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In their own words: International graduate student autobiographical sketches

Posted February 23, 2015

Hamid Alkar

Hamid Alkar

My interest in animals stems from working on my family’s farms. When I was growing up in Libya, my grandfather and my father each had a farm with many sheep and goats. I started helping my grandfather with his farm when I was about seven or eight years old. At first I simply fed the animals and took them to pasture. As I got older, I gained more and more responsibilities. By the time I was fourteen years old, I was responsible for the care and well-being of all the animals on my father’s farm.

Because of my love of animals, I decided to pursue veterinary science. I chose to study animal reproduction, which is an important area of research in Libya. Much of the veterinary research there is related to animal reproduction because we don’t have fancy equipment and machines for many other types of research. Also, I took courses in animal reproduction in college and greatly enjoyed this subject.

When I first began my bachelor’s degree in veterinary science, my future goal was to become a clinician, but as I took more classes and gained more experience, my interests broadened. I realized that I was also interested in veterinary research. One of the reasons I love research is because I can stay up to date on veterinary science and be at the forefront of new findings and technology. Ideally, I would love to be able to combine both interests: clinical science and veterinary research.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to continue my education. I received a scholarship to attend Washington State University, where I earned a master’s degree in veterinary science, specializing in animal reproduction. My research focused on hormone levels, pregnancy, and lactation in cows.

I’m now beginning my second semester in the doctoral program at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biosciences (CVM), and I am working with Dr. Juan Romano. Even though I’ve been here only a few months, I’ve been able to jump straight into research and am working on four different projects, which I find very exciting. One of my projects focuses on understanding how male goats affect the estrous cycle in female goats, and another project involves studying trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted disease, in bulls.

Fortunately, I’ve also been able to collaborate with other researchers at CVM, including Dr. Jill Hiney. We’re developing a radioimmunoassay to analyze estradiol, a female sex hormone. A radioimmunoassay is a highly sensitive technique that uses antibodies to measure targets of interest, like hormone levels. We can use this information to better understand reproduction cycles in animals.

My future goal is to remain in academia, where I can combine my interests in research, clinical work, and teaching. Working with students is extremely rewarding because it challenges me to stay up to date on scientific research. I also look forward to being reunited with my wife, who is still living in Washington state. My wife is originally from that region and is working as a nursing assistant. Because my move to College Station was rather sudden, she won’t be able to relocate until next summer.

Even though I’ve only been here for a few months, I feel fortunate to have had so many opportunities, including multiple research projects and collaborations. Collaborating with other researchers has been a tremendous experience for me. These collaborations enable me to gain knowledge, learn new techniques, and develop professional contacts for future collaborations. If I have one piece of advice for other graduate students, it’s to get to know as many people as possible so that you can build your professional network and develop future collaborations.

Richard Cheng-An Chang

I’m a second year doctoral student in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). My research focuses on how immune cells interact with fat cells. Immune cells are supposed to regulate fat cells, but instead, research shows that immune cells seem to go haywire in that microenvironment, releasing inflammatory markers, such as cytokines.

Here’s another way to picture this: Immune cells are the good guys—they’re supposed to go into fat tissue and either destroy the fat cells or restore them to their natural state. But once in that environment, the immune cells themselves go crazy. So it’s like everyone goes crazy and throws a crazy party. That’s why people get fatter and fatter.

I think the best way to investigate these sorts of problems is through the intersection of physiology and biology. Physiology focuses on bodily systems, while biology focuses on interactions with the environment, including the microenvironments in a cell. Combining these two disciplines is a powerful way to investigate how the environment affects the body.

Richard Cheng-An Chang

I first became interested in these fields as an undergraduate student in Taiwan. I earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, focusing on immunology, at the National Central University in Taoyuan, Taiwan. I then became interested in physiology and earned a master’s degree in physiology from National Yang-Ming University, also in Taiwan.

During this time, I had the opportunity to work with faculty members who had previously taught at American universities. These professors encouraged me to come to the United States for my doctoral degree, telling me that I would really enjoy the learning environment here. They said that the biggest difference here is the freedom to express your opinion, even if it conflicts with others. In many Asian cultures, it’s considered rude to disagree with others, especially with superiors. This tradition may be fine in some situations, but not for true science. In science, you should be able to express your ideas, even if they differ from those of everyone else.

Working with faculty members in the United States, I enjoyed more independence in my research projects than I normally would have had. I designed my own projects and developed my own proposals. Rather than someone telling me to do A, then B, then C—I convinced them that I wanted to do A, B, and C. These experiences helped me become a logical, independent researcher.

After earning my master’s degree, I decided to improve my English language fluency. I spent one year at the University of California in Irvine. I then applied and was accepted into the doctoral program here at CVM.

I’m now working with Dr. Beiyan Zhou and am excited to add another component to my research project: non-coding RNAs. My current project links non-coding RNAs to metabolism and immunology. Specifically, I’m investigating how immune cells use non-coding RNA to regulate fat cells and the microenvironment.

I’m currently collaborating with students from other labs to show them techniques for extracting microRNA from outside of the cell. Extracting these microRNAs can be challenging: microRNAs are present in small amounts and need to be isolated from other components. I’ve really enjoyed these collaborations because I get to refine these techniques to work in cells that I normally don’t study, such as neurons and embryonic cells.

My lab is also collaborating with Dr. Elizabeth Cosgriff-Hernandez to explore whether cell-cell interactions could affect the cell responses we are monitoring. These collaborations are very helpful because they add a new dimension to our research project and allow me to extend my professional network.

My future goals are to continue my research in the United States because I really enjoy the research atmosphere here. I plan to delve deeper into my current research focus by adding bioinformatics. My work in RNAs has generated a wealth of data, and I need computational tools to interpret it. I’m excited to explore this new field because I think it’s best to continually challenge myself and not stay in my comfort zone.

Sina Marsilo

Sina Marsilo

Although I am a first year doctoral student in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, I’m not new to veterinary medicine. In 2004, I earned a veterinary degree from the University of Hanover in Germany.

My interests in animals and medicine began when I was a child. I’ve always loved animals and had many pets growing up. But more than that, I loved medicine and disease. I found chronic diseases fascinating, even as a young child. I remember asking my grandparents—who were elderly and had health issues—about their diseases and wanting to know everything. So my family wasn’t surprised when I became a veterinarian.

After earning my veterinary degree, I worked in small animal internal medicine through a shared residency between the University of London in England and the University of Giessen in Germany. I then worked as a supervisor at the University of Giessen, where I mentored veterinary students. I found mentoring and teaching extremely rewarding, especially when I observed students gaining confidence while conducting research.

In my opinion, a research project needs to be relevant, achievable, and affordable. By taking these considerations into account, graduate students can follow their path in their own way.

However, after working as a supervisor for one year, I realized that I wanted to conduct my own scientific research. I began work in a pharmaceutical company, where I conducted clinical field studies. While I enjoyed the research, I found that I missed the academic environment—missed meeting people from all over the world. I also missed teaching. I realized that my future goal is to work in academia, where I can integrate all my interests: clinical science, veterinary research, and teaching.

I think an effective teacher can make a huge difference in students’ lives. For me, the best classrooms are ones that are interactive, engaging, and fun. I enjoy teaching the most when I talk less and students talk more.

I then decided to pursue my education in the United States. Although I enjoy working in Germany, I’ve always wanted to come to the United States because I enjoy the attitude and atmosphere here. While attending veterinary conferences in the United States, I was struck by the apparent lack of hierarchy—there was such a willingness to discuss research openly and informally. For example, I’ve witnessed occasions when a speaker will engage the audience by asking if someone has experience with a medical case. More than once, someone from the audience responded yes and ran to the front of the auditorium, waving a USB flash drive, to share his or her results. This exchange now strikes me as particularly typical for the United States.

I also think the overall approach to science is somewhat different in the United States. In other countries, researchers discuss complex problems critically, which is essential, but they are less likely to take chances. The approach seems to be more straightforward in the United States, and researchers are more willing to take risks. Also, everyone here is friendly and genuinely wants others to succeed. Of course, science is still competitive, but in a way that’s helpful and allows collaboration.

I think that collaboration is essential to scientific research. No department has all the necessary equipment—nor should it. That would prevent networking and knowledge exchange. For research to flourish, we must have interdisciplinary integration of knowledge. For example, I may know clinical aspects of a project, while someone else may be an expert in statistics, and another person may be knowledgeable in nutrition and metabolism. In one lifetime, it’s not possible to learn everything that’s needed, so it’s important to collaborate with other people and to share knowledge and skills.

Iveliz Martel

I just began my first year in the Science and Technology Journalism (STJR) program here in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). I am excited to combine my interests in science and journalism and look forward to communicating science to a general audience.

Growing up in San Felipe, a small town in the middle of Chile, I did not have much of an opportunity to be involved in science. I’ve always loved both science and journalism, but I had to focus on one or the other back in Chile. In my country, students are not able to study multiple disciplines but must select one field to pursue. I took a high school course in journalism and really loved it. We ran a newspaper and even had a radio show. So it made sense to me to pursue journalism.

I earned my bachelor’s degree in journalism at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile—the only journalism school outside the United States to be recognized by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I then interned at a radio station in Santiago, where I reported on a variety of topics, including national issues. Then swine flu arrived on the news scene. My editor realized that our radio station needed a dedicated health reporter, and I began covering topics in health and health policy.

Iveliz Martel

That’s when I realized that I missed science and wanted to become more involved in science communication. I also wanted to be able to reach a broader audience. I decided to improve my English language skills and traveled to Toronto, Canada. I lived there for one year, and took courses at George Brown College for three months.

I then returned to Chile, where I began work as a radio producer. I scripted, edited, and storyboarded three radio shows with distinct but related topics: social media, nutrition and health, and science and technology. I loved my work but realized that I needed more education to be a truly effective science journalist. I had the journalism background but needed more exposure to science. I then applied for the Fulbright Scholarship Program so that I could continue my education.

After being accepted into the Fulbright program, I applied to the STJR program. I chose this program, and this school, partly because of the individualized attention I received during the application process—I never felt like just one more student among a thousand. What I really love about the STJR program is that it is part of the CVM instead of a journalism school; I’ve never been as close to science as I am now.

Science journalism is powerful because it can inspire young people to become scientists. For example, many children in Chile don’t know what they want to do later in life and don’t have access to proper education. By giving them even a little glimpse of what science is, maybe I can inspire them to pursue science as a career. I can’t inspire them as a teacher, but maybe I can inspire them as a science journalist.

In the future, I hope to return to Chile and develop a radio show that communicates science to underserved regions. In Chile, much of the public education of science occurs in the capital, Santiago. But people living in regions farther away, including rural regions, don’t have access to programs that communicate and explore science. I love science because it can explain so many practical aspects of our lives, from nutrition and mental health, to illness and disease. If you know a little bit about science, then you understand a little more of the world around us.

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