Edit 5: ok, that's it everybody, back to lab! Thanks everyone for all your questions, we'll try to get to anyone we missed over the next few days. Check in at our website, facebook, or twitter for more articles and information!

EDIT 4: Most of us are heading out for the night, but this has been awesome. Please keep posting your questions. Many of us will be back on tomorrow to follow up and address topics we've missed so far. We will also contact researchers in other areas to address some of the topics we've missed.

We're a group of PhD students representing Harvard Science In the News, a graduate student organization with a mission to communicate science to the public. Some of the things we do include weekly science seminars which are livestreamed online, and post short articles to clearly explain scientific research that is in the news.

We're here today to answer all of your questions about biology, biomedical research, graduate school, and anything else you're curious about. Here are our research interests, feel free to browse through our lab websites and ask questions as specific or as general as you would like!

EDIT: Getting a lot of questions asking about med school, but just to clarify, we're Harvard PhD students that work in labs located at Harvard Medical School.

EDIT-2: We are in no way speaking for Harvard University / Medical School in an official capacity. The goal of this AMA is to talk about our experiences as graduate students.

EDIT-3: We'd like to direct everyone to some other great subs if you have any more questions.





Proof: SITN Facebook Page

Summary of advice for getting into Grad School:

  • Previous research experience is the most important part of a graduate school application. Perform as much as you can, either through working for a professor at your school during the year, or by attending summer research programs that can be found all over the country. Engage in your projects and try to understand the rationale and significance of your work along with learning the technical skills.

  • Demonstrate your scientific training in your essays. Start these early and have as many people look at them as possible.

  • Cultivate relationships with multiple professors. They will teach you a lot and will help write reference letters, which are very important for graduate school as well.

  • Grades and GRE scores do matter, but they count much less than research experience, recommendations, and your personal training. Take these seriously, but don't be afraid to apply if you have less than a 4.0.

  • Do not be afraid to take time off to figure out whether you want to do graduate school. Pursuing a PhD is an important decision, and should not be taken because "you're not sure what else to do." Many of us took at least a year or two off before applying. However, make sure to spend this time in a relevant field where you can continue to build your CV, and more importantly, get to know the culture and expectations of graduate school. There are both benefits (paid tuition, flexibility, excellent training, transferable skills) and costs (academic careers are competitive, biology PhDs are a large time investment, and not all science careers even require them). Take your time and choose wisely.

  • Most molecular-based programs do not require to have selected a particular professor or project before applying (there is instead a "rotation" system that allows you to select a thesis lab). If you have multiple interest or prefer bigger programs, most schools have an "umbrella program" with wide specialties to apply to (e.g., Harvard BBS, or UCSF Terad).

Resources for science news:

Comments: 1992 • Responses: 65  • Date: 

poopsliquid305 karma

How do you deal with overcoming the gap between trustworthy, peer reviewed articles vs clickbait "sciencerulez.com" type of websites? Furthermore do you think science based articles that say "this cranberry cures cancer" etc. should be allowed to freely post those opinions, or should there be more regulation on medical information available to the public?

SITNHarvard464 karma

Joe here: This is a great question. One problem is that the most trustworthy, peer-reviewed articles are less accessible than click bait types of websites. Even when they are accessible, there may be too much technical jargon for them to be useful to most people. To close this gap, we need websites such as http://usefulscience.org that provide easily understood summaries of peer-reviewed science that can be accessed as easily as the click bait websites. There are a lot of crap claims on various websites that have no basis in fact or science, and I do think that they should have a disclaimer stating that they have no basis in science. Further, scientists should take a greater responsibility in making their findings more accessible to the public, and journalists/media outlets should take more care to provide fact-based information instead of going for shock-value headlines. Here at Harvard, our group, SITN (http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu), tries to make science more accessible to the public.

AnnOnimiss49 karma

Thank you for the link, are there other sites besides usefulscience.org you would recommend?

SITNHarvard77 karma

Marc here: Science in the News is a organization run by Harvard graduate students trying to offer good resources for viral news stories called "Waves" (shortform http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/waves/) and long form ("Signal to Noise" http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/signal-to-noise/).

partypatch299 karma

As a fellow Biochemistry PhD student: Will I ever graduate?

SITNHarvard599 karma

get back to lab ;)

pologiant187 karma

You doctor yet?

SITNHarvard101 karma

No :-(

Thinkyt172 karma

Can you ELI5 really just how groundbreaking this story is about the 'cured' paralysis man?

Also, related, what do you think about the US govs position on stem cell research?

SITNHarvard52 karma

This is a bit far from any of our specific fields of science, but the response by /u/Descarteshorse above seems great!

In terms of stem cell research, political aspects of that are rather complex, but we think that stem cell research has the potential to greatly benefit humans and should be pursued.

whatcunt1155 karma

What is your opinion on the medicinal benefits of marijuana?

SITNHarvard133 karma

While none of have studied this specifically, it seems to have potential. Barring any findings of severe health impacts from THC, it will probably continue to be used, developed, and better understood. We have an article about it here: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/uncategorized/2014/risks-of-cannabis-use-in-light-of-legalization-surge/

AtHalcyon123 karma

What advice would you give to an undergrad applying to grad school who has worked in the same lab all four years of school? Would you recommend branching out to completely new types of research in grad school, or try to join a lab where I'll be using techniques and concepts I am already familiar with?

SITNHarvard114 karma

I would recommend applying to umbrella programs! Most of us are in the Harvard Biological & Biomedical Sciences (BBS) program, which gives us access to 200+ labs in every department at the Harvard Medical School. Many of the programs I applied to at other institutions were also umbrella programs. It's a little overwhelming at first when you're trying to pick rotations, but after a few months attending seminars and speaking to faculty, you start to narrow it down.

eatthepinky86 karma

Why do you keep leaving out the word "us" in your answers. This is the third time I've seen you do it.

SITNHarvard30 karma

We're attempting to get to all of the questions, so some of the responses are rather fast. Thanks for the heads up.

belevitt7 karma

Do you want to comment on the why umbrella programs might be different than applying to a program with a specific focus

Ballin_Angel4 karma

Umbrella programs often include labs from various fields of science, where you may only have a few labs to choose from in more narrow programs. If you get into rotations and decide that you really don't like cellular reproductive biology, then the Institute on Cellular Reproductive Biology might not be the place for you. Something like a program in Biology and Biomedical Sciences includes huge variation in potential lab work (anything from cell biology to medicinal chemistry), so you can experience a more broad selection of research before committing to a thesis lab.

SITNHarvard5 karma

Umbrella programs are great if you're interested in a lot of different fields and haven't settled on a particular topic yet, or if you're not sure what you want to study and want to explore several fields before you make a decision. A program with a specific focus limits you to that focus, so it's harder to switch fields, and it's very common for first year graduate students to decide to change fields as they become exposed to new ideas, areas of research, faculty, and colleagues.

Redditacious84 karma

Greetings, I would like to adddress a question to Troy.
I read the posted link and believeI have a decent grasp of what you are working on.
I have had Crohn's disease for 15 years. Initially the disease was thought to be an over-reactive immune system and was treated with large doses of TNF antibody inducing biologic medications (Remicade) , immunosuppressive, and chemotherapy drugs.
Some of the latest research is hinting that Crohn's is an under responsive immune and that certain bacterial pathogens form a biofilm that prevents more beneficial bacteria from colonizing. Clinical trials are being done with large doses of antibiotics and antifungals followed by probiotic therapy and more recently fecal transplants. There has even been some successful studies done with helminthic therapies.

TL; DR what are your thoughts on the large rise of irritable bowel diseases in relation to intestinal bacteria? What do you think is the near future for treatments of these types of disease?

Thanks for your time and I look forward to following your future work.

SITNHarvard74 karma

Troy here. Great question, and that's probably one of the most exciting areas of current microbiology research. Unfortunately it's not my area of expertise. Probiotics, fecal transplants, and other means of manipulating the intestinal microbiota have some really compelling therapeutic implications, however, this is still a nascent field that has really picked up steam in the last 2-3 years. I think most microbiologists would agree that the most exciting information is yet to come.

Redditacious16 karma

Thanks for responding and sparking an interest in what I think you are doing! It has been a little challenging, but I have enjoyed reading your publications and look forward to educating myself more in that area of study.
If I'm not mistaken you are studying the toxicity and modes of attack of a virus and the genetic factors involved that correlate with the success of the attack. More specifically determining what the functional aspects of DNA are and it's relevance, and possibly predicting severity of disease and then applying these findings to human genetics and disease?

Oh man,I have been out of academia for 15 years so I hope what I said/am asking makes some sense. If not can you ELI5 what you are specifically working on?

SITNHarvard22 karma

You've got the big picture. In general, I study how bacteria cause disease. Typically the way we do this is to delete a gene (making 1 mutant) and see if this takes away the ability of the pathogen to cause disease. Then you put the gene back in the mutant and see if you can restore the bacteria's ability to cause disease. My approach is to use next generation DNA-sequencing technology to test about 200,000 mutants all at the same time! Doing this, i got a big list of genes that may be important for causing disease. Now I'm going through this list and trying to figure out how each gene contributes to the bacteria's overall ability to cause disease.

tvxcute70 karma

Hello! What is the most dangerous thing you want to study or do? And, what do you guys do in your free time?

Thank you for doing this!!

SITNHarvard149 karma

Joe here: I've always been attracted to emerging viruses because the prospect of the unknown gives a certain sense of danger. However, there are only a number of labs that have the biosafety requirements where these viruses can be studied. My lab takes vesicular stomititis virus, which is mostly harmless to humans, and replaces the protein that mediates entry with the analogous protein from another virus. This allows us to study the entry mechanism of more dangerous viruses without the risk of infection.

In my free time, I play a lot of hockey. Jacob goes biking often, and Mitch and Troy play ultimate frisbee pickup games a couple times a week. All of us like going out on the weekends, and being in Boston gives us access to other things like mountains for hiking or skiing.

hsciones21 karma

Heather here again - I would love to, some day go cave diving to find some crazy microbes... not sure if it will ever happen though...

tvxcute13 karma

Here's hoping you will! (Safely though :P)

SITNHarvard14 karma

Thanks very much! I've switched to the SITN account just FYI.

TotalRad57 karma

Not to be a downer, but is a Ph.D. in biomedical research a worthwhile investment of time and energy? Aside from becoming a Principle Investigator, what other opportunities does it open?

I recently graduated from a bachelors degree in life sciences, and I have 24 months of research experience, with authorship of one paper. I originally intended to pursue graduate studies, but now I no longer see any good opportunities open to Ph.D. graduates.

Edit: Thank you all for your responses, they've given me a lot to think about.

SITNHarvard72 karma

Awesome question!

Doing a PhD is definitely worthwhile for those who are genuinely interested!

While NIH funding and other sources have been cut, it is still worth it and there are other jobs besides academia. In the room right now there are a few who want to pursue academics but more and more schools are pushing alternative routes such as law (patent and IP), teaching (at all levels), policy (such as the AAAS fellowships), writing (for science columns or being an editor at scientific journals), and industry (biotech, drug companies etc).

P.S. Push your congress people to fund STEM education and research!

overtherainbows55 karma

What new technologies are you researching in the biomedical field? and what do you predict the future to be for that field?

SITNHarvard49 karma

Jacob here. In my opinion, CRISPR/Cas9 technology is probably the newest and most popular technology in biomedicine. It was originally discovered in yogurt factory that suffered frequent problems with certain bacteria contaminating their culture. Several years of basic research eventually discovered that CRISPR/Cas9 was responsible for the contaminating bacteria's resistance to phages. Bacteria that use CRISPR/Cas9 to defend themselves, cleave any phage DNA that entered the cell, rendering them resistant to phage infection. Researchers exploit the DNA cleavage activity of CRISPR/Cas9 to study organisms with and without any gene that interests them. This has made generating multicellular knockout organisms, including mice, flies, and worms, much easier and cheaper. The system has also been used to label specific genetic loci within living cells and monitor their movement within the nucleus overtime. Researchers can also tiitrate gene expression levels using CRISPR/Cas9. Many fields have already benefited from this system including developmental and cellular biology, genetics, and cancer biology. This tech will lead to more affordable options for whole genome screening and allow researchers to functionally study 3-d genomic architecture.

SITNHarvard26 karma

Heather here: I don't work specific in the biomedical field, but this is certainly related... The rapid advance in sequence technology is really exciting. Currently its really easy to get a huge amount of sequence data, but analyzing that data is challenging. I bet that in the future there will be even better tools to help with the challenge of working with massive amounts of data.

caedus840 karma

What's a good way to get a foot in the door for undergraduate research? Thanks!

SITNHarvard50 karma

Many of us did undergraduate research and it is important to help you get a base in science and know if a PhD program could be good for you!

The best way is to use your school's web pages to find professors with research that interests you. Then just email the professor. Be sure to express your interest in their work! Many professors would be happy to take students if they have be time.

The biggest piece of advice here is to not give up! You may get a few rejections, but if you keep trying, you will find a good fit!

LaMerD32 karma

Biologically speaking; How is Heather able to type and respond faster than the rest of you?

SITNHarvard47 karma

Heather here: we've been talking as a group about many of these questions, so everyone here is participating, don't worry! Also, I have super powers ;)

oaklake29 karma

Is anyone of you guys religious and if so, Do you believe in evolution?

SITNHarvard147 karma

Of the 5 of us currently in the room, a few are vaguely religious, but none of attend organized services regularly. We all know that evolution is real and generally don't talk about it in terms of "belief".

I_Swim_I27 karma

Are the microorganisms in the deep sea much more foreign than anticipated or do they function much the same as on the surface?

SITNHarvard33 karma

Heather here: good question. I would say it's a bit of both. On the one hand, they have many of the same genes that we know from familiar microbes. On the other hand because of the pressure of miles of seawater overlying them, some microbes from the deep sea can not survive at atmospheric pressure, and many can grow above the temperature that would boil water at Earth's surface because water under pressure boils at higher temperature. The most interesting thing is how little we know about most of these microbes.

Overunderrated25 karma

Where did you do your undergraduate studies, and could you describe the differences between there and Harvard?

SITNHarvard36 karma

Heather here: I went to undergrad at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. The biggest difference is that back then I was doing a lot more than science. I was taking classes in african drumming, spanish literature, and lots of other things. Now most of my days are just science.

SITNHarvard29 karma

Radhika here: I went to UC Berkeley! The institutional environment here at Harvard Medical School is very similar to Berkeley - there are constantly events going on, seminars by big faculty names, general excitement. The biggest differences are exactly what you would expect for a private v. public school. The class sizes are much smaller here and there is a lot more focus on one-on-one advising. I don't think those factors necessarily improve the quality of education you receive though.

SITNHarvard24 karma

Steph here: I went to undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. The research environment here is quite similar but CMU does not have a medical school so we did not have access to hospitals and collaborations with medical professionals. That's one of my favorite parts of being a student here!

akif3425 karma

How hard is it to go and attend such a prestigious school?

SITNHarvard32 karma

It can certainly be intimidating to be surrounded by so many smart people, but that's also one of the best parts of being at Harvard. Most of us like the challenge.

SITNHarvard149 karma

Also, being in grad school is very different than being an undergrad. For example we don't know anyone with the same last name as any campus buildings.

JessMaxie22 karma

How did you know that your passion was biology? And what do each of you plan to do after grad school?

SITNHarvard31 karma

Troy here. I was always interested in biology, but it really became a passion when I started working in a research lab. I fell in love with the day-to-day work of research. Plus, I learned that there is so much more to biology than what you typically encounter in a high school or undergraduate survey course. And in graduate school, you get to delve deeply into the complexities of something completely novel. You basically become the world expert on a topic of interest to you, which is pretty sexy.

justscottaustin21 karma

Biologically speaking, is a crow really a jackdaw?

SITNHarvard26 karma

Better ask Unidan.

ayoungad19 karma

How do yall feel about the over sanitization of day to day life? Wouldn't a few germs help us and our immune systems deal with viruses and bacteria that are starting to become resistant?

SITNHarvard17 karma

Heather here: While we are not qualified to, and do not want to provide medical advice, there are some hypotheses out there with some evidence to back them up that all these bacteria that we are killing may be important

The Hygiene Hypothesis states that early exposure to a diversity of bacteria can be beneficial in terms of preventing allergies and such. Here is an interesting article on that: http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/08/gut-microbe-stops-food-allergies

There are lots of studies in news these days regarding the human microbiome and we really are just getting started on being able to answer your question, but I think its an important one that we should be thinking about.

NUJEI19 karma


I'm interested in pursuing a career in Bioinformatics and have a few questions for you all!

  1. Currently my declared major is Biology and I plan on getting my masters from UCSD in their Bioinformatics program. That seems all well and good, but I don't see much in the way of computer sciences down the road before getting to the masters level. I've gotten the impression that programming and a strong grasp of the computer sciences is, if not necessary, largely advantageous. Would you agree? And if so, should I look into a minor of Computer Science?

  2. In general, how do you feel about the field of biology overall and its potential for growth and security in the future? Is it becoming over saturated, and if so, what could I do now that would set me ahead?

  3. What are the most rewarding aspects of your fields?

Thank you so much for doing this!

SITNHarvard12 karma

Heather here: While funding for science overall is really hard to come by, bioinformatics skills are seriously in demand, so I think thats actually a really good thing to be getting into.

I think you are right that currently advanced work in bioinformatics requires computer science and specifically programing. I would say a minor in CS would be a great idea!

It's hard to know what will happen in the future, but hopefully as the economy continues to recover so will science funding.

For me the most rewarding parts are both figuring out something new, and then being able to communicate that to others.

brankle18 karma

What medical technologies/devices (for diagnostics, treatment or research) do you think are the most exciting?

SITNHarvard35 karma

Heather here: as a microbial ecologist, I find the possibility of changing gut microbiological communities to fight diseases like IBD, crohnes disease etc. really exciting. Currently fecal transplants are showing promise, but someday it could just be a probiotic type pill!

SITNHarvard7 karma

There are also interesting regulatory issues associated with fecal transplants: http://www.nature.com/news/policy-how-to-regulate-faecal-transplants-1.14720

boo_meringue18 karma

do you all have cars? if so, where do you park them?

SITNHarvard44 karma

We all pahk ah cahs in hahvahd yahd. I would say about 10% of students have cars. Certain neighborhoods allow you to get a free street parking permit with proof of residence, so this is the easiest route.

eogreen15 karma

I teach high school and recently had a 9th grader ask about catching ebola (of course). I was trying to explain the difference between contagious and infectious. I found the concept hard to express. Is there a simple metaphor or definition to clarify the difference between a highly contagious illness and a highly infectious illness with an eye toward calming undereducated fears of ebola?

SITNHarvard28 karma

Marc here: this is very simplistic version coming from my friend in infectious disease at Berkeley: Infectious is how well you can unlock a door. Contagious is how well you can get to the door.

Heisenbergdies13 karma


SITNHarvard20 karma

Well, I think that the boredom can sometimes be an effect of education and classes--undergraduate classes are full of Punnett squares, and this is largely not what geneticists do, though this does form a basic foundation of the work. It is an important basic to learn, but perhaps would be better taught in an applied perspective.

JonHandCock4 karma

Instead of punnet squares lets have students breed their own pea plants.

SITNHarvard9 karma

Troy here. I totally agree! Plants don't get enough respect. There is some truly amazing work going on in plant biology that doesn't receive much attention.

vanish00710 karma

Three questions: What's your advice on choosing a project to work on within your field? Do you guys work on projects that reach across other fields? What's your career outlook after school?

SITNHarvard15 karma

Heather here: If you're lucky enough to be able to choose your own project (often you have to work on something specific that your advisor has funding for) I think that scale and scope are really important. Some of the most exciting projects have a higher chance of failure, so its good to balance a "high risk/high reward" project with something that you are fairly sure will go well, but might be a bit less exciting.

I work on projects that cross geology, biology, engineering... which is the favorite part of my work!

bernaferrari10 karma

Do you live in university like undergrads? Or do you rent your own home? Do you also have life outside Harvard?

SITNHarvard18 karma

We do not live in dorms like the undergrads. Each of us rent our own apartments in the Boston area (and pay WAY TOO MUCH of our stipend for that, haha).

Yes, we all have lives outside of Harvard. Some of us run marathons, perform improv comedy, mentor high school students, teach, give lectures for SITN, and just all around have a good time...Some of us are going on a Halloween booze cruise tonight...

i_shit_in_a_pumpkin10 karma

You are studying at Harvard and you will soon have PhD's, thus y'all seem the most qualified to answer my question. What is the best way to prepare ramen?

SITNHarvard20 karma

No time to prepare it. Just eat it raw!

fulfilledprophesy9 karma

Hey guys, thanks for your AMA. Do you think there's a pressure now for people to complete their PhD asap? I've recently finished an MSc, and I'd like to do a PhD in the future, but I feel like I'm being pushed to start it asap, 'while I'm young'. Any opinion on that, and while we're at it, jumping into a PhD with a family/working a family around it?


SITNHarvard8 karma

Thanks for asking!

This is a bit of a question that can be up to the individual, but I would say that there shouldn't be a ton of pressure. Just know that it takes a while to get a PhD in the US in biomedical science. The average is somewhere around 5.5-6 years, and this only comes with a moderate stipend. And after this many people do post docs which take another few years, whether going into industry or academia. That said, there are definitely older people getting PhDs, and there is no time that is "too late" to start, depending upon your plans for the future.

While in a PhD, some people want to go quickly, and some more slowly. A bit up to your personality and your lab's personality.

As far as starting a family, many people in our program are married and some have kids too! None of them are here to respond, but it is definitely not impossible.

zimonitrome9 karma

Why is it that cancer has been so hard to prevent and are we actually on the way towards getting rid of it for good?

SITNHarvard8 karma

Steph here: In the past few decades, medical researchers have come to realize that cancer is a group of diseases and not just one disease. This group of diseases is characterized by very different molecular changes. Even within one type of cancer, like melanoma, there are a MULTITUDE of different causes of each patient's tumors. Because of this heterogeneity, all of these subtypes of cancer often need to be targeted in different ways and with different types of drugs. Even from one patient to the next that have the same subtype of cancer, each patient may have a different response to drugs. Luckily, the field of personalized medicine and genomic sequencing has been advancing quite quickly so there is hope that we will begin to be able to develop therapies that will be specific and effective for individual patients.

clivewarren78 karma

Has the first human to reach 150 years old already been born? And what are the recent breakthroughs in the longevity of man?

SITNHarvard29 karma

Ask us again in 150 years...

HuntersReddit8 karma

What are your guy's take on Ebola, and do you think there is already a vaccine/cure for it?

SITNHarvard18 karma

Joe here: I'll answer the vaccine/cure question first. There are certainly potential vaccines or treatments, but a lack of research on them has left us with no definitive answer. ZMapp seems promising in primate studies, and based on conjectural evidence, it may have helped Kent Brantley and possibly Nancy Writebol. However, without properly controlled clinical trials in humans, it is hard to draw definitive conclusions. Hopefully, some of the treatments or vaccines that are being rushed in to help manage the outbreak turn out to be effective, but as of now, we don't have anything we can say is a vaccine/cure.

My overall thoughts about Ebola are that we need to make better efforts to spread facts and information about the virus. Based on what we know, it doesn't pose a significant health threat to more developed countries, but we need to do everything we can to stop the spread in West Africa because it is a humanitarian crisis.

Articles from 'Science in the News' here: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2014/ebola-virus-how-it-infects-people-and-how-scientists-are-working-to-cure-it/


Escape_Reality7 karma

Gene therapy - when is Gattaca going to happen and why should we be worried?

SITNHarvard12 karma

While the technology exists now to read and write to genomes, human traits are very complex and are determined by a variety of factors. Understanding the basis of these traits is not likely going to happen anytime soon. On the topic of gene therapy, while recent results from companies like Sangamo suggest that it could one day be used to treat diseases such as HIV, there are still many inherent risks with the technique. There are also enormous ethical and legal questions if you were to apply gene therapy for Gattaca-like applications.

Dr__Poop6 karma

Shouldn't you be working?

SITNHarvard10 karma


TheCreativeName6 karma

Do you like apples?

SITNHarvard14 karma

Troy here. I got her number, how do you like them apples?

biodude875 karma

What is the best bio department at Harvard and why is it BBS?

SITNHarvard6 karma

Heather here, and I've got to go with OEB on this one!

Awholez5 karma

How come researchers don't make more money?

SITNHarvard6 karma

Heather here: The most common way to make money as a researcher is to go into industry. The benefit to academia is having more control over what you study, but the downside is relatively less pay, especially early on in your career (i.e. right out of grad school). Tenured faculty at top research universities generally make decent money.

steelerengineer5 karma

Hey guys first off thanks for doing the AMA. I'm a junior biomedical engineering student doing Alzheimer's research myself, but my question for you guys is what drove you to enter your respective fields?

SITNHarvard7 karma

Steph here: I did my undergraduate work in developmental biology working on gene regulatory networks in the sea urchin. So, how did I get from the sea urchin to cancer therapeutics and mouse modeling? We do rotations when we first get to grad school where we are able to try out different labs before we commit to our field. My first rotation was in a zebrafish lab which was also a project about development but had disease implications by looking at cell signaling pathways and how they are perturbed in lymphatic diseases. This got me interested in cell signaling pathways which led me to my current lab where I studied the same pathways from my first rotation, but in the context of cancer. I fell in love with the work we were doing mainly because we work on these pathways in the context of so many different types of cancer. I love learning about how and why cancer forms to figure out how to target it. I'm currently working on a subset of lung cancer and hope to find novel therapeutic targets.

cagrimertbakirci5 karma

If you had the chance to tell one thing about evolution to the whole world and especially ordinary public, who do not have a science background, what would it be? Especially about the importance/place of it in modern science?

SITNHarvard4 karma

Nothing in biology makes sense without the light of evolution, seriously.


What is your favorite thing that the human body is capable of?

SITNHarvard3 karma

Troy here. I think the immune system is pretty crazy. After studying immunology, it starts to seem like getting sick is pretty much impossible. However, when you look at the amazing capabilities of pathogenic microbes, getting sick makes sense again.

allisonrs5 karma

Probably going to get buried but whatever. What made you choose Harvard over (I'm assuming) other grad school offers? I will be applying in the next year or two and I'm curious what made you/y'all make the final decision, reputation aside. My grades aren't the best they could be but I have three REU's to make up for it and three years of working in a lab at my university, volunteering for a virology non-profit, and will likely have be a co-author on at least one paper before applying. If that helps. I just like being at the bench.

I'm interested in virology, in particular host/cell interactions on a "protein " level if that makes sense. I want to get my CLS certification before going back to school, and use the CLS techniques and theory for research if that makes sense. How do you go about choosing what you want to dedicate yourself to for the next 5-6 years? I mean I know I'm not at a point to decide something like "yeah, I want to study protease inhibitors of influenza H3N2 entry mechanisms", but I know I like viruses. For lack of a better way to put it, they're bad-ass mothefuckers that don't give a shit about you and they're just gonna come in and wreck havoc. If that isn't cool I don't know what is.

Thank you all :)

SITNHarvard5 karma

The top schools in biology are essentially equal. If you're applying to a smaller program like a Virology department, it will be very important to feel like you "fit" with your professors, actually see people you want to work with, and would get along with your classmates. You should also consider your long term goals, as there are many careers in biology that don't require a phd. However, it sounds like you really enjoy research and would be a good candidate. Good luck!

dadashton4 karma

Who pays for your study?

SITNHarvard5 karma

The wonderful NIH :)

RedditardLogic3 karma

Biologically speaking, when does life begin? (No philosophy please)

SITNHarvard5 karma

Life never stops, but a canonical diploid human cell begins at conception.

WholeFragment3 karma

What are the differences between different types of chemotherapy? Is all chemo aimed at blocking cell division or do they have different methods for stopping the cancer?

Also when oxygen was released (? if that's accurate) into Earth's atmosphere why were some organisms able to survive while most others died? Thanks!

SITNHarvard2 karma

Chemotherapy generally refers to drugs that are cytotoxic. These drugs aren't based on the biology of cancer cells, they were mostly discovered through screens for compounds that kill dividing cells. These drugs are not selective for cancer cells, but they are surprisingly effective at stopping certain types of cancers.

Now that we actually have an understanding of cancer biology, we're working on targeted therapies. There are many different pathways that are altered in cancers, so there likely won't be a single drug that works for all cancers. One example of a successful targeted therapy is Gleevec for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. There's a specific mutant protein that drives this cancer, and this drug was designed to bind to it and stop it from signaling.

vex1313 karma

Do you guys like Il Mondo's?

SITNHarvard8 karma

Love it. Actually, we're about to place an order

pdinc3 karma

Tasty Burger or Shake Shack?

SITNHarvard8 karma

4 votes for Tasty burger and 2 for shake shack. The new yorker voted for tasty.

BustaBoof3 karma

Can you define "Deep Sea microbial ecology" does that imply the deepest depths of the ocean? What are the ecosystems like down there?

SITNHarvard3 karma

Heather here: I think of microbial ecology as being the study of how microbes are influenced by their physical (abiotic) environment and at the same time how they influence their environment (for example by producing certain chemicals as waste products). The main difference between deep sea and other microbial ecology is that most environments that have access to solar energy, where as hydrothermal vents (what I study) and many other deep sea environments use chemical energy to power life. This is a fundamental difference that was only discovered in the 1970s.

Clockw0rk2 karma

I recall some time in the mid 90s reading about advances in gene therapy which had successfully created super long lived mice, super lean mice and super muscular mice. It seemed like, over 15 years ago, we had the concept of using retro-viruses to deliver payloads into living organisms figured out.

But today, it seems like no one talks about any genetic breakthroughs or use of genetic treatments on humans.

Did the bottom fall out of that line of research, or what?

SITNHarvard8 karma

Gene therapy in the late 90's, early 00's ran into technological problems. Human trials were unsuccessful and led to in the case of Jesse Gelsinger the unfortunate death of a patient. One of the problems was with the delivery of the therapy--viruses can cause a deadly immune response and integration of the gene into the wrong place in the genome can be oncogenic.

Recent advances though have sought to address these issues such as using different viruses that integrate into specific "safe-harbor" sites in the genome. Ex vivo therapy is also being pursued in which cells are removed from the patient, gene therapy is carried out, and then the cells are then returned into the patient. Successful trials for treating blindness, cancer cells, HIV, etc. have been recently conducted. For example, the BBC ran an article at the beginning of this year on a successful case of gene therapy for curing blindness: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-25718064. There's still a long way to go, and safety is still a big concern. Research though is definitely progressing.

Spanky8092 karma

For Troy/Heather/Joe, I'm currently an undergrad taking an intro level microbiology course and lab. My professor is a real dick and constantly talks down to everyone. What is a somewhat simple experiment or bit of information I can use to impress him?

SITNHarvard3 karma

Troy here. I'm sorry to hear that. My undergraduate micro professor was the single biggest proponent of my scientific training / development / career. I hope you can develop some supportive relationships with other science mentors. One of my favorite big picture concepts is that bacteria / viruses are the best cell biologists. They have evolved amazing ways to manipulate eukaryotic cells. A lot of cell biologists take advantage of these tools to study eukaryotic biology.

jozzie2000-2 karma

How do you feel about the astronomical amount of student loan debt you have all taken on?

SITNHarvard5 karma

Actually most biomedical PhD programs are completely funded! You don't pay to attend, and receive a small, but sufficient stipend.