Christina Szalinski

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Thursday, 14 August 2014 10:02

Nontraditional Science Careers: Consultant

The secret is out. There is life beyond the lab or the classroom for someone with a PhD in molecular biology, especially in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. And yet many of these business careers have little to do directly with bench expertise but instead call on doctoral level training in analysis, planning, and communication. Those are the key skills that serve Jason Huhn and Danielle Haney, recent PhD graduates who are happily pursuing fast-paced, well-paid office-based careers as consultants.

In Hollywood and in 3D molecular printing, you start with a script. But the scripts that Darrell Hurt offers bioscience researchers help them to make molecular discoveries more easily. Hurt is the section head at the Computational Biology Bioinformatics and Computational Biosciences Branch at the NIH, where he recently launched the NIH 3D Print Exchange. http://3dprint.nih.gov/ The Exchange offers open-access to ready-to-use scripts, the instructions that drive 3D printers, so scientists can turn their .pdb and other data files into print-it-yourself plastic models.

It's rare to find a young scientist in a big office, yet Gregory Alushin, age 29, has generous space, a U-shaped desk, and a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the NIH campus. He is semi-apologetic about the arrangement, insisting that it's only temporary. "We're going to have to leave this place in a few months," Alushin hastily explains. "Another institute had just moved out of this space so we got to be the temporary sole occupants." His lab was founded only seven months ago, says Alushin, and he doesn't want to get too comfortable.

Fishermen can tell you many tales of the teleosts but most cell biologists know but one—the zebrafish. That's a shame, says John Postlethwait, professor of biology at the University of Oregon, who made his scientific mark with the zebrafish but is a fan of a much wider circle of the teleosts, ray-finned fish whose ranks include nearly all of the important sport or commercial bony fish on Earth. Postlethwait thinks there are discoveries to be made amongst the lesser-known teleosts. Consider the blackfin icefish, a three-foot long, shovel-jawed fish that once almost set an Antarctic research station on fire. The blackfin icefish may hold clue to osteoporosis, he says.

"ALEster" is the pseudonym of a self–described postdoc in molecular biology who wants to build a highly portable cell biology lab, including cell culture incubator, laminar flow hood, and fluorescence microscope, that you could take everywhere you go. It occupies 15 square inches (.381 square meters) of floor space. ALEster is an AFOL, that is, an Adult Fan of LEGO, so his pocket lab was designed with LEGO bricks, complete with PI, Professor Umami, and postdoctoral fellows, the red-haired imaging expert Lory Rhodamine, and the thickly bespectacled biochemist Sam Emsa. The result is detailed, accurate, and a marvel. ALEster submitted his lab design to the official LEGO Ideas site last winter in hopes of attracting 10,000 endorsements, becoming an official LEGO idea set, and inspiring a new generation of bench jockeys.

Sometimes in science it pays to turn over a new leaf or an old laboratory animal. Stephen M. King at the University of Connecticut Health Center recently turned over planarian Schmidtea mediterranea, the nonparasitic flatworm justly renowned for its incredible regenerative powers, and saw on its underside a new way into a old problem. King, who is an ASCB member, believes that planaria could be an alternate model system for studying ciliary motility and its associated diseases now known as ciliopathies.

"A" is for axolotl, a funky looking salamander regarded by the Aztecs as a delicacy and by cell biologists who believe it could hold the key for unlocking regeneration. The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is not new to science. It's been used in the lab for over 150 years and like many lab animal systems, the axototl has had peaks and valleys of popularity. But David Gardiner, professor at University of California, Irvine (UCI) and an ASCB member, has been working on regeneration with axolotls for over 30 years. It was his wife, Sue Bryant, who is also a UCI professor and fellow ASCB member, who first introduced Gardiner to this nontraditional animal model.

Forget the Super Bowl. If you want to draw a HUGE crowd, throw a science and engineering open house in the Washington, DC, convention center. But get ready to stand back. This weekend, the USA Science & Engineering Festival attracted over 325,000 fans. Yes, you read that correctly—325,000 kids and adults turning out for a science event. Inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, they loaded up on gumdrop molecules or paper mutant Drosophilae. They wore Eppendorf tubes of precipitated DNA around their necks or carried plastic condiment cups filled with soil and germinating seeds. Some had "infection" stickers on their shirts, part of a Virus Tracker game to illustrate disease transmission. Fortunately for the massive crowd the event had more than 3,000 science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) activities inside the cavernous center waiting to soak up their attention.

We still talk about guinea pigs as experimental subjects yet you'd have a hard time finding one in a modern research laboratory. Guinea pigs were first used in biomedical research in the late 19th century, playing a major role in establishing the germ theory, identifying pathogens, linking vitamin C insufficiency to scurvy, and modeling diabetes and pre-eclampsia. The guinea pig metaphor lives on but today, mice, rats, fruit flies, nematodes, and zebrafish dominate as model animals. But there are many new model animals on the research horizon, chosen because they can model human diseases in novel ways or because they have special abilities that humans lack. In this series, we will explore a few of the nontraditional animal models, and their potential in the lab.

Nearly every cell in your body is releasing microscopic bubbles that contain tiny messages to other cells in your body. The bubbles are so small that if a cell were the size of the Empire State Building, the vesicles would be the size of teenage couriers, running to deliver messages to neighboring buildings in the organism of Manhattan. But now there's evidence that at least in worms, these little bubbles, called extracellular vesicles (ECVs), can leave the cells of the Manhattan Island worm to deliver messages to cells in the Brooklyn worm. The first of these external messages to be discovered turns out to be a love note.

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