Meet the 2012 predoctoral research scholars

This August, The Graduate School of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research welcomed the first generation of predoctoral research scholars into its program. Nine handpicked scholars, hailing from as far as Mexico and Malaysia, have plunged into an intellectual adventure from which they will emerge not only doctors of philosophy but full-fledged scientists and critical thinkers.

More than five years in the making, the Stowers Graduate School differs from comparable graduate programs in more ways than one. While most institutions rely heavily on standardized tests to judge whether candidates are likely to withstand the rigors of a graduate program, the Stowers Institute looks for enthusiastic college graduates, who have already spent time at the bench and know that they enjoy hands-on research. The graduate program itself emphasizes independent experimental work, so much so that participants are referred to as predoctoral research scholars.

“The sole criterion for admission to the Stowers Graduate School is extensive, highly successful research experience,” explains R. Scott Hawley, PhD, dean of the graduate school. Not surprisingly, all incoming predoctoral research scholars have, or soon will have, co-authored papers in scientific journals—indeed a number of them are the first author on manuscripts that are already published or are currently being written. “But more importantly, they all took intellectual ownership of their projects and answered in-depth questions by a panel of Stowers investigators during the interview,” he says. “That really attests to a high degree of independence.” During the first term, the predoctoral research scholars participate in novel research intensive modules in which they are introduced to and work closely with Stowers Institute investigators to become familiar with the latest research tools and acquire the necessary skills to analyze complex data. In January, they are at the bench full-time and get to know several research labs first hand during three consecutive two-month rotations. Come June, they join their dissertation lab and start tackling one of the big unsolved questions of life. Meet the next generation of scientists:

Cori Cahoon
University of California, Davis

It was love at first sight. After spending many summers working at her father’s animal clinic, Cori Cahoon was on the fast track to continue the family tradition and become a veterinarian until her first genetics class at the University of California, Davis, threw her off course. Fascinated by the ever-present influence of genes on all aspects of life, Cahoon changed plans and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in genetics.

 As an undergraduate, Cahoon worked in a lab studying the mustard weed Arabidopsis, the lab rat of plant biologists. But before she took the grad school plunge, she wanted to make sure that full-time, hands-on research actually resembled the glorified pursuit portrayed in books and memoirs. So after college she took a position as a research technician at UC Davis. There she found herself on what she describes as an exhilarating roller coaster ride, where the disappointment of failed experiments and the excitement of unexpected discoveries chase each other in quick succession. That “dry run” as a bench scientist convinced Cahoon that she was ready to embark on a research career.

Along the way she has discovered that scientists and veterinarians have more in common than lab coats: Each tries to solve a puzzle by collecting small pieces of information and putting them together, whether to understand a fundamental biological principle or what’s ailing a dog.

Kristi Jensen

University of Kansas, Lawrence

Pond scum, the green slimy muck that covers still waters the world over, has launched many a scientific career and Kristi Jensen’s is no exception. Since her first close-up of pond water teeming with microscopic organisms, she has been on a straight trajectory from amateur field biologist to research scientist. Jensen grew up on a family farm in rural Kansas and entertained herself during endless summer days by hunting for fossils and examining fresh water microbes. Soon she became fascinated by the simplicity of single-celled organisms and, not surprisingly, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Throughout college she had worked full time as a certified nursing assistant and briefly considered enrolling in medical school. However, her firsthand experience with the lack of efficacious treatments for many of her patients reinforced her belief that she could have a bigger impact on people’s lives as a scientist.

Despite her interest in microbiology, Jensen became enamored with neurobiology when she moved to Kansas City to join Stowers Associate Investigator Ron Yu’s lab as a research technician. For the last year she has studied the effects of estrus pheromones on the behavior of female and male mice. Ready for more exploration, Jensen is excited about the prospect of doing lab rotations and learning about many other areas of research.

Melvin Noé González

National Autonomous University of Mexico, Cuernavaca Morelos

When Melvin Noé González considered his options for undergraduate studies at the National
Autonomous University of Mexico, he gravitated toward biology. A traditional biology major, however, didn’t seem like the right fit and he opted for medical school instead. But then he heard about a pioneering genomics degree offered by the university. It emphasized genetics and bioinformatics instead of botany and zoology and replaced traditional lectures with talks by world-renowned scientists hosted by students. It was exactly what Noé González had been looking for. He sailed through the program’s selective entry exam and made the switch to the Genomic Sciences program.

During one discussion, a visiting speaker told him about Stowers Investigator Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado’s work on flatworms, those undisputed champions of regeneration. Noé González decided to travel to the Sánchez Alvarado lab to do undergraduate thesis work. Armed with unflagging enthusiasm but lacking hands-on lab experience Noé González immediately took to the bench and, by his own estimate, spent more time there than in his apartment, immersed in the study of epigenetic changes necessary for flatworms to reinvent themselves.

After a steep learning curve and a few failed experiments, he got his project off the ground and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in genomics from the National Autonomous University. Noé González was so impressed by the supportive Stowers community that he applied to and was accepted into the Stowers graduate program.

Soon Keat Ooi

National University of Malaysia, Bangi

Before Soon Keat Ooi ever set foot on US soil he was already intimately familiar with the Stowers Institute. An Internet search for “histone modifications”— which are an integral part of the regulatory network that controls whether genes are on or off—had led him straight to Stowers Investigator Jerry Workman’s research. Equally impressed by the rest of the world-renowned investigators who call Stowers their intellectual home, Ooi applied to the institute’s graduate program.

Although he found Stowers through virtual means, his scientific curiosity was sparked in a hands-on manner. In high school biology class, his classmates refused to even touch a frog during a dissection, but Ooi leaped at the opportunity to disassemble the frog and then spent hours studying it. Afterwards, Ooi felt increasingly compelled to learn about the molecular origins of disease, particularly after his grandmother succumbed to cancer. After graduating from the National University of Malaysia with a degree in molecular biology, Ooi took a position as a research assistant and started working on the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, which causes a life-threatening disease endemic to Malaysia and parts of Australia.

Throughout his training, mentors had emphasized the importance of understanding how biological processes are regulated, kindling Ooi’s interest in the epigenome. Little did he know that in his quest to learn more, a simple Internet search would take him from Kuala Lumpur to Kansas City.

Ryan Rickels

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Reading changes lives. This has never been truer than in the case of Ryan Rickels, who was well on his way to a bachelor’s degree in fine arts when a stray copy of Scientific American stopped him in his tracks. Mesmerized by an article about sensors that could read movement-generating brain waves, Rickels abandoned media arts and set his sights on biology. Any lingering doubts about switching majors just one year before graduation disappeared as soon as he hit the bench. He had so much fun he knew he had made the right choice.

Growing up, Rickels had been interested in all things science fiction and couldn’t get enough of the movie Jurassic Park. But once he entered high school, his interest in music took over and he became busy playing guitar and bass in bands and planning a future as an artist. When he read the fateful magazine article, it sounded as futuristic as the science fiction books of his childhood and rechanneled his interest toward science.

Four years later, Rickels graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology from the University of Tennessee. He was working as a research technician at UT when an essay on regeneration in flatworms—authored by Stowers Investigator Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado—piqued his interest. From there it was only a short step to submitting an official application to the Stowers graduate program.

Wanqing Shao

Wuhan University, China

Hearing a presentation given at Wuhan University by Stowers Associate Investigator Ron Yu was all that it took to convince Wanqing Shao that her future was at the Stowers Institute. Participation in the Stowers Summer Scholars program—an intense ten-week, hands-on research experience—seemed like a natural first step in getting there, but the application deadline had passed. With Yu’s encouragement, she nevertheless pursued a position in the program. Her tenacity paid off and she joined the Summer Scholars class in 2011.

During that summer, Shao’s abilities so impressed Stowers Assistant Investigator Julia Zeitlinger that at the completion of the program, Zeitlinger offered her the opportunity to remain in Kansas City as a short-term Stowers International Scholar. Shao stayed on and completed her undergraduate biology degree requirements at Wuhan University while working on transcription in Drosophila embryos in the Zeitlinger lab. Last year Shao applied and was accepted for a position in the Stowers graduate program.

As a child, Shao’s desire to pursue science was initially sparked by watching programs on the Discovery Channel. Her mother, an accountant, and her father, a police officer, encouraged her interest in biology by always reminding her that scientific knowledge is power. That family support, plus her natural curiosity, will likely drive Shao to pursue her dissertation research with the same gusto she brings to solving crossword or sudoku puzzles.

Christine Smoyer

University of Kansas, Overland Park

Christine Smoyer was an intellectual nomad before her inquisitive mind found a home among
fellow scientists journeying to the uncharted depths of life itself. Waitressing, road paving crew, retail management— Smoyer did it all before she embarked on a short but successful career as a banker. When she grew increasingly bored with crunching lifeless numbers, she started taking science classes at her local community college in Overland Park, Kansas. From there she quickly moved on to the Molecular Biosciences Program at the University of Kansas and quit banking for good.

When Smoyer had the opportunity to work in Stowers Investigator Scott Hawley’s lab as an undergraduate, she knew she had found her calling. Textbooks had left her with the impression that all the important questions in biology had been answered. As soon as she started working in the lab she realized how much of life’s complexity is still unexplored, sparking her desire to learn more.

After graduating from the University of Kansas, Smoyer took a position as a research technician with Stowers Assistant Investigator Sue Jaspersen and threw herself into the challenge of understanding cell division. Occasionally she considered going to graduate school but found it difficult to let go of her projects. Encouraged by Jaspersen and inspired by an exhilarating teaching stint at a Cold Spring Harbor summer course, the banker-turned scientist is ready for the next leg of her journey.

Amanda Wilson

University of Kansas, Overland Park

If passion and perseverance are what it takes to succeed as a predoctoral research scholar, Amanda Wilson is well equipped to tackle the challenges ahead. When her son was ready for kindergarten, she decided to go back to school herself. She started taking classes at the University of Kansas while working full-time as a lab assistant in the microbiology department of Quest Diagnostics, a clinical lab test provider.

Wilson, who had always had a penchant for math and science, enjoyed her work at Quest but quickly realized that what she really wanted to do was research. Inspired by a genetics course she took, taught by Stowers Investigator Scott Hawley, she decided to sacrifice even more of her sleep and added an internship in Hawley’s lab at the Stowers Institute to her already crammed schedule. Working in a research lab gave her a first taste of the rush of discovery and reinforced her decision to become a scientist.

Despite sixty-hour workweeks—not counting study time—Wilson tenaciously kept her focus on the ultimate prize and graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biosciences in 2010. Since then, she has been working in Hawley’s lab as a research technician. For the time being, she enjoys working only one job and holding increasingly sophisticated discussions with her son, who has apparently inherited her scientific bent.

Kobe Yuen

Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Why is lemon juice sour? Why do people look like their parents? Why do things fall down and not up? Even the most insistent children stop barraging their parents with constant questions at some point, but Kobe Yuen never tired of looking for an explanation and started experimenting to find out the “why”.

His first scientific project involved the conversion of coconut shells into activated carbon in his school’s chemistry lab. Albeit technically successful, the acrid fumes produced during the process had people gasping for fresh air. Creation of a gas-driven seatbelt, which reduced the impact force on the driver by 40 percent, was not only less offensive to bystanders’ throats and noses; it also earned Yuen and his science fair team a trip from Hong Kong to the Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology Expo 2005, where they won in the category of Best Demonstration.

Gradually, Yuen’s scientific curiosity turned to biomedical science and he enrolled at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There, he delighted in spending time at the bench and co-authored two scientific papers. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biotechnology, he took a position as a graduate research associate in a developmental biology lab, an area of biological research he is particularly drawn to. Not surprisingly, he cites Stowers’ strong program in developmental biology as the main reason he applied to the Stowers graduate program.