New therapies to treat metastatic breast cancer may lie within one of the most commonly used agents in health care across the world: antibiotics. Sonal Chaudhari, a second-year medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, recently spent her summer working under Richard Jones, director of the Bone Marrow Transplant Program, co-director of the Hematologic Malignancies Program and professor of oncology and medicine, deriving new ways to treat metastatic breast cancer using the everyday antibiotic, clarithromycin (sold under the brand Biaxin).

Chaudhari focused on the bone marrow microenvironment, which contains enzymes known as cytochrome P450 (CYP450) that have a protective effect on metastasized solid tumors coming from breast, lung, kidney and prostate tissue. When these tumors are exposed to chemotherapy drugs, the CYP450 enzymes can actually metabolize the drugs or change the bone marrow microenvironment before the drugs can target cancer cells, thus shielding the tumors from the effects of potent anticancer agents.

Incredibly, studies from Jones’ group have shown that the commonly used antibiotic clarithromycin has CYP450-inhibitory characteristics, and can block the effects of these enzymes, allowing chemotherapies given in conjunction with clarithromycin to effectively kill tumor cells. Specifically, Chaudhari discovered that the CYP450 enzymes in stromal cells have a protective effect on metastatic breast cancer in vitro. She is currently optimizing experiments to replicate this preliminary discovery. She also plans to elucidate the mechanisms by which specific CYP450 enzymes are protecting metastatic breast cancer cells, in hopes that she can specifically target molecules in future treatment therapies of metastatic breast cancer.

Building A Career in Academic Medicine

As part of the medical school curriculum, students are mandated to conduct some type of faculty-mentored scholarly concentration in the summer between the first and second year. Chaudhari chose to do basic science bench work, while other students can choose clinical projects centered on patient databases, ethics and art in medicine, public health and community service, or even the history of medicine.

When asked about the most rewarding aspect of this type of research, Chaudhari said that troubleshooting her experiments taught her many lessons: “I enjoy troubleshooting experiments and love trying different yet logical things to try to get my experiments to work optimally … although I am very meticulous and thorough with my experiments, they allow me chances to fail and troubleshoot, which has taught me, one, to ask for help from mentors whenever appropriate; two, to trust myself more; and, three, to value communication with patients more because, unlike my cells, my patients can hopefully communicate with me their concerns and feelings.”

Student research is a critical component of the school of medicine’s learning environment. With regard to her scholarly concentration, Chaudhari states, “This summer has definitely been a positive experience, so I definitely envision working in basic science labs during residency and/or fellowships in the future.” Chaudhari is not entirely sure about her professional path yet, but knows that she will choose a path that allows her to use her basic science skills toward medical research. “I aspire to build my career in academic medicine,” she says, “and it has been my dream to incorporate basic and translational research into my career path.”

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  • Watch: Find out more about our Genes to Society medical school curriculum aimed at training the next generation of research scientists.
  • Meet Crystal Watkins, a graduate of the MD-PhD program, and now a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry. She credits her many mentors in her success at Hopkins. Watch to learn more. 

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Pranjal Gupta

Pranjal Bodh Gupta is a second-year medical student who arrived at Johns Hopkins from Vanderbilt University where, over the course of four years, he danced in numerous cultural showcases. Throughout these shows, he learned various routines, including a Japanese fisherman dance (“Soran Bushi”), Indian Bollywood dance, Korean pop, Japanese drumming dance (taiko) and Indian Bhangra. As a side hobby, Pranjal made short films and majored in chemical engineering. His latest adventure includes learning medicine and trying to gain social media fame.

When we think about the great research and scientific breakthroughs that come out of Johns Hopkins, we often focus on the principal investigators and members of their labs. But there is another very strong force of progress at Johns Hopkins that flies under the radar — the core facilities. Johns Hopkins boasts a large array of core facilities that house instruments for shared use among the university’s labs, but beyond simply supplying these amazing instruments, the cores have something more to offer. The employees who run these cores and instruments are truly a force to be reckoned with.

Group of people on peak mountain climbing helping team work , success conceptCore facilities at Johns Hopkins provide some of the most expensive equipment that individual labs often cannot afford to buy and maintain, including high-powered microscopes, flow cytometers, mass spectrometers and deep sequencers, among many others. The people who run the cores and the individual instruments are experts in the optimal use of each piece of equipment and are trained to provide the best and most reliable data. In addition to knowing everything there is to know about a given instrument, the core facility staff members also interact with and help guide the experimental set up of researchers from diverse fields who have highly diverse scientific goals. These core facility workers are often behind-the-scenes miracle workers who play a key role in the success of research projects.

Meet the Unsung Core Heroes

Designing a flow cytometry experiment to isolate and analyze cell populations is no easy task. Flow cytometry is a method that relies on an expensive piece of equipment—a cytometer—to analyze individual cells by suspending them in a fast-moving stream of liquid and capturing information about their size, color and shape with the machine’s detector system. Cells can be “stained” with a nearly infinite array of commercially available dyes or fluorescent molecules, such as those that recognize a certain surface molecule or that differentiate live and dead cells.  The cytometer can be set up to analyze each cell for a specific color or fluorescent wavelength, allowing it to report back the number it counted in each population. Specific populations can then be “sorted,” during which individual cells are shot into a tube sitting underneath the machine to separate out important or interesting cell types for an experiment.

Before starting a flow cytometry experiment, the researcher must decide what fluorophores to use to differentiate one population of cells from another. To add further complication, certain types of cells—for example, immune cells such as monocytes and macrophages—characteristically display high levels of autofluorescence, meaning they have a background level of the color you may be trying to analyze. Dr. Hao Zhang, of one of the flow cytometry cores on campus, is an expert in optimizing fluorophore use for great results and avoiding autofluorescence interference. In a recent collaboration with Dr. Robert Siliciano’s lab, Dr. Zhang performed critical experiments for a study focused on understanding and eliminating cells latently infected with HIV. He sorted cells from human patients for engraftment into mice, which would serve as a humanized-mouse model for the study. This work led to a paper in one of the most high-impact journals: Nature.

Another unsung core hero is Chris Thoburn of the immune monitoring core. Among other things, Thoburn runs cytokine identification assays. Cytokines are important signaling molecules secreted by immune cells as a means of communication. He knows all the ins and outs of how to optimize tissue or cell culture supernatant collection to detect and identify these immunomodulatory molecules, as well as knowing everything there is to know about the assay itself and the instrument used to read the results. He recently helped Dr. Rhoel Dinglasan’s lab perform these assays to identify cytokines secreted by Kupffer cells in response to a parasite. When initial cytokine levels were very low, he suggested ways to optimize the collection step to provide more readable results. Additionally, he played a vital role in acquiring and analyzing all the cytokine data for the study. This work resulted in a submitted manuscript that is currently under review.

Dr. Hao Zhang and Chris Thoburn represent just two examples of these phenomenal core team members. While we may not often hear about the great research that happens in the core facilities, their staff members are undoubtedly scientific wizards with amazing skills. Their ability to take the experimental ideas of so many different people and produce meaningful results is truly a wonder. So, the next time you see a core manager, be sure to give him or her a big thank you from the research community.

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Rebecca Tweedell

Rebecca Tweedell is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program with a strong passion for infectious disease research. In addition to loving anything and everything nerdy and generally uncool, she is an avid runner, rower and random sport participant. Her dream job is to be a Disney princess, singing and performing by day, while writing scientific manuscripts by night.

In the midst of the political saga that is the ongoing debate over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), news broke that Sen. John McCain was undergoing surgery to remove a clot within his brain. After much media speculation and drama surrounding the delayed ACA vote, the public discovered that McCain had been diagnosed with glioblastoma.

doctor checking brain scansGlioblastoma is the most common and deadliest primary brain cancer. GBM has a median survival time of 14 months with the current standard of care: surgical resection and a course of radiation and chemotherapy using temozolomide.

Despite the less-than-promising odds, there are currently several treatment possibilities for Glioblastoma patients being tested, with physicians and scientists researching several treatment options for this terrible disease. In fact, according to, a database of all ongoing clinical trials approved by the National Institutes of Health, there are more than 270 trials on GBM treatment underway.

Glioblastoma are tumors that come from astrocytes—the star-shaped cells that make up the supportive tissue of the brain. Because these tumors come from normal brain cells, it is easy for them to invade and live within normal brain tissue. Glioblastoma tumors make their own blood supply by using blood vessels. Glioblastoma are more common in men, people older than 50, and people of Caucasian or Asian ethnicity.

Immunotherapy Trials and Tribulations

Many of these trials are related to the field of cancer immunotherapy. Checkpoint receptors are molecules that negatively regulate T cell function and growth, and tumors often take advantage of these checkpoint proteins to evade the body’s natural defenses against cancer. Antibodies against these checkpoint receptors, called checkpoint inhibitors, have shown remarkable improvements in survival rates for a variety of cancers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already approved the checkpoint inhibitors ipilimumab that targets CTLA-4 and nivolumab that targets PD-1, for late-stage melanoma and lung cancer. Unfortunately, a phase III trial for GBM patients failed to show benefit of nivolumab over the standard of care treatment. However, several trials are examining the effectiveness of treating patients with chemotherapeutic agents or radiation in combination with checkpoint inhibitors, in the hope of treatments working together to increase survival outcomes.

Are Vaccines the Answer?

Vaccines are another treatment option currently being researched as a way to use the immune system to battle cancer. Lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, can recognize and target tumor-specific antigens (TSAs) — proteins found on the surface of cancerous cells — including the mutated EGFRvIII, which is characteristic of glioblastoma cells. Vaccines can be used to deliver these tumor-targeting TSAs to the immune system, effectively teaching a patient's immune cells to generate an immune response to the tumor. Unfortunately, a clinical trial using rindopepimut, a TSA vaccine for EGFRvIII-positive Glioblastoma tumors, failed in Phase III when it did not demonstrate significant survival benefit compared to the control group receiving chemotherapy.

Another type of cancer vaccine relies on genetically modified dendritic cells, which are critical immune cells that interact with, and present antigens to, T cells. In fact, the first FDA-approved immunotherapy was an anti-tumor vaccine used to treat prostate cancer. As for Glioblastoma, trials with dendritic cell vaccines have shown promise in both animal models and human patients. For example, the vaccine using dendritic cells resulted in median survival of 31 months for patients with Glioblastoma in a phase I/II trial.

While Sen. McCain’s Glioblastoma diagnosis has been embroiled with politics due to his position, facing the disease is certainly a daunting challenge on its own. However, with the aid of his dedicated physicians and new treatments always on the horizon, we wish the best for McCain.


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Adela Wu

Adela Wu is passionate about making connections between ideas and people, and seeing how her interests in literature, creative writing and medicine play out in that theme. In addition, she also enjoys river and sea kayaking, having recently whitewater kayaked the Shenandoah River rapids.

Long before we see or taste food, what strikes us most is its aroma wafting through the air. While eating, what we perceive as taste is not only due to the sensation on our taste buds, but is also mediated by our sense of smell. Although we can detect only five primary tastes, we are able to detect close to 20,000 different odors at ten different intensities. This means that smell is an integral component of enjoying food. We all become most painfully aware of this while suffering from a stuffed nose, when lack of smell can make food taste unappealing or bland. Without smell, there is almost no taste.

food smells goodHowever, loss of sense of smell has interesting metabolic consequences as well. A recent study showed that losing the ability to smell made mice lose weight even though they were eating the same amount of food. This remarkable study was conducted by Dr. Andrew Dillin and his team at the University of California, Berkeley, and was published in a recent issue of the journal Cell Metabolism.

In this study, scientists injected mice with diphtheria toxin, to cause a temporary loss of the pool of neurons responsible for sensing odor, rendering the mice unable to smell. These mice were then fed normal food. After three months, the mice that had lost the sense of smell weighed slightly less than the control group with an intact sense of smell. What was most surprising, though, was that in another experimental group — mice fed a high fat diet instead of the normal chow — the mice lacking the sense of smell weighed significantly less (16 percent less) than the control group. Additional experiments showed that even mice that were already obese lost weight when they lost their ability to smell.

What happens if the mice can smell even better than normal? Dillin and his colleagues studied that as well. Mice were genetically modified to be able to smell better than normal mice. The super smellers ate the same amount and type of food as the normal mice but quickly became obese. This supports the idea that the sense of smell plays an important role in determining how many calories are burned by mice.

""The most obvious explanation would seem to be that the mice that couldn’t smell food were eating less, and therefore losing weight. However, the scientists observed no difference in the amount of food consumed by mice that had lost their sense of smell when compared with the control groups. The explanation turned out to be that the smell-less mice were burning more calories, especially via their brown fat. Unlike white fat, which predominantly stores calories, brown fat has the ability to burn energy and produce heat. Although everyone has a little bit of brown fat, most of which is typically in the neck and shoulder region, the location often varies from person to person, and it can be very difficult to locate brown fat in humans. Mice, on the other hand, have much more significant stores of brown fat. Not only did the authors notice that in the smell-deficient animals this brown fat was more metabolically active, but they also saw that some of the animals’ white fat was being converted into more calorie-burning brown fat. Further studies showed that when mice lacking the sense of smell eat normal amount of food, special nerves in their body called the sympathetic nerves get stimulated. These nerves in turn activate both the brown fat and the white fat to burn more calories.

Although this phenomenon has not yet been studied in humans, the potential implications for weight loss while maintaining a regular diet are intriguing.

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Monika Deshpande

Monika Deshpande is passionate about science communication. When she was a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health, she was involved in several publications, such as The NIH Catalyst and NIH Research Matters. She is adept at interviewing scientists and showcasing their achievements, and is able to write for scientific and nonscientific audience.

Science is a complex language. It has its own vocabulary and corresponding slang, both of which take time to learn and understand. In the lab we speak this language as fluidly and comfortably as if we were raised with it as our native tongue. For some students with parents who work in science, this may very well be the case too. However, I grew up in a family of artists. The science they recall is what they learned in school or read in novels. When I check in and they ask how work is, I often hesitate. How do I explain how my experiment went or the progress of my thesis project to someone who doesn’t speak this language? I can tell they are truly interested, but the words “neuron” and “confocal microscopy” don’t give them a true mental image of a day in my life.

scientist-reading-iStock-495342232This is something I continue to struggle with as I speak to friends and relatives about science. How do I explain a topic I am still learning myself, while making the information concise and friendly to an audience with little scientific background? In my experience, analogies and diagrams work best. While terms such as “immunostaining” may not be commonplace, painting a picture and using specific colors to depict certain aspects of a technique or scientific concept is something nearly everyone can relate to. Similarly, while your audience may get lost in the complicated terms used to describe genomic nomenclature, putting genetic concepts in terms of familial relationships can make them easier to understand to a layman.

Beyond wanting my parents and sister to understand what I do and find it meaningful, I think this raises the greater issue of transparency in science, especially in the basic science fields in which I work. Basic science is molecular processes — this is different than clinical research that is focused on a disease. In basic science we are interested in the processes that could ultimately underlie a disease. I am often asked, “How is this research meaningful?” or, “How will your work cure diseases?” In basic science, researchers are often working toward uncovering an underlying molecular or cellular process that could ultimately contribute to our understanding of a specific disease, but the immediate connection is not always clear. Therefore, we have to be our own advocates and make sure the work we do is conveyed clearly so that the meaning is not lost in scientific jargon.

""For scientists, explaining our work and making it comprehendible to the general public is dually rewarding. It creates opportunities to gain an outside perspective through the types of questions family and friends may ask. They are truly thinking outside the box, and their perspective could be extremely beneficial to approaching many complex issues. In conjunction with publishing in journals that speak our scientific language, we need to ensure that our peers outside of research can participate in our work and understand what we do. We no longer have to be lab rats who go into the black box we call the lab and come out several months later with a finding.

Our work is searchable by our publications, but true understanding from our peers around the world will come from our descriptions and details and advocacy for our findings. Why not start the conversation at home?

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Joelle Dorskind

Joelle Dorskind is a Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program at Johns Hopkins. When she isn't in lab running experiments, she enjoys reading, playing soccer, running and traveling.

Do you blog? Journal? Write in your spare time? Are you interested in pursuing communications at any level in parallel with your professional training? We need you!

something-blog-aboutBiomedical Odyssey: Adventures from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is a newsfeed dedicated to showcasing the accomplishments of the students, postdocs, residents and fellows here at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

A true testament to the talents of our writers, the Biomedical Odyssey blog has won three national awards since its launch in 2015: an Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Institutional Advancement Award for excellence in the integrated advancement category, a Silver Aster Award for excellence in medical marketing and a Bronze Digital Health Award.

Thousands of people read the blog each month and they could be reading your story.

Applications are now being accepted. If you’re interested, please send your application to the Biomedical Odyssey editorial team by Wednesday, August 23rd. You can also contact the Biomedical Odyssey editorial team about opportunities for guest blogging. 

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Written by various staff members across the Johns Hopkins Medicine, marketing & communications web team.

“From Prison Cell to Ph.D.” is a series following the journey of Dr. Stanley Andrisse, who was convicted of 2 felony drug charges and sentenced to 10 years in Missouri prison. He is now a postdoctoral scientist in pediatric endocrinology and trainee leader at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

man votingI once waited at the polls for three long hours while a nice little old lady called every public official in the state of Missouri to try and help this excited young man vote in the Obama 2012 election. I knew I was a “convicted felon,” and I knew I could not vote. But, like many other things in my life, I thought, Hey, what does it hurt to give it a try? Twenty-plus calls later, an answer came direct from the governor’s office: This nice old white lady, who was pushing 90 years old easily, pulled me to the side and whispered to me, “The governor’s office says you have a criminal conviction.” I looked at her in disbelief. To my surprise, she gave me the same look of disbelief and said, “You ain’t committing any crimes right now,” she said. “They should let you vote.” She apologized. We shook our heads and parted ways.

My home state of Missouri does not allow people convicted of a crime to vote until three years after the end of their supervision. For nearly 17 years, they took away my constitutional right as a U.S. citizen to vote for the people who will run our country. Why, might you ask? Because of felony disenfranchisement. In Florida, people with convictions will never vote again. Of the black population in Florida, 25 percent cannot vote. It is estimated that soon it will be 40 percent. Mass incarceration as a continuation of slavery is explored in the documentary 13th, titled after the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

""This rejection brings me right back to my prison cell. Although I am free, I continue to have shackles on me. I am trusted to make scientific contributions that advance the well-being of our society, but that same society does not want me to vote. I am brought back to the euphoric agony of the 2008 historic Obama-McCain presidential election. I was incarcerated at the time, staring through a tiny 4-inch by 6-inch window on my prison cell door at a small TV in the common area, my cellmate looking through the top window, and me looking through the bottom. This closeness definitely violated the unspoken personal-space prison code of ethics, but this night was an exception. We were witnessing the election of the first black U.S. president. In prison, we had a designated lights-out time. But on this night, the guards also made an exception and left the TV on all night so that we could follow the election.

A typical prison housing unit has one guard monitoring station, four wings, 25 cells per wing, and two inmates per cell, so roughly 200 inmates per housing unit. As a result of mass incarceration, about 25 bunk beds per wing were placed outside of cells, so there were 400 inmates in my housing unit that night, and about 90 percent were black. I will never forget how loud it was. People were banging on the doors in excitement and singing the new song by Young Jeezy, “My President Is Black,” in unison, hopeful that change was coming. It was a euphoric experience, but in the back of my mind, the agony of thinking that I’d never be able to vote was painful.

Fast forward to 2014, midterms: I’m now a biomedical scientist living in Baltimore. I walk right into the polls, not entirely sure what will happen next. They check my ID, hand me a ballot, and say good luck. For a long time, I simply thought that I would never be able to vote again. I was unaware of the differing laws by state and unaware of the power of unified voices to help change policies. Luckily for me, that same year Maryland started allowing people with felony convictions on parole to vote.

Click to enlarge.

Last November, I walked into the voting poll location with a sense of happiness and pride. While others complained about the long and slow lines, I patiently walked along, while inside my head I was dancing like a kid awaiting a Christmas present. The euphoria was not an excitement about the presidential candidate selection (Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump), but a sense of joy. I have been of the legal age to vote since the early 2000s. Yet this is the first presidential election that I have been able to vote in.

When I tell my noncriminal-justice-minded friends about how I could not vote for all those years, they are appalled. Most have no idea about this collateral consequence of conviction.


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Stan Andrisse

Dr. Stanley Andrisse was convicted of 2 felony drug charges and sentenced to 10 years in Missouri prison. He is now a postdoctoral scientist in Pediatric Endocrinology and trainee leader at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

frustrated studentTwo years into graduate school at Johns Hopkins, it’s still hard to believe that I’m here. After a year of undergraduate research at the University of San Diego and a summer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I remember entering my senior year of college more positive than ever that a Ph.D. program in the biomedical sciences was the obvious next step. Eager to barrel forward in my scientific career, it wasn’t long before I had assembled an extensive list of potential schools, and I dived into the application process head first. Soon, graduate school applications will be opening, and Ph.D. hopefuls will be assembling their own lists of potential schools, writing personal statements and scrambling to ask advisers for a letter of recommendation. Here are some tips for anyone starting the application process, from someone who’s been there and done that.

Be organized. The tricky part about applying to Ph.D. programs (as compared with medical school, for example) is that there’s very little standardization. Most schools have their own application, and some have separate applications for separate programs within the same school. Even worse, each application tends to have its own unique guidelines, including submission deadlines, personal statement prompts, and length requirements. There is no single, standardized application that you can send to all programs, which means that you’re going to have a lot of log-in names and passwords and information to keep straight. Before you start anything, I would recommend looking at each program’s website for key information, including the application deadline, application fee, number of letters of recommendation, testing requirements, stipend amount (or if the program offers a stipend), and personal statement length. Keeping this information organized allows you to make sure that you don’t accidentally miss an early deadline or fail to send the correct number of letters to a school—simple mistakes that should be easy to avoid.

Be thorough. Almost every graduate student I know went on at least one interview for a program they didn’t realize was nothing like what they wanted until after they got to the interview weekend. Many graduate programs have seemingly interchangeable names—some combination of the words cellular, molecular, biological, biochemical, medical, or physical, often with different prefixes (bio-, patho-, neuro-) thrown in front. To an eager pre-Ph.D., it’s easy to assume that they’re all some derivation of a similar program, but often this is not the case. Before spending money on the application fee, look at a program’s specific curriculum and faculty list. If none of the research or coursework sounds like what you’re interested in, it may be difficult to find a lab in which to complete your thesis. Similarly, there may be other simple criteria you can use to rule out schools before applying. For instance, I knew I wanted a mid- to large-sized program; however, I didn’t look into class sizes prior to applying. I showed up at several interview weekends where the classes were much, much smaller than I wanted, and I had the unpleasant feeling that I was wasting the program’s resources and taking the interview spot of another qualified applicant.

""Be early. When asking for letters of recommendation, give professors at least three- to four-weeks’ notice. Writing a letter can take time, and depending on how busy your mentors are, they may have priorities that prevent them from simply whipping something up on demand. Also, if you’re able to submit your application before the deadline, many schools look at applications in the order that they are received. You might receive an early, unexpected interview weekend invitation, if you’re on the ball and able to submit before the flood of other applications hits.

Be unafraid to explore. Although I said that you should research a school to make sure it’s what you’re looking for, you may not know what you’re looking for, and that’s okay! I applied to 18 programs at 12 schools, ranging from Seattle to New York City, because I honestly had no idea where I wanted to go. It’s important to research whether a program fits your interests, but you may also be open to changing fields. If a school is interested in you, they’ll send you an invitation sometime in January or February to come interview and spend a weekend visiting their campus, interacting with their students and professors and seeing the surrounding area. These weekends were my favorite part of the application process and can help you to form ideas about what you want in a program. if you’re unsure. Although the application fees certainly aren’t cheap, it may be worth adding one or two programs you’re curious about.

Good luck to any applicants beginning the admissions process; and I encourage you to look into any of the dozens of Ph.D. programs offered across the Johns Hopkins campuses!

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Emily Fray

Emily is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program. She is passionate about reading and writing about science, learning about infectious diseases, consuming large quantities of caffeine, and studying her personal role model, Louis Pasteur. She hopes to someday combine her loves of English and science to work as an editor for a major journal or textbook company.

As a researcher in a muscle biology and regeneration lab, it’s disturbing to picture myself eating the tiny pieces of muscle I grow in petri dishes. However, the idea of growing muscle (meat) from avian (chicken) or bovine (cow) stem cells in the laboratory for human consumption is a reality today. Some people consider it a replacement to current meat production standards and its rising global demand.

lab grown meatIn 2013, the Dutch stem cell researcher Mark Post presented to the world the first cell-cultured hamburger that was cooked and tasted live on air. The patty took three months to make using 20,000 muscle fibers grown from bovine stem cells in Post’s lab at an approximated cost of €250,000, which was financed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. This cell-cultured beef burger represented a notable milestone in the field of cellular agriculture.

Another researcher eager to shift meat manufacturing from the farm to the lab is Gabor Forgacs, a biological physicist at the University of Missouri. Forgacs’ goal is to use 3-D printing technology to fabricate larger bits of meat from myocytes (muscle cells). Additionally, the company Memphis Meats in San Francisco, California, announced in March 2017 that they have produced “clean poultry” — chicken and duck meat from cultured cells of each bird.

Cultured stem cells can be used to grow millions of tons of meat, reducing animal suffering and helping the environment stressed by huge tracks of lands occupied by livestock. In conventional meat production from “factory” farms, antibiotics are regularly given to healthy animals to encourage their growth. On the other hand, lab-grown meats are prepared in a sterile lab environment, circumventing antibiotics and bacteria present in live cattle. According to a 2011 study, cultured meat requires less land and energy to make than common methods for producing pork, sheep or beef. Moreover, clean poultry would require even less energy to produce than lab-made meat. Even though engineered meat provides an animal-free alternative to present meat production, no synthetic food has yet reached the marketplace and it is not clear which government agencies would supervise this emerging food source.

la-grown beef is substantially better for the environment

Historically, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) supervised the safekeeping and security of food additives while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulated meat, poultry and eggs. Moreover, the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), a center within the FDA, regulates biological items for human consumption. This includes products made from human tissues, blood and cells and gene therapy procedures. New food products like lab-grown meat do not fit into present-day regulatory definitions. To address this problem, the White House launched in 2016 an initiative to clarify which U.S. agencies are responsible for a given product and how such agencies should regulate agricultural biotechnology. Meanwhile, industry leaders are focusing on making their potential lab-based foods comparable to existing products that are known to be safe for human consumption. The groundwork laid by these companies could provide a path for approval of lab-made meat for the end consumer — you and me.

The push to generate cheap and mass-producible lab-grown food is underway and perhaps one day coming to a burger joint near you…the “deluxe myocyte patty”— would you eat it?

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Yazmin Rovira Gonzalez

By day, you can find Yaz in the lab, where she peers into the inner workings of muscle cells to make discoveries that may someday help treat metabolic disorders. On the weekends, she's out exploring and photographing the mountain trails with her trusty sidekick, Bailey the hiking wiener dog.

operating room doorsI am equal parts excited and filled with dread as I open the door. The operating room is abuzz with activity, everyone hurriedly working to complete their duties during the operation. I focus on keeping out of the way of the ordered disorder, and avert my eyes from the patient on the operating table. I have a job to do, one that does not involve fixating on the unwelcome flood of memories rushing over me. I am here to watch a sample collection—where tumor tissue is collected during an operation (with the patient’s consent) that we will utilize in my thesis laboratory to study molecular markers of cancer. But as I stare at the patient on the table, it is hard not to put myself in her shoes. Specifically, it is difficult to not remember being in her shoes, 10 years ago.

I came to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine with a passion for cancer research. This passion emerged when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 13, and the quest to rid the cancer raging in my body turned into a larger goal of delving into the scientific mechanisms of cancer and learning how to defeat it. As such, when searching for a laboratory to join for my doctoral work, I was ecstatic to join a clinical research laboratory that studied my cancer: thyroid cancer.

At first, in my lab, I felt I was ahead of the learning curve—I was already familiar with the disease progression and all the jargon encompassing thyroid cancer, as I had lived through those words when they were used to describe my diagnosis and prognosis as a patient. Similarly, I needed no external push to excite me or involve me in the research. As a scientist, being passionate about the field you have chosen to study is absolutely vital. It is that internal drive that gets us out of bed in the morning the day after an experiment has failed, propels us through weeks of troubleshooting and optimization, and motivates us to share our ideas with others. Being personally affected by the disease I study, I have an extremely high internal drive that propels me forward in my work, as well as a strong background in the field.

The author working in her lab.

The author working in her lab.

While my cancer experience has been extremely valuable to my thesis work thus far, I also realized that day, while standing in the operating room, how working on a topic that hits close to home can be potentially harmful. As a scientist, I have to stay objective in my work, since it is crucial that researchers not be biased towards hoping for a certain experimental outcome. I have to distance myself from my project enough that I do not risk biasing myself to my results. When reading literature on thyroid cancer, I must remind myself that I am reading these papers for my project, and not for personal use. I cannot forget that my personal experiences are not necessarily representative of what every thyroid cancer patient goes through, and my research must reflect a largely diverse population. As we say in science, “we need more than an N of 1”, meaning that we must study more than one person/patient to draw any significant conclusions. I cannot be that N of 1.

My first time in the operating room I had to excuse myself and sit down in the hallway outside. The smell, memories, and sights were too familiar. Although I have since adjusted to the operating room, it was a welcome reminder that a little mental distance is necessary. Being passionate to fight this disease due to my own battle is helpful as far as providing me with a source of drive and determination, but it can also impede my work and act as a hindrance if I do not approach the juxtaposition of work life and personal life carefully. I am thankful for the opportunity I have to pursue what I am most passionate about, and the reminder to be a scientist first and foremost.

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About the Author

Brittany Avin

Brittany Avin is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology and genetics. She is a cancer survivor, cancer researcher, and cancer advocate who’s passionate about closing the communication gap between patients, clinicians and researchers.