Degree from Michigan: Biochemistry, Minor in Gender and Health
Current location: Bethesda, MD
Year graduated: 2016
Student orgs involved in at Michigan: Circle K (president), Alternative Spring Break (participant and site leader), UROP (research assistant in an immunology lab), K-grams, Dance Marathon, and Student Life Student Advisory Board (Vice President)
NP: I work at the NIH in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in a lab that studies the malaria parasite. Specifically, my project looks at a specific ion channel made by the parasite that allows it to survive in humans (if you get rid of the channel, the parasite dies). We think this ion channel may ultimately be a good drug target. However, right now we’re just studying the genes that regulate this channel.
KC: What does your typical day in the lab look like?
NP: Day-to-day, I do a lot of biochemistry-heavy experiments/bench work, and I take care of malaria cultures. It’s pretty independent work, especially compared to what I did in undergrad (I worked in a lab, but it was under the supervision of a grad student). I structure my day based on what I know I need to do, and I meet with my boss once a week to make plans.
KC: Since you’re working with such a dangerous disease/parasite, what types of precautionary measures do you have to take when working in the lab?
NP: We have to take normal laboratory precautions, such as wearing protective equipment (lab coats and gloves), being aware of potential hazards, and handling dangerous chemicals carefully. Aside from that… Malaria is transmitted through the blood, usually from mosquitos, so the only way you could get infected in the lab is if you accidentally stabbed yourself with a needle that had infected blood on it.
KC: During your time at Michigan, what got you interested in research in the first place?
NP: I started research during my freshman year, but for a while I didn’t think I wanted to go into research as a career. Eventually I took Intro to Immunology for my major, and I LOVED it. Plus, I was already working in an immunology lab and writing my thesis in that same lab, so all of these factors combined made me realize I could do this type of work after school.
KC: Sometimes students avoid research because they feel it’s such a lonely field. What are your thoughts on this?
NP: That is pretty true. In my lab I do a lot of things independently, and I’m by myself a lot. That’s been a little weird for me, but my lab is great and I love all of the people that work here.
KC: Do you think you’ll stay in this type of field long-term?
NP: In terms of my long-term goals, I know I don’t want to go into academia. I think I want to go to grad school and then get a government job or work for some type of organization like the CDC or WHO – something more on the people side of science. I ultimately want to do something that involves working with a lot of people and being in a dynamic, changing environment.
KC: What are your favorite and least favorite things about your job?
NP: I love working in a lab because things are different every day. It’s cool that I’ve learned so many new skills since coming here from doing different assays and experiments that I never even realized that I didn’t know. I also love the people that I work with.
My least favorite part: Probably just the fact that sometimes, science doesn’t work. We don’t have success in every idea we try, and some of my experiments take a long time. I hadn’t experienced the difficulties of the nature of science before working in the lab.
KC: What advice could you give to current students hoping to follow in a similar career path?
NP: My biggest advice is to network and talk to people in your field or in a field that you think you may be interested in. Do research online of what you CAN do in science. One resource that helped me is a website called “My IDP” = My Individual Development Plan. You take a bunch of tests, and the results give you a list of all your potential career paths in science based off of your skills and interests. The quiz told me about a lot of jobs that I’d never heard of previously. It was really helpful to see, “This is what your skills are and here’s what you can do with them.”