Biosciences PhD students began their careers at Stanford School of Medicine with crisp new lab coats, advice on graduate school success and warm words about the value of discovery.
September 28, 2022 - By Erin Digitale
When Andrea Vargas first learned about stem cells in her AP biology class, she was struck by the cells’ healing power and their unusual ability to assume different identities.
“I remember being super excited,” said Vargas, now an incoming developmental biology PhD student at Stanford Medicine. “I went to Barnes & Noble with my mom and got Stem Cells for Dummies. That’s what catalyzed my interest in science.”
But Vargas, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico with her mom and brother when she was 3, had no idea what careers were open to cell biology enthusiasts. Her mother, who hadn’t completed high school, wasn’t sure either. Maybe Vargas could become a doctor?
It was during a mentorship program for underrepresented undergraduate students at UC Davis, in which Vargas conducted research on spinal cord development under the tutelage of a scientist from Argentina, that she realized she wanted a research career.
“[My mentor] was the first scientist I ever met,” Vargas said. As she realized how exciting it was to work in a neurobiology lab, she thought “I love this, and if my PI [principal investigator] could do it, so can I.”
Value of fundamental discovery
On Sept. 27, Vargas was one of nearly 200 incoming students welcomed to Stanford in the annual biosciences PhD lab coat ceremony. The students, who are starting 18 biomedical graduate programs at Stanford’s Schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities and Sciences, hail from 15 countries on five continents. The students will complete classwork in the Stanford School of Medicine and earn degrees from their respective schools.
“You’re an amazing group of people,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the school, in his welcoming remarks.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the value of basic biomedical discovery, Minor said, noting that a deep scientific knowledge base enabled rapid development of vaccines to fight the pandemic.
“It wasn’t as if [research] all of a sudden began one day in January 2020 when the sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was published. It took years and years of fundamental, discovery-based research into mechanisms of viral pathogenesis,” Minor said. “All of that work was carried out by brilliant scientists such as each of you.”
Minor’s remarks were followed by a panel of three faculty members and two current graduate students. They discussed success in graduate school, touching on time management, learning from failures, connecting to the Stanford community and making the most of the lab rotations that are part of the first year of graduate school.
Vol Van Dalsem III, MD, president of the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association, welcomed the students on behalf of the association and spoke about the meaning of their new Stanford lab coats.
“Increasingly, the lab coat has come to symbolize science and scientific technique,” Van Dalsem said. “For you PhD biosciences students, receiving your lab coat symbolizes a transition from learning in a classroom setting to becoming true scientists in the laboratory.”
As the director of graduate studies for each department called them to the stage, students donned their new lab coats — embroidered with their names — and joined their departmental classmates at the front of Berg Hall in the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. This year, the groups included six students entering a new PhD program in biomedical physics.
The biggest response was reserved for the last student to cross the stage, Jim Zhang, the year’s only incoming PhD student in the Department of Structural Biology. When it became clear Zhang would be standing on stage alone, students from all the other departments gave him an enthusiastic roar of applause, while he cheerfully waved back.
Once everyone had their lab coats, the students recited the Biosciences Affirmation, led by Sheri Krams, PhD, senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. They pledged to respect the scientific process, not allow desire for personal recognition to affect their work and uphold scientific integrity.
Enthusiasm for science
The new doctoral students vary in their backgrounds, but are united by a solid enthusiasm for biological science.
Cort Breuer, newly arrived from Cornell University to pursue a PhD in immunology, is keen to harness the immune system to design better treatments for disease. Like Vargas, his interest in science was sparked by news of a specific type of powerful cell — in his case, CAR-T cells used to treat certain forms of cancer.
“CAR-T cells were the first real proof we could engineer the immune system,” Breuer said. “All of a sudden, it’s not just what’s innate to our body; we can control and modify it. And the immune system is so diverse in terms of cell types, molecules, ways the body has evolved to defend itself against foreign invaders. It leaves open so many avenues for discovery and complexity.”
Maria Nguyen, a daughter of Vietnamese refugees who came to California with her family when she was 10, realized she wanted to be a scientist when she got her first taste of research studying bacteriophages as an undergrad at UC Berkeley.
“I’ve always been very curious and hands-on,” Nguyen said, adding with a chuckle, “I think I was a really annoying kid; I asked a lot of questions.”
In the lab, she found the perfect place to pursue her curiosity, and is now excited to start her PhD in biology. “I feel most at home when I’m working my brain and working my fingers at the same time,” Nguyen said.
And Sarah Izabel’s interest in science took hold in a psychology class where she “fell in love with the brain.” She was inspired to conduct research into what happens in neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
“I want answers: I want to know what is happening in people’s brains when they get a neurological disorder,” Izabel said. “What is happening to the cells? What drives that on a cellular and molecular level?”
Izabel, a single mom who will be earning a PhD in neuroscience, is also excited to set an example for her 11-year-old son.
“The fact that I’m still learning tells him that learning is a thing you can do forever,” she said.
As for Vargas, she knows that although she’s the first in her family to pursue higher education, she won’t be the last. When she found out she’d gotten into Stanford, she was thrilled to share the news with her mom, brother and their extended family in Mexico.
“My mom is the proudest mom ever, and all the rest of our family in Mexico are just as excited,” she said. “It’s an accomplishment for all of us, not just me.”
“I’m really excited to be in this journey, to see where it takes me,” she added.
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