Enrolling at 14 years old, alumnus Ethan Sanford has the distinction of having been one of the University's youngest and most accomplished students. He received the Biology Department's 2016 Faculty Award and the University's Outstanding Senior Award. He was active in the Esther G. Maynor Honors College and in TriBeta while conducting research in the RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) Program, and he spent a semester studying abroad in Wales. Shortly after graduation in May of 2016, he joined the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell University as a Ph.D. student in the field of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology (BMCB). Cornell is one of the foremost research institutions in the world, possessing state-of-the-art life sciences research facilities, including Weill Hall, a $163 million biomedical research facility. Ethan shares his experiences from his second year at Cornell University below.
Have you chosen a laboratory for your graduate research?
Yes. I joined Marcus Smolka's Lab in Weill Hall. Our lab is broadly interested in the mechanisms of genome maintenance with a focus on DNA lesion detection and signaling. Our lab uses a technique known as quantitative mass spectrometry (in combination with genetic and biochemical approaches) to elucidate the dynamics and regulation of complex DNA damage signaling pathways in yeast and mammals. My thesis project, in its current form, seeks to understand how a very important yeast signaling protein, Mec1, prevents mutagenic events known as gross chromosomal rearrangements (GCRs). This may all sound quite esoteric, but in reality, GCRs are a hallmark of a number of human pathologies, including cancer. By studying these events in yeast, we can make informed decisions about what lines of inquiry to pursue in mammalian cells, which tend to be more arduous to work with than budding yeast. Indeed, our lab has a number of people doing cell culture, and we even have a person working with mice. This means we have a robust pipeline to make interesting discoveries in the field of genome stability.
Which courses have you taken? Have you met any famous scientists on campus?
Graduate courses tend to be quite specialized but very interesting. In addition to full-semester courses, our department also offers short, intensive courses on things like microscopy and R (a programming language popular among biologists; I took the R minicourse last year). The full-semester courses that I have taken include a course about protein biology entitled “Protein Structure and Function”, a course about replication and transcription entitled “The Nucleus”, and a basic cell biology course entitled “Functional Organization of Eukaryotic Cells.” Our curriculum does not include a lot of mandatory coursework—the primary focus is conducting research and defending a thesis within five or six years. I am presently preparing to take what is called the A Exam over the summer. The A exam is an oral exam in which we must defend an original research proposal in front of our committee. I must admit, I’m a little nervous!
As for famous scientists, Cornell does a good job of bringing renowned researchers to campus. I have been fortunate to attend three talks given by Nobel laureates in my field. There was William Campbell, who discovered Ivermectin, a very widely used antiparasitic drug; Michael Brown, who uncovered cholesterol regulation and, subsequently, receptor-mediated endocytosis; and Martin Chalfie, one of the discoverers of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), a staple of molecular biology research. A couple of years ago, the department hosted the illustrious Jennifer Doudna. She is a pioneer in the field of genome editing and discovered CRISPR-Cas9, a genome-editing technology that is sure to revolutionize medicine in the very near future. All this is to say that it isn’t difficult to find good seminars to attend at Cornell.
How is life at Cornell?
In short, life at Cornell is everything I had hoped it would be, and graduate school is about as stressful as I expected it to be. Ithaca is a fun and quirky place, and there is no shortage of things to do. For people who enjoy the outdoors, for example, we have hundreds of trails to explore. There is a reason for the expression “Ithaca is Gorges.” Cornell possesses a wealth of resources for its students, and as an example of this, there are over 1,000 student organizations, most of which are available to graduate students. All that being said, I tend to spend the majority of my time in Weill Hall. I don’t resent this—it’s simply the nature of the work I chose.
While I can't speak for the undergrads or for other departments, I will say that my department is not competitive, at least not in the sense that there is much competition between students. We try to cultivate a collaborative, supportive atmosphere, because graduate school is itself stressful enough without the added pressure of competition between graduate students. Becoming a scientist isn’t easy. I think that's the key to building a career in science, though—you've got to feel constantly overwhelmed, constantly under pressure to learn new things and to challenge your thinking. And, of course, you've got to be constantly fascinated and curious by your topic of study.
It goes without saying that Cornell is much different than UNCP; no two college campuses are the same. For one, it’s much colder! The environment at Cornell is quite rigorous, and I rarely feel caught up with all of my academic responsibilities. Every day presents a new challenge, be it in the lab or in the library. I try to engage myself in activities outside of my line of work to keep me on my toes, so to speak. For example, I edit a newsletter on campus, and I recently participated in an intensive four-day leadership program through the College of Engineering.
I often reflect on my time at UNCP, and on the excellent mentorship I received. I have no doubt that I would never have made it to Cornell without the support of such amazing mentors as Drs. Scott Hicks and Conner Sandefur, both of whom coached me to achieve my graduate school aspirations.