Ethan Sanford in Marcus Smolka's Lab at Cornell
Alumnus Ethan Sanford has the distinction of having been one of the University's youngest (enrolling at 14 years old) 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 year studying abroad in Wales. Shortly after graduation in May of 2016, he joined the doctoral program in Biochemistry, Molecular & Cell Biology (BMCB) at one of the nation's foremost research universities -- Cornell University. Ethan has been kind to share his first-year experiences at Cornell in the text below.
Have you chosen a laboratory for your graduate research?
I have! I will join Marcus Smolka's Lab at the end of this semester (~ May 10). I am currently finishing up a third rotation with Eric Alani, who studies mismatch repair in yeast. Marcus is interested in the mechanisms of genome maintenance with a focus on DNA lesion detection and signaling. The lab uses quantitative mass spectrometry in combination with genetic and biochemical approaches to elucidate the organization, dynamics and regulation of DNA damage signaling in yeast and mammals. My project will initially focus on the role that Sgs1, a helicase, plays in mediating checkpoint-independent maintenance of genome stability (The lab showed, in what I think is a very elegant 2015 Molecular Cell paper, that many Mec1/ATR phosphorylations occur independently of canonical Rad53-mediated checkpoint signalling). Sgs1 seems to transduce this signal. I intend to use mass spec in combination with yeast genetics and biochemistry to elucidate this novel role of Sgs1. Why is this important? Sgs1 is related to BLM and WRN in humans, and mutations associated with those genes yield remarkable susceptibility to cancer, as well as hypersensitivity to mutagens.
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 this year). So far I have taken: Protein Structure and Function, The Nucleus, and Functional Organisation of Eukaryotic Cells.
As for famous scientists, I have been very fortunate to attend two talks given by nobel laureates in my field. William Campbell, who discovered Ivermectin while at Merck and subsequently convinced his superiors to use it for the greater good of humanity rather than for pharmaceutical profiteering, gave a seminar to our department. Additionally, Michael S. Brown gave this year's Racker Lecture. (He, along with Joseph Goldstein, elucidated cholesterol regulation and in doing so uncovered receptor-mediated endocytosis.) The 2015 Racker Lecture was given by Jennifer Doudna! She is credited with discovering the genome-editing capabilities of the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which has taken the molecular biology world by storm.
There are also a few notable members of our department, though I'm not sure anyone outside of the field would know of them. Scott Emr, a Schekman lab alum, directs the Weill Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology and is credited with discovering ESCRT proteins. John Lis is also rather famous in my field, having invented several well known techniques (ChIP, PRO-seq, GRO-seq, etc.). John has studied transcriptional regulation for a long time and has made many important contributions. He teaches The Nucleus, a class I'm taking right now.
How is life at Cornell?
In short, life at Cornell is everything I had hoped it would be and more. I am absolutely in love with this place, and each day I am beyond grateful that I was admitted to the field of BMCB. Cornell has a wealth of resources for its students, including a plethora of student organisations (1,106 for the 2015-2016 academic year). It is a pleasure to spend time on campus, and most days I try to spend around 12 hours here, doing a combination of studying and lab work.
Cornell is much different than UNCP. While it does ask more of its students, I think it also offers more in the way of support for us, so it's kind of a trade-off. Still, I loved my time at UNCP and can't complain -- I ended up here!
One thing I love to do here is to attend the Cornell Chimes concerts at McGraw Tower when I can (there are three each day). It's very relaxing, and the view from atop Libe Slope is great. The bells are played by undergraduate students called "chimesmasters." They play both classical and popular music on the chimes -- ranging from Bach to Taylor Swift. The Harry Potter theme is one of the most commonly requested tunes.
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's any competition between students. We try to cultivate a collaborative, supportive atmosphere. The program is definitely intense. I love the intensity of it, though, because I think that's the key to building a good career in science -- 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. That being said, work:life balance is critical. When I'm not doing science related things, I try to work exercise and social activities into my schedule.
What advice can you offer UNCP students who wish to pursue graduate school?
I'll start by saying that I love graduate school. I was pretty determined to get here, and once I got here I kind of realized that this is exactly what I was destined to do. I know there are quite a few people like me at UNCP, and I've met some of them. To those people I say, yes, go to graduate school. To people who are maybe unsure of what they want to do, I would say, save your time. Unless you're deeply passionate about science, you probably won't enjoy graduate school.
I also would advise people to aim high. Despite the NIH and NSF's bizarre desire to produce even more Ph.D.s in STEM, the reality is that science is a really competitive field, and you're likely wasting your time if you have to go to a "safety school" for your Ph.D. Instead I would say that if you don't get into one of your top choices, get a job as a lab tech or do a post-bacc. Ph.D. programs at schools like Cornell look very kindly on those experiences and will try to recruit you after a year or two in the workforce.
The other reason I say to aim high is that most good graduate schools provide their students with a tuition waiver and a livable stipend (~$34,000 at Cornell). Graduate schools that are not top ranked are unlikely to provide their students with stipends > $20,000, which is almost unlivable. They also have less funding for cutting-edge instruments. Ultimately this means that your Ph.D. will take longer, or that you won't produce as much data.
I want to end on a good note, though. UNCP's motto is, I think, absolutely true. Education changes lives -- it certainly changed mine. UNCP students are perfectly capable of getting into great graduate programs and doing great things -- they just might have to try a little harder than students coming from R1 schools. Passion for your work is all you need to be successful, and to be passionate it doesn't matter where you did your undergrad.
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