How did you initially get involved with these areas of work?
I used to be a lab assistant here. So, if you’ve seen people cleaning out the TCS, taking out the waste and washing dishes, that was my first job here. I was taking out some waste and there was a postdoc in the Heath lab who I asked very casually, “Do you need any help? You look kind of stressed.” He then asked, “Do you wanna help with research?” I said, “I mean, sure. Why not?” He trained me on how to do a lot of the core things that a lot of these projects have in common: peptide engineering, chemical synthesis, synthetic chemistry, mass spec, fluorescent base assays, ELISA – a bunch of different things.
Can you briefly describe the projects you are working on right now?
My ongoing projects include creating an antiviral peptide for COVID – that paper is in the works. That was an interesting project because it started to make me think more outside the box. We’ve used this targeted peptide technology for many other applications, but this is the first of its kind. We had our candidate peptides and then employed a plethora of different methods to assess efficacy. We had our top three candidates and they looked pretty good except for one format – that’s a protein coded ELISA. We took our target protein, coded it on a I60 plate, incubated with our peptide just to see how well it binds. But the peptide seemed to be a little bit more selective. It took me eight months to figure out why and turns out it was a material issue. That really got me thinking, when I come across challenges it might be necessary to think outside the box. When I proposed this idea at first, no one thought that. I revisited the idea eight months later, and it turns out it was an issue. And then that project segued into my current main project, which is developing a peptide-based therapy for Campylobacter jejuni, which is a pretty nasty gut infection. There are some pretty nasty side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, and some long-term health effects. You can develop what’s called Guillain-Barré syndrome or Fisher syndrome, which causes your immune system to start attacking your nervous system. That project further emphasized this notion of thinking outside the box, kind of breaking away from tradition, so to speak. And that’s been a lot of fun. I am working on a cancer project as well, identifying transcription factors related to drug resistance in cancer cells. Cancer cells can develop drug resistance which is a pretty interesting phenomenon. I’m also working on a drug for another type of cancer. So, there’s like five projects that I’m currently working on. I’m a team of one, so to speak, so things do happen in a very slow manner because everything’s kind of involved. Each project is very different in what skills you need.
You mentioned that you had these different jobs before working in research. We were wondering if you have any transferable skills from these past experiences that you used to apply in your research today.
I’ve had many jobs before. I’d say the jobs that better translated to research were my jobs as a cook. I would say cooking and science are similar in concept. Cooking is definitely a science. I was explaining to the intern in our lab that, when you cook, you usually get a recipe, but you might find you don’t really like it that much. Then you experiment, you try different spices, different quantities of the spices. You make it your own, you make it personal – and the same thing holds for research. One of the assays I’ve been struggling with had a protocol that I could not get to work. That got me thinking, what could I do differently? I have a clear objective of what is being asked of me: how can I achieve it? I am currently developing a method in collaboration with one of my other lab mates to accomplish this. Working as a cook also taught me people skills. People come from all walks of life, all types of backgrounds. It is a very diverse industry. As a cook, you have to learn how to work with different people, how to respect people. I mean, I inherently try to respect everyone, you know, we’re all on this floating blue rock trying to make sense of things. Then there’s the aspect of customer service, tolerating things not going right. For people who haven’t worked in the food industry or service industry, or as a cook it’s very, very stressful when things go wrong. I’ve never worked a shift in a restaurant or a food or drink establishment where everything went perfect. Not saying it doesn’t happen. Some places it’s totally possible, but you have to be adaptive. I remember there was one night I was working at Pagliacci’s and there were several no calls or call outs. It was a Friday night, which was our busiest day of the week. It was me and one other person. We had to work the entire dinner shift by ourselves. We had one person on the register and one person handling all the orders. Eventually we did get help from another store, but, once the rush was over, they left and it was just the two of us cleaning up the entire restaurant by ourselves. We got it done and didn’t stay too late. One of the take aways there is you just gotta get your job done and don’t try not to stress. Even though stress is warranted, nothing productive happens when you’re overly stressed. I would highly recommend working in a restaurant just to get the experience.
Outside of science and work, what do you like to do just for fun?
So, a few things. I think most people outside of my lab don’t know this…I’m an avid plant collector. I have hundreds of plants, and I make plant hybrids and do crosses and all types of weird things. I do a lot of experimentation like plant hormones, treating my plants and testing out different growing conditions. There’s a whole science aspect to it. I keep metrics on humidity, pressure, temperature, everything. That is something I am super passionate about. I also am a proud dog parent. I take my dog hiking and swimming, which are two things I really like to do. I enjoy photography. I also make films with my friends. In high school, being a director or animator was my first choice for a career path, which is a lot different than science.
Do you think art and creativity have a role in STEM?
Oh, absolutely! I mean, there’s so many good examples. When I was in human genetics, we were making some reagents to prep gels and people were vortexing some of the reagents, which they should not have been doing. I took my sensory tube and started sliding it across the tube rack to mix it. My teacher said, “Oh, that’s a really good method for mixing.” I did it that way to avoid damaging sensitive proteins. I started thinking…there’s so many ways to do the same thing. You know, you could pipette mix, you could flick, but you make it your own. You have your own expression.
One of the experiments I’ve been struggling with is quantifying how many bacteria are inside macrophages with a combination therapy. The traditional method is to grow your immune cells, treat ’em with your antibodies, plate them and count them, but it’s hard with bacteria. If they’re stressed, they can be viable, but not able to be cultured, so you can lose a lot of data.. I like to depend on technology for a lot of my shortcomings so, I decided to try microscopy because if you have fluorescent bacteria, even if they’re not culturable you can still capture those images. Microscopy is definitely an art form. I feel like if you’re more artistically inclined, it can help a lot in research because you start to think about solving things differently. I actually did get some good data from my first dry run at doing microscopy to solve this issue and saw the trend I was hoping for. So that was pretty good.
I also draw a lot. It’s my way of paying attention. When I was in college I wouldn’t take notes, I would just draw pictures, and that helped me retain all the information.
What was your dream job as a kid and how does that compare to what you’re doing right now?
My first dream job was an entomologist. When I was five years old, my grandparents bought me an insect collection kit. I would go around our neighborhood, collect insects and study them. As a very curious kid I’d catch a wasp, try to hold it, learn that it stung, and then was like, okay, well that hurts. I still really love entomology. I think it’s great. I guess my, for real, childhood dream job was to be a Pixar animator. I think I got into film when I was eight. My dad bought me a video camera when I was 13. I filmed my aunt’s wedding and put it on a DVD. I printed the cover for it and ordered cases. At that point I really wanted to continue with it. I started buying more camera stuff and made skateboard and snowboarding films with my friends.
What is something that stood out to you about working at ISB or one of your favorite memories here?
I really appreciate that ISB is so open about collaboration. As I mentioned earlier, I’m one person working on several projects, but I spend a lot of time talking to people in every lab getting feedback. I was trained more for molecular biology. In college courses, you don’t do microscopy cancer cell research or genetic manipulation and stuff like that. My second degree was in environmental health which was more like disease, ecology and somewhat pathology, which is relevant to my work. But there’s so many things that I have to do that I depend on everyone else. I think that’s probably the coolest thing about ISB.
Do you have any words of advice to us, as high schoolers, or to young people who are just beginning their scientific careers?
That’s such a heavy question. I’d say, first things first, if you’re in high school, actually as early as possible, try everything. Don’t just try science, try art, see what you like and what you’re good at. When I started college, I was an intended business major, but was not good at it. I actually failed out of college the first time. I went back to college and wasn’t really enjoying my time in college. Then I took human genetics, it was the first 4.0 I got. I started taking more biology classes and realized I was actually kind of good at it which got me excited to actually be in school. When you go to college, don’t be so pinholed on what you want to do. You want to find something that you’re excited about. Your GPA will likely be a lot better and you’ll look forward to going to class and studying. You want to get excited about learning something.
I’d say my biggest philosophy is nothing is impossible. You just have to find the right method. Be inquisitive. Make sure, if you’re doing an experiment or an assay, know how it works, and is it appropriate for your intended purposes. One more thing for anyone who’s thinking about getting into science. Never say no to opportunities. Always be open to new opportunities. You never know where something’s going to take you. I think it’s done pretty well for me, in regards to having an open mind to opportunities. The big thing for me is learning something new. Not just knowledge of the world, but knowledge of yourself. You could learn what you don’t like, do what you do like, when accepting opportunities life gives you.
What’s something in your future that you’re excited for?
I am excited for grad school and beyond because there is the possibility of going someplace new. I was born and raised in Seattle, so I’ve been here a long time. It’s not a bad thing, but I also would not be opposed to traveling. I travel a lot, like probably six times a year, but getting to experience another city, another culture, and find a new community would be really exciting. One of the nice things about being in STEM is that it is pretty universal. Grad school will give me the option to see if I want to do research somewhere else. I’d say I’m most excited about what I hope to study in grad school and that is synthetic biology and bacterial engineering.
Time for some fun questions! Do you have any hidden talents?
I’d say I have a hidden talent that I actually don’t tell many people here about… My parents wanted me to be an athlete, so I’ve played almost every sport possible. I’m really good at baseball. But I don’t go around telling people about when I used to play baseball. My grandparents wanted me to be a musician and I can play multiple instruments. I play trumpet, electric bass, guitar, a bright bass, cello, and clarinet.
Do you have a favorite?
Trumpet’s my favorite. I tried to start a band in preschool. It was so terrible. Our name was “failed to excel” and we had failed. It was so cheesy. It was like an emo punk band.
What’s your current favorite movie or TV show?
As a film enthusiast, that is a very hard question. I try to find the beauty in all films… that would probably make me a terrible critic. I think, currently, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I have been a Star Wars fan since a very young age. My dad would take me to comic book conventions. So Kenobi, I’m watching it one episode a week just because I don’t want to binge it and then kind of get sad that I don’t have anything that I can after.
Michaela, who’s also a research associate in my lab, and I are constantly making film references. Whenever we do something good, we reference Spiderman, William Dafoe’s character, when he’s like, “I’m somewhat of a scientist myself.” So, anything that is science fiction or nerdy will always be on my top list of films/shows I will be enjoying at the time.
” The big thing for me is learning something new. Not just knowledge of the world, but knowledge of yourself. You could learn what you don’t like, do what you do like. “ – Jimmi Hopkins