. My parents are originally from California, and some of my strongest memories growing up are from road tripping around the country to explore national parks in between moving. In middle school after moving to Boston, I saw the controversy that the NEIDL was causing, and thought it was an amazing facility that I would one day work at. Despite over plucking my eyebrows and wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, I guess middle school me got this one right. I did my undergrad in Microbiology at California Polytechnic University, moved back to Boston to do a master’s degree in Pathology at [Boston University Graduate Medical Sciences], and loved it so much I wanted to stick around for a PhD here.

What drew you to the field of pathology and laboratory medicine?

The longer story would be first practicing science growing up without even knowing it, where I conducted badly designed experiments with guppy genetics and density tests on my pet tortoises. However, I started tracking how disease spread in a classroom while in high school and my best friend had bronchitis for several months. I was hooked on infectious disease ever since. However, following my undergrad, I realized I had a serious gap in my knowledge of the human body and how it reacts to disease. Pathology serves as the perfect bridge for studying disease in tissue.

Could you speak to how the pathology master’s program at BU helped you in preparing for and ultimately getting into the PiBS PhD Program?

The Master’s Program in Pathology undoubtedly aided my career in exposing me to graduate level research and allowing me to make crucial connections for mentoring and new learning experiences. It really geared up my lab skills and provided practice in problem solving, independent thought, and experimental design needed for success in a PhD program. On top of being full of extremely knowledgeable and kind people, the pathology department works with not just academic research but clinical too. Being able to see firsthand how research interfaces with healthcare was a great opportunity. The program also allows a certain level of freedom and “choosing your own adventure”, and I feel I was able to take full advantage of many of the opportunities available, including being able to go to a morgue, learn about biobanking, and how to not chop your fingers off on a microtome!

Why did you ultimately choose to pursue your PhD at BU GMS? In other words, what drew you to the pathology program here?

I knew I wanted to work at the NEIDL. The collaborative environment, global health focus, and the cutting-edge infectious disease research fit exactly what I was looking for. The people in the pathology and microbiology programs are absolutely phenomenal. I have been so lucky to work with these brilliant scientists who are also some of the kindest and most inspirational people I have ever met.

Dr. Andry mentioned that during your master’s, you were “an amazing clinical tech and worked in our clinical microbiology lab during COVID-19 when we were short staffed.” Could you speak about this experience a bit and maybe how it helped you develop as a scientist?

Absolutely! It was such an honor to be able to work alongside the incredible people in the BMC Microbiology lab during the pandemic. There are so many hardworking, caring, and resourceful people in that lab who did so much to help, and I learned so much in the year and a half I was there. The opportunity to work in the lab changed how I viewed hospitals and healthcare, and I think it is super important to know how there are many people who work so hard every day behind the scenes in hospitals to provide the best patient care possible. Without them, hospitals would not be able to function! My own research is a lot further removed from patient care, but this experience contributes to my motivation to ensure that any work I do always has people, patients, and health as the priority instead of for the sake of publishing. I always love running into the friendly faces from the BMC lab on campus too, as struggling through a pandemic’s worth of COVID-19 testing together is a surprisingly good bonding experience!

Tell me a little bit about your current research. What does your dissertation focus on?

I have an incredible opportunity to work in both pathology and microbiology. This places me in an environment where multidisciplinary teams work together to tackle larger problems and generate multiple layers of data for a more thorough study. My teams work with a lot of different pathogens, models, technologies, and scientists both within and outside of BU, culminating in never having two days being alike. My thesis, still developing,  will likely focus on the design and characterization of a new mouse model for a hemorrhagic or encephalitic virus, which will hopefully allow researchers to design vaccines and other therapeutics to treat these terrible viruses.

What are you doing now and what are some of your longer-term goals in the field?

Currently, I am working on improving my skills for the computational analysis of data we plan to generate for my thesis, as well as acquiring other new skills for learning the microbiology side of work to complement the pathology skills I have utilized previously. Although I have a lot of time to try to figure out what to do with what I will learn from doing my PhD at BU, I definitely know I want to continue working in infectious diseases, particularly on viruses that affect underprivileged communities and areas of the world with limited access to healthcare. I foresee myself traveling a lot, learning a lot more not just on the diseases but the different communities that these diseases affect, and working hard to help however I can.

Are there any role models in your life who you feel inspired to pursue, or continue pursuing, along this career path?

My dad and brother have always been very strong influences for me to pursue science. They would often egg me on to conduct my earliest experiments and only fed my curiosity. Both of my parents encouraged asking questions and advocating for your point if you have the data to back it up. My PIs within the NEIDL are always super supportive of me, and I am always inspired by their efforts to be amazing scientists and also really good people. An older PhD student within the NEIDL is also a huge role model for me, as he works incredibly hard, does amazing science, and is a friend to everyone. As I continue further down my career path, I feel it is important not just to do good science but also to be kind, humble, and contribute to the world in more ways than just science. I am lucky to have many people in my life who are great role models for this.

What are some of your best memories from your time at GMS?

This is really a tricky question. A lot of days have their ups and downs, and a lot of science is failing and then troubleshooting. I think I enjoy the random interactions I have with lab mates, whether it’s laughing at something I messed up, laughing at a meme, or just laughing at how weird our lives have become. It’s also such a good feeling of the troubleshooting process actually working and knowing good data is finally in reach.

Is there any advice you’d give to students starting out their journey in pathology?

It is an incredible field where you will undoubtedly need the skills to be able to collaborate with others. There are many beautiful pictures, and emerging technologies that somewhat alleviate the qualitative nature pathology has traditionally been limited to.

I think with any scientific field, but particularly pathology, there is a certain amount of terminology you need to know. I think at first, I was very intimidated at how casually a lot of these big, strange words were mentioned, but it’s important to learn and understand in order to effectively communicate results in pathology. My small victory is that my PI used to tell me to use the correct terminology instead of describing a slide as “poppin’!”, but I recently heard him adopt this new terminology.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Thank you for this opportunity! And thank you to BU and the NEIDL researchers for always putting up with me and my desk covered in memes.