Name: Daniel McQuaid
High School/College: Ossining High School; Yale University
Mentor and years in program: Goutham Narla, Summer 2011 – Summer 2016
Skills obtained: Cell culture, bacterial transfections, cell line transductions, cell growth assays (Incucyte, MTT), drug screening, site-directed mutagenesis, sequencing, immunoprecipitation, western blotting, qRT-PCR, flow cytometry, statistical analysis
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?
This program was absolutely critical in shaping my future career path. The time I spent in the lab has been among the most transformative, rewarding times in my life, and made me realize how much I truly love scientific research. It is this love for research that has pushed me to study molecular biology in college and hopefully become a physician-scientist in the future. It is safe to say that without this experience, my life path and career choice would be entirely different.
Thinking back, how did you get interested in science and research?
My interest in cancer research began when my cousin passed away from lung cancer in my freshman year of high school. I immediately began looking for cancer-related labs to work in the New York area, and of the 40+ labs I reached out to, Goutham Narla was one of three who responded in any capacity, and the only one to offer me some of his time for a meeting. My interest in science and research grew exponentially after joining his lab for the summer.
Why were you originally interested in the program?
I was originally interested in joining Goutham Narla’s lab because his work on lung cancer research aligned perfectly with my deeply personal relationship to the disease. Meeting with him and talking research with him for over an hour only confirmed my interest in his lab and the work being led by his group.
Do you remember the first project you worked on in the lab? Can you describe it?
The first project I worked on in the lab was related to the post-translational regulation of KLF6, a transcription factor identified and characterized as a tumor suppressor by Dr. Narla. I worked on this project with Eric Yuan, a graduate student in the lab who was instrumental in acclimating me to the lab environment and teaching me basic lab skills.
How has training at the program changed your perception of working in a scientific field?
Working in the lab has made me realize how difficult yet rewarding scientific research can be. Many people in other fields underestimate the trial and error that goes into the discoveries made in the lab, and how finding ways to correct your mistakes makes you a better scientist and thinker. I had a newfound appreciation for the work scientific researchers do and realized the hard work and perseverance it takes to become successful in the field.
What was the most challenging thing in the training for you? How did the program push you out of your comfort zone?
Adjusting to an environment in which hard work is not always rewarded was extremely trying at first. The lab is one of the few places where you can work for hours on end and not have much to show for it, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to go through. Looking back, however, these periods of time were probably the ones that made me realize how much I really love research and wanted to keep going even when things were not working out.
What significant accomplishments were you able to achieve after the training with the YSF?
I was named an Intel Science Talent Search Finalist for my work on the first project in the lab related to the regulation of KLF6 protein stability. For this honor I was able to meet President Obama, and was profiled in the New York Times. In an additional project I worked on related to derivatizing neuroleptic small molecules to optimize their treatment in cancer, I was named a Siemens Competition Regional Finalist with my research partner Vickram Gidwani, and was also a Junior Sciences and Humanities Symposium National Finalist. During my gap year in the lab, I filed a patent with Dr.Narla about novel combination therapies to be used in the treatment of lung cancer, as well as gained authorship on various publications slated to come out of the lab in the upcoming year.
What is the significance of finding a good mentor early on?
I cannot stress enough the importance of finding a good mentor early on. Many of the students from my high school entered labs with mentors who did not want to be bothered with instilling a love for research in their students, and as a result, very few of them are still studying science today. Many look back on their days in the lab with resentment, and this is unequivocally due to the environment they were placed in. These kids are intellectually curious, passionate, and want to learn the research process. That passion can die down if their mentor does not foster a lab that really focuses on developing its students into future scientists. I am eternally grateful for this program and the attention I received for that very reason – I know in another lab I could have easily been treated poorly and wound up losing the passion for science I had in high school.
How has your mentor influenced your career trajectory?
I can safely say Dr. Narla has been the single most important influence in my career trajectory. His caring and respect for me since day one was really what encouraged me to work hard in the lab, even when things were not going my way. Had I not been exposed to such a supportive presence while working in the lab, I probably would not have developed the passion for research I have today, and would not be so focused on becoming a physician-scientist in the future.
What is the key to establishing a productive relationship with your mentor?
I think one-on-one interactions in both scientific and non-scientific contexts between the mentor and mentee are absolutely essential in order to develop a good relationship. Dr. Narla was great about giving me a ton of attention and meeting with me at least on a weekly basis during my time in the lab, and this is one of the main reasons we have such a great relationship today, even when I am not physically in the lab to see him.
What was the decisive moment that made you realize you have a future in science?
I think seeing my patent being filed was really the moment when I decided that this was something I wanted to do for a long, long time. There is nothing quite like seeing hard work pay off in such a tangible, rewarding way, and it was this experience that really solidified my passion for scientific research.
How do you define success for yourself?
Success for myself would entail having a career that fulfills me and does not feel like work, while being surrounded by people who support and respect me in whatever I do.
How do you fuel creativity to generate innovative approaches and new ideas in your work?
New ideas and innovation stem from knowing virtually everything about a field and identifying where problems can be solved. This comes through extensive literature review, critical thinking, and experimental planning that will ultimately lead to testable hypotheses that could solve some of the gaps in current research. Dr. Narla was great about creating an environment where imagination and innovation were encouraged, and he always listened to my ideas intently and treated them with respect, even if we disagreed on them. This was absolutely fundamental in my development as a scientist, and ultimately led to some of the discoveries I made in the lab that culminated in my patent.
What is the key to making the best of the YSF training program for somebody who is just starting out?
The unique thing about the Young Scientist Foundation is that mentors are continuously involved with the students and are constantly checking in on them to see how they are progressing. The graduate students and Dr. Narla alike are really great about this, and it is one of the reasons why YSF alumni speak so highly of the program. I never, ever felt as if I was a burden to anyone in the lab – I was treated with respect and given responsibility from day one, and that trust really made me feel at home.
What are you concentrating on right now (professionally)? What are some of the initiatives you are working on?
At Yale, I am studying molecular, cellular, and developmental biology with a pre-med track, with aspirations to attend medical school following graduation. I am involved in several public health and research organizations on campus, including the Yale Undergaduate Research Association, Foundation for the International Medical Relief of Children Yale Chapter, Yale Undergraduate Healthcare Enrollment Initiative, and Yale Camp Kesem.