University of Alabama – Birmingham, PhD program in Cellular and Molecular Biology
Auburn University, PhD program in Molecular Biology
University of Alabama, PhD program in Molecular and Cellular Biology
- Briefly describe your career in molecular biology.
- Guy: A career path in molecular biology represents among the most exciting areas of exploration. If you think about what we do, it is an attempt to understand and manipulate the molecules (DNA, proteins, etc.) that comprise the basis of life, usually to discern something meaningful for prevention of disease. Importantly, we not only learn information about these molecules and how they work, but we actually have the training and tools to alter them. A week rarely goes by in our lab without one of our students creates a “new” life form by genetic engineering methods that never existed on our planet! How cool is that?
- What type of environment do you work in?
- Guy: We run an academic research laboratory at the main undergraduate campus of The University of Alabama system in Tuscaloosa. Our lab consists of about 25 people including ourselves, a Ph.D. lab manager, 2 postdoctoral scientists, 1 technician, 6 Ph.D. students, 1 M.S. student, and about 13 undergraduates. It is a dynamic place that we affectionately call “The Worm Shack” because our primary research organism is the nematode roundworm, C. elegans. Our lab can be described as a place where “serious fun” takes place. While it is a fun place commonly filled both day and night with music and lively chatter (both scientific and not!), the research we do is serious and everyone respects the goals we have to work toward cures for human neurological diseases.
- Describe a typical workday.
- Guy: As the co-directors of our lab, and a happily married couple, we have 1 car and we come to work together, have lunch together, and leave together. We get to work before 7:30AM and usually leave around 6:30-7:00PM during the work week. We also typically come in on weekends for at least one day and sometimes more. Having said that, it is hard to say that our lives are anything “typical”, as in between research and teaching (which we do 3 times a week in a classroom, and more in the lab), we are also routinely are traveling around the world (for free!) attending conferences and giving lectures on our research. We have been to Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, India, and all over the USA.
- What type of education and experience is required for a career like yours?
- Guy: There are different requirements for different jobs. If one wishes to run their own research lab in an academic setting, you must have a Ph.D. and several years of postdoctoral experience following receipt of the doctorate. The same is generally true for senior investigator/lab leadership positions in industry, but entry level positions usually require a doctorate alone. With an M.S. degree, one can usually find work as a laboratory technician or research associate, doing the actual experiments and sometimes managing others as well. Having a B.S. degree alone represents a challenge to acquiring a job without any undergraduate research experience, but if one can get an entry level technical position and gain a couple of years experience it is considered the equivalent of a M.S. degree, and sometimes more.
- What is your educational background?
- Guy: I received my B.S. degree in 1986 in Biology at Washington and Lee University, a very good small liberal arts college in Virginia. I had some good, but limited experience working in labs there too, but the type of research one does at a small college is more “hobby-style” vs. serious. Nevertheless, I receive excellent personal attention from my professors that taught me lab skills and exposed me to the scientific mindset. I continued my studies as a M.S. degree student in at The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I was part of an innovative Biotechnology program. As part of this program, I had the opportunity to work as a technician in the summer at Glaxo SmithKline and see what it was like to be in big pharma. I never completed my M.S., but then switched to a Ph.D. program at Tennessee in the field of Cellular, Molecular and Developmental Biology under the mentorship of Dr. Jeff Becker, a prominent yeast molecular biologist. Following receipt of my doctorate in 1993, I worked as a postdoctoral scientist while waiting for Kim to complete her degree, and, in 1995, we return to the area where I grew up, New York City, for a postdoctoral research appointment at Columbia University in the field of neurogenetics using C. elegans. My postdoctoral advisor was Dr. Martin Chalfie, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the use of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). With this training in neuroscience, I then was fortunate to get my current job running my own lab as a professor at The University of Alabama in 1999. I received tenure in 2005.
- Kim: My education is ongoing and will probably never cease. The way of the biologist is one of never ending education because there is so much cool stuff to know inside our little cells! I guess now that I have a terminal degree, however, my education is informal and self motivated.
What about the formal education? Heavily focused on biology and chemistry. I have a BS degree from SUNY Fredonia (State University of New York at Fredonia) in recombinant gene technology. You are probably wondering what that is… It was a funky degree offered in the 1980s to attract students to the university since recombinant DNA (the combining of DNA from two different sources) was a relatively new field. Basically, however, you could say I have a degree in biochemistry dressed up with a fancy bow. I also received a minor in chemistry at the same time.
I then moved south and earned both my MS and PhD degrees from the University of Tennessee in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology. Following receipt of my PhD I continued my education with a postdoctoral residency at The Rockefeller University in New York City. My graduate and postdoctoral education were within the field of cell division.
- Why did you choose this career?
- Guy: I have always been fascinated by science, and especially its application to medicine. My grandfather, a famous orthopedic surgeon, was a strong influence on me as a young child. However, he forewarned me of the changing medical climate that doctors work in these days including malpractice, regulations, limited time with patients, and managed HMO-style care. Plus, I realized in college that not only was I not very good at memorizing lots of facts in textbooks, I hated doing it and found much greater pleasure in the act of discovering those nuggets of knowledge. I realized that if I pursued a Ph.D., I could actually be the one writing the books and discovering the drugs instead of reading about them and prescribing them! That just seemed far more interesting to me then, and still is now.
Beyond the research, as teaching assistant at UT, I realized that I not only enjoyed the act of creating knowledge, but loved sharing that addictive feeling with young students. Moreover, the high one gets from teaching is quite a revelation, and this led me down the academic path in my career. My experience in industry, while overall quite positive, also opened my eyes to the limitations in research freedom and job security that existed in the corporate setting. I now live in the best of both worlds, as our lab is funded partly by a pharmaceutical company for which I serve as a scientific adviser and we are quite involved with more applied research, as well as basic stuff, in our lab.
- Kim: I never set out to be a professor and researcher; I sort of stumbled into that job. However, I always wanted to know more about nature because I loved animals, rocks, planets, stars, fish, etc. So, in school I took a lot of science courses and along the way I just kept narrowing my focus as I found out what areas of science I liked. For example, in high school I decided that I liked chemistry and biology more than earth science and physics, but I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted to major in when I went to college. So, in college I tried out both chemistry and biology (since chemistry classes are needed for a biology major, anyway). Once in college I realized that I liked advanced biology a little more than chemistry, so I majored in biology but minored in chemistry, because I still somewhat enjoyed it.
I use this approach to test drive all sorts of narrower and narrower fields within the biological sciences. My current area of focus as a professor is within the neuroscience area of biology but I used to do research in the area of cell division when I was a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher. I still have at least 20 years of research left in my career so I expect that I may change my focus again before I retire! And guess what? One of the wonderful things about a career in research is that as long as you can make a living at what you are doing, you can change your research directions.
- What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?
- Guy: I would say the best part of my job is seeing my students discover something no one in the history of mankind has every revealed before. It is easy to take that for granted, but I try to remember that even the smallest discoveries are incremental additions to the knowlegebase of humanity. So many people have jobs that create nothing for our society. It is extremely rewarding to know that what we do can have an impact at many levels – from education and scientific training to finding cures or causes to devastating diseases. I also love the fact that I do not consider what I do to be “work” in the traditional sense. Research science is an addictive passion for me and I cannot imagine having a better job. On the negative side, training as a scientist does not prepare one for all the other things that are needed to successfully run a lab. I get frustrated by the amount of time and energy I expend toward things like grant accounting, regulatory paperwork, and other things that have little to do with the discovery process. Still, its part of the job, and the good far outweighs the bad.
- Kim: I really enjoy interacting with the student and staff researchers in my laboratory group. It is really exciting to talk about a research problem and kick around various ideas about how something might work and then find, over the course of a 15-minute conversation, that many people in the group have different ideas about how to tackle the problem. When we finish talking, there is a lot of energy in the air because there are so many potential solutions and ideas and new experiments to try.
I also teach college students and I usually enjoy my interactions with students in the formal classroom setting. If my students can walk away from class truly understanding a difficult concept, then it was a very good day.
Least favorite part of my job….this is easy – I really don’t like paperwork.
- Do you have any suggestions or words of wisdom for high school students interested in a career in your field?
- Guy: Get involved early and often. The sooner and more you can volunteer or work in a lab, the better. However, keep in mind the perspective of the lab director too. Remember that you are more of burden then a helper, at least at first. It is of little benefit to the lab to take time/money/effort to train someone who is new to the required benchwork unless they are going to be around for a while. So, if possible, make it clear to a prospective host/employer you would commit to a longer term experience (i.e., a year or more during school or not just 1 summer, but multiple summers in the same lab). Continuity of work effort and experience is what leads to success. Think beyond resume building and think about actually discovering and publishing something – in that case your effort will shine brightly.
- Kim: I think that students should try to make the most of any opportunity that they are provided with. Opportunities in life are rare and should be treated with the utmost respect. For example, attend community seminars on scientific topics or apply for summer research programs – and then make the most of them (pay attention! be curious! ask questions! do more than is asked of you!)
If these opportunities are not available to you, then use Internet or book resources to learn all you can about the subject that interests you.
If you are not sure about what subjects interest you, no worries! Just be a good student and follow your heart like I did, and you will find your way toward a rewarding career.
- Are there any other career opportunities in your field you think students should be aware of?
- Guy: It used to be that a career in biology meant that you either were a teacher, professor, or doctor. That is certainly not true at all these days, as the growth of the biotechnology industry has led to an expansion of opportunities for biologists to enter a very wide range of careers. Among other areas include venture capital, bioinformatics, patent law, sales, forensics, genetic counseling, scientific writing, and more. Most of these paths do require a post-graduate degree (and sometime two, like Ph.D. and MBA), but some can be very lucrative and intellectually satisfying occupations as well.
- Briefly describe your research interests.
- Guy: The research in our lab is directed at understanding diseases of the nervous system including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and dystonia. Our brains are the most advanced biological system we are aware of in nature. So, in order to reduce the complexity of neuron activity and function down to a level whereby we can begin to decipher a means by which we can understand and intervene in the case of diseases, we have pioneered the use of a tiny microscopic roundworm called C. elegans, as an animal through which we can more rapidly (and cost-effectively) approach the cellular and molecular nature of disease mechanisms. C. elegans is no stranger to researchers working in biomedicine, as it has been the subject of 3 Nobel prizes this decade (2002, 2006, 2008), and probably represents the best understood animal on our planet. While our brains have over 100 billion neurons, this worm has precisely 302 and we know how they are all connected! This allows for unprecedented level of accuracy and understanding about how specific genes, proteins, and drugs may modify neuron function and activity. As molecular biologists, we generate new strains of worms that contain human disease genes, we look for changes in worm behavior or neuron survival, and look for things that can correct or impact any observable dysfunction. Importantly, we can get answers in a matter of days in contrast to human or mouse researchers whose discoveries can take years to reach fruition.
We have been fortunate to attract millions of dollars of research funding from organizations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Michael J Fox Foundation and many others to support our use of this tiny worm in unlocking the secrets of disease. It has also been quite rewarding to receive donations from patients, and those who love them, to directly support students working in our lab. Some of our current discoveries are on their way to human clinical trials for dystonia and others have led to a greater understanding of genetic and environmental causes of diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson’s.