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Meet Chloe Kirk, a Ph.D. Graduate Student at the University of Miami

1. Please introduce yourself!

My name is Chloe Kirk. I am a Ph.D. Graduate Student at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I work in the lab of Dr. Stephen Lee where I am examining the reversal mechanisms of physiological Amyloid bodies.

2. What was your path to science and how did you discover your passion for molecular biology?

I’ve always loved experimenting from an early age but didn’t know you could go to school for it until close to college! I spent my K-12 years with little passion for science, as mainly my understanding of science was limited to the dense textbooks assigned as reading and the extremely difficult multiple-choice exams that came hand-in-hand with science classes. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school I was selected by my science teacher for a volunteer internship in a cancer biology lab at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. I fell hard and fast for molecular biology, cloning plasmids and running gels. Science was more than reading textbooks and filling in bubbles on an exam sheet; it was exploring the unknown by experimenting and learning constantly.

When I transitioned to undergrad, I decided to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison so I could continue research. There I tried out labs across the science spectrum: crystallography, psychology, medicine. After all of these experiences, I still found myself returning to those basic molecular biology techniques and yearning to understand the inner-workings of cells. I loved running western blots and analyzing what this told me about how a protein moves in a cell, or being under the microscope observing how different drugs affect cell movements. I spent as much time in the lab as possible (when not in class), and so graduate school in molecular biology seemed like the perfect fit.

3. What are the most important parts of working in a research lab?

I’ve learned how valuable having support networks and other things beyond the lab to keep you interested are. I have always loved the lab and doing experiments and thought I needed nothing else. But burnout happens to us all and it is very important to balance your life with many things you love so that when the science doesn’t work out the way you want (which, trust me, happens more than you would think) you aren’t left with nothing. My support network of family, friends, and lab mates helped guide me through the highs and lows inevitable with scientific research and showed me the value of balancing your life, so those lows don’t end up bringing you crashing down.

I have also learned the value of teamwork. No one project in a lab happens with just one person anymore. You need teamwork to help train you, make sense of data you can’t explain, find where you should make your project stronger, and learn from their mistakes.

4. What research are you currently working on?

It is still early days of my project, but the goal of my research is to elucidate how to reverse Amyloid bodies which are prevalent in diseases such as cancer and hypothesized to be in Alzheimer’s disease. Physiological Amyloid bodies are clusters of immobile proteins that aggregate in the nucleolus under conditions of stress. These conditions of stress can include heat shock (thermal stress), low oxygen conditions (hypoxia), or low pH (acidosis). When this stress is induced, cells respond by sequestering many proteins into Amyloid bodies. Amyloid bodies help the cell survive stressors by protecting certain proteins but can also be harnessed by diseases like cancer to allow cells to thrive even when they should be dead. Such protein aggregations in disease are known as Pathological Amyloid bodies, an area of research largely undiscovered to date. The goal of my Ph.D. is to find the proteins that trigger the reversal of physiological Amyloid bodies. Future research could use these proteins that reverse physiological Amyloid bodies on the largely unknown pathological Amyloid bodies.

5. What are your career goals and how has your research experience helped with this?

As much as I love bench research, I don’t see myself staying at the bench forever. I am still keeping my options open with how I would like to continue research after graduate school, but my long-term career goals are to get involved in public policy, specifically changing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education in K-12 schools. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t find my passion for science until close to college when I was lucky to have a science teacher sign me up to work in a research lab. However, most students still think of science, and STEM more broadly, as boring and dense because they haven’t had an opportunity to see the fun in STEM! I want to change this perception by integrating STEM education with more hands-on activities and providing lab opportunities to more students. My research experience has shown me how much fun science can be and amplified my desire to bring this love of science to as many other people as possible.

6. What is the most exciting aspect of the lab you are in? What is the future application of this?

The most exciting part of my lab is the novel research we do. This novel phenomenon, Amyloid bodies in cells, are quite small and at first glance don’t seem that useful for clinical research in humans. But by studying physiological Amyloid body synthesis in cells we are able to make amazing discoveries with implications for pathological Amyloid bodies, the Amyloid bodies in diseases.

Find Chole on Instagram @chloe.the.scientist

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