Name: Blake Smith
High School/College: Oceanside High School (Oceanside, NY); Yale University
Mentor and years in program: Dr. Goutham Narla, 3 summers (2011-2013)
Skills obtained: Cellular and molecular biology training
After completing the training with the Young Scientist Foundation and going on to study and do research in a prominent university, what, in your opinion, was the significance of participating in the program?
The Young Scientist Foundation program has first and foremost provided me with the necessary tools to become successful in the biological sciences. From my first day working in Dr. Goutham Narla’s lab during the summer of 2010, I was specifically paired with more experienced members of the lab in order to rapidly learn about experiments and common methodology employed in biological research. At the time, I had little to no hands-on experience working in a lab and the YSF quickly reversed that. By the end of my first summer, I found myself being able to sit through in-depth lab meetings without having to question much about what I had just listened to. Ultimately, I went from being a sophomore in high school uncertain about what I wanted to study, to a junior confident about a future in the sciences.
Thinking back, how did you get interested in science and research?
As a young child, I was always interested in tinkering – experimenting, almost – with toys and items found lying around the house. As an elementary school student, I spent most of my after school hours working on building small-scale models of houses using my rudimentary knowledge of circuits in order to power these mock homes, until I was able to have a fully illuminated model of a winter town.
That fascination with tinkering never deserted me, as I became involved in math and science research programs as I entered middle and high school, respectively. As a freshman in high school, I conducted an experiment testing the lemon wedges that restaurants surrounding my town served to patrons with their refreshments. While it meant that my family went out to eat a bit more than we normally did, I tested these lemon wedges for bacteria, yeast, and mold growth, all of which I found from just a dozen or so samples. The thrill of reading literature about past research, testing my hypothesis, and finding a result with actual ramifications for human health moved me so much that I decided I wanted to try to do research at a larger, more professional institution; well, at least larger and more professional than my kitchen table!
Why were you originally interested in the program?
As I finished my sophomore year in high school, I was closer to applying and, ultimately, matriculating in a university. Without much hands-on experience in the sciences – other than my freshman year science research study – I wanted to see what research and study in cell biology would be like. Despite this lack of experience, Dr. Narla and the Young Scientist Foundation offered me their utmost welcome and support and I have been doing research in the biological sciences ever since.
Do you remember the first project you worked on in the lab? Can you describe it?
I will never forget my first day in the lab. Wearing a button-down shirt, tucked into my khaki pants, I was a bit overdressed for the usual graduate student or post-doc on a random Monday morning during the summer. Despite the attire and my palpable nerves, I was immediately welcomed into the lab by Dr. Narla. I began working with a small team investigating the use of oligonucleotides to prevent alternative splicing of the KLF6 tumor suppressor gene. I spent that Monday isolating RNA from pancreatic cancer cells and left the lab elated by what an incredible process I had just learned.
How has training in the program changed your perception of working in a scientific field?
Training in Dr. Narla’s lab for four summers has indubitably changed the way that I have thought about and approached a career in the sciences. Since my first summer working in his lab, I have spent each subsequent summer probing biological questions at academic institutions and biotech companies. After working with Dr. Narla, I had no doubt that I want to continue to pursue a scientific career that can have implications for improving human health.
What was the most challenging thing in the training for you? How did the program push you out of your comfort zone?
Being a part of the YSF singlehandedly taught me how to read and synthesize scientific literature. Learning how to read academic papers required continued effort and being able to apply them to our work, took months of reading. It certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone, as I would have to stop every other sentence to look up a protein or technique, only to be referred to another academic paper.
What were some of the key concepts and skills you learned during your training that you still use now?
After my several summers spent working in Dr. Narla’s lab, reading papers became a daily practice. It is an invaluable routine that I continue to do today, attempting to keep up with the latest research in labs across the globe. Further, it was with Dr. Narla that I learned the most about techniques in cell and molecular biology. I learned how to conduct in vitro and in vivo experiments, how to properly control for the conditions selected in the experiment, and how to carefully interpret data without bias. All of these skills, some more rudimentary than others, have proved equally invaluable as I have continued my work in the sciences.
What significant accomplishments were you able to achieve after the training with the YSF?
After training with the YSF, I was able to win awards at multiple science competitions, co-authored an abstract accepted by the AACR, and am an author on a manuscript currently under review. For this research experience, I was named one of the “26 most impressive students at Yale University” by Business Insider, as a freshman at Yale. Some recent awards and publications are listed below.
Awards and honors:
- Yale Undergraduate Research Symposium – September 2015
- Won 2nd place overall for presenting on research conducted in the Crews lab over summer 2015.
- Recipient of the Yale College Dean’s Research Fellowship – May 2015
- Received a fellowship to support research in the Crews lab for summer 2015.
- Named one of the “26 most impressive students at Yale University” by Business Insider – April 2013
- One of two freshmen Yale students given this title Siemens Competition – December 2011
- Won 1st place for team projects at the Regional Finals held at the Carnegie Mellon University.
- Received 4th place, nationally, for team projects at the National leg of the Siemens Competition, held at the George Washington University.
- Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Los Angeles, CA – May 8-13, 2011
- Won 1st place in the category of Cellular and Molecular Biology (sub-category: Molecular Genetics), including both individual and team projects.
Other Science Research Recognition
- Named one of ten Regional Finalists (aged 17-18) from the United States in the 2012 Google Science Fair.
- Co-authored a peer-reviewed abstract that was submitted and accepted by the American Association for Cancer Research, titled “Simultaneous inhibition of both the PI3K-AKT and MAPK-ERK pathways using a single small molecule based approach for the treatment of advanced cancer.” November, 2011.
What is the significance of finding a good mentor early on?
I cannot underscore the importance of finding a good mentor early on. I have had many friends who have not had the wonderful experience of good mentorship and have experienced doubts about their abilities in fields that they are passionate about. I believe that a good mentor is one who not only helps to reveal, but also nourish one’s passions. Finding a mentor who can help discover those passions, especially at an early age, is crucial for instilling confidence in young scientists.
How has your mentor influenced your career trajectory?
Dr. Goutham Narla has been a mentor to me from the first day we met. He has provided constant support regarding my experiments in the lab and career choices I have made while at Yale. Dr. Narla has helped to steer me towards the sciences and has been an instrumental resource that I continue to rely on as I move forward with my career.
What is the key to establishing a productive relationship with your mentor?
It is very important to remain in constant communication, updating your mentor on your work in the lab (both the good and the bad), in order to receive feedback that can be applied to future studies. A productive mentor-mentee relationship requires the mutual understanding that no question is a bad question. Young scientists should continue to ask their mentors questions regarding science and demonstrate their willingness to succeed.
What was the decisive moment that made you realize you have a future in science?
After working carefully on a therapeutic development project that provided some encouraging data, we were puzzled about the mechanism of action of a set of compounds. We spent months probing putative mechanisms, resulting in several leads, although none proved to be a guaranteed target. After spending several summers of reading academic literature, I knew that the previous work of other scientists might hold some clues for the results that we were seeing. I continued to read papers from the past several decades, trying to piece together seemingly disparate findings into a cohesive story. After weeks spent reading, I ultimately came up with a theory that could explain our biological findings. After almost a year of work later, we found out that the theory I had naively proposed was actually correct. It was a moment I will never forget and a moment that made me realize that I might have a future in science.
How do you define success for yourself?
Success in science is something that I have tried to define for myself since my first summer working in Dr. Narla’s lab. I truly believe that completing a goal, no matter how small, in a timely and satisfying way is a sign of true success. For me, the most satisfying goals that I have completed have been with others who have shared a similar mindset and a mutual joy for the task at hand.
How do you fuel creativity to generate innovative approaches and new ideas in your work?
I find that the best way to fuel creativity in my own work is to continue to stay up to date with work being conducted in other, albeit similar fields. Staying fresh with the literature, talking with scientists about their work, and attending talks of visiting professors has provided successful examples of different approaches used to tackle research questions. Learning about these new approaches can lead to innovative applications to your own studies.
What is the key to making the best of the YSF training program for somebody who is just starting out?
For any individuals who are starting out with the YSF training program, it can certainly be a bit nerve-wracking being surrounded by older, accomplished scientists. Yet, they are there to help mentor and support young scientists in their learning process throughout the program. It is important for new trainees to ask questions in the lab, be inquisitive during meetings, and continue to think on their feet about the experiments they are conducting. They should always be able to explain the rationale for what they are doing and why their approach is the best way to address the question at hand.
What are you concentrating on right now? What are some of the initiatives you are leading?
I recently graduated from Yale University and am working on continuing my research in the lab of Yale Professor, Dr. Craig Crews. We study the cell’s waste management system – the proteasome – and utilize biochemical techniques in order to pharmacologically target aberrant proteins for degradation. I continue to use the techniques that I have learned from my training with Dr. Narla and the YSF on a daily basis and am planning to apply to an MD/PhD program. I hope to pursue a career as a physician-scientist, probing research questions with a translational bend.