Doctoral Program Personal Statements
While cleaning up some old folders on my computer, I came across my Personal Statement that I submitted with my application to grad schools in 2007. I was pretty excited to see it, as I thought this was long since deleted!
I applied to University of Arizona (ironically, my current employer) to work with the Ochman lab, Oregon State University to work with the Giovannoni lab, and MIT to work with the Polz lab. I got one interview at Oregon State and the rest is history!
It’s a bit odd to read something written so long ago and especially given that I now run a lab and have the benefit of hindsight on so many things, including the process of how students are accepted into graduate programs.
A few things stand out upon reading my personal statement.
The science: Many of the questions and thoughts I wrote about in 2007 are still outstanding questions today, although the picture is a bit clearer thanks to new genomic technologies.
The writing: I recognize my scientific writing voice in the statement. This is well before I worked with my doctoral and postdoc advisors who have unquestionably shifted my writing style. But I immediately recognized the writing as my own. That surprised me.
The structure: After starting off with the obligatory “passion statement” (nota bene: every grad school applicant launches with some form of this), I tried to summarize current literature. This strikes me now as a bit bold, but perhaps made the statement stand out from the others. Thereafter, I summarized my interests and how they arose from my experiences to that point. This part could have been streamlined. I touched on my teaching experience briefly. Finally, I closed with some insight into my personal interests and two paragraphs that could have been thrown away.
Overall it was interesting to read with hindsight and I thought that some of you might be interested in reading it too. I’ve posted it in its entirety below (even with the accidental repeated sentence typo in paragraph 7). I hope you enjoy!
For as long as I can remember, I have loved discovering how things work. As a child I could be found disassembling old electronics, or reading books on how cars function, to appease my curiosity. Along with this curiosity of mechanical objects, I had a love for nature and science. When I received a junior microscope set as a child, I naturally wanted to know how the tiny yeast cells I viewed through the lens worked. What began as a child’s curiosity about how things around me functioned has developed into the passion I pursue today.
My passion and vision for discovery leads me to one of the most obscure frontiers in biology: marine environments. It is clear that the microbial diversity of marine habitats is almost limitless. With the genomic and phenotypic diversity data compiled to date, it is apparent that marine systems are in a constant state of change, almost unpredictable in nature. While we know natural selection and lateral gene transfer contribute to this observed diversity, we do not understand the complex interactions between different microbial populations and how it affects the overall ebb and flow of this diversity. Much of the genomic data from marine environments shows the presence of many uncultured bacteria; however the ecological role these bacteria play has yet to be fully understood. Furthermore, it is unclear how these uncultured organisms evolve and interact with other marine microbes. When looking at sequenced genomes, there are indications that differences in genome structure and organization may be responsible for the observed diversity and lack of culturability. As more bacterial genomes are sequenced, it is also becoming apparent that, even within closely related species, genomic structure is not rigid, but rather very dynamic and constantly changing. More insight on the evolution of genome structure and the resulting physiological abilities will help scientists to understand why certain organisms are easily cultured, while others are not.
My primary interests revolve around the dynamic processes of lateral gene transfer between organisms and how it can have an effect on evolution, diversity and our ability to culture marine microbes.
My interests and ideas have developed through the years as an undergraduate and graduate student due to my work in the areas of microbial diversity, lateral gene transfer, and evolution. During my graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I have been fortunate enough to work with two advisors, Dr. Charles Wimpee, and Dr. Uwe Deppenmeier, whose projects have provided an atmosphere in which my ideas have been nurtured and developed.
In Dr. Wimpee’s lab, I conducted my Master’s degree research studying the diversity of luminescent bacteria from geographically dispersed locations. In this project I looked at genes related to luminescence in geographically distinct V. harveyi-like organisms. The lux operon, required for luminescence in bacteria, is thought to be highly mobile within the Vibrios. Evidence of this can be seen in the different lux operon flanking genes in a number of luminous Vibrio species. I looked for differences in the lux operon flanking genes of V. harveyi-like isolates to determine if there is evidence of lateral gene transfer within the V. harveyi lineage. I found that the lux operon flanking genes were conserved in all isolates, indicating vertical transmission of the lux operon within the V. harveyi lineage. When constructing phylogenetic trees of concatenated recA, rpoA and 16S rRNA sequences, I found one isolate to group with the related pathogen, V. parahaemolyticus RMID 2210633. The anomalous grouping of this isolate indicates it may be the first luminous V. parahaemolyticus member. Further phylogenetic analysis of lux genes revealed similar tree topologies as found in the recA, rpoA, and 16S rRNA tree. This provides strong evidence that the lux operon is ancestral to the V. harveyi lineage and was likely present prior to the divergence of V. parahaemolyticus. In addition to this work, I analyzed the synonymous and non-synonymous changes within luminescence related genes to determine if the geographical point of isolation influenced amino acid substitutions within the genes. Consistent with my original hypothesis, I found no such geographical signal within the genes.
My work in Dr. Wimpee’s lab provided me with a sound foundation in basic techniques of microbiology such as genomic library construction, DNA extractions, PCR, and transformation. I also leave the Wimpee lab with an understanding of many bioinformatical programs and phylogenetic analysis software packages. This project provided me with a solid base of knowledge in bacteria from the Vibrio genus and a snapshot of their diverse nature.
In Dr. Deppenmeier’s lab I studied the anaerobic methanogen, Methanosarcina mazei. This archaeon is able to utilize H2+CO2, methanol, acetate and methylamines as carbon sources for growth. In Dr. Deppenmeier’s lab, I worked to set up DNA microarray printing and hybridization equipment, in addition to conducting the first DNA array experiments at UW-Milwaukee. In Dr. Deppenmeier’s lab, I worked to set up DNA microarray printing and hybridization equipment, in addition to conducting the first DNA array experiments at UW-Milwaukee. Using these DNA microarrays, I compared the gene expression of cells grown on methanol to cells grown on trimethylamine. From these experiments, I identified more than 20 genes up-regulated during growth on methanol and more than 40 genes up-regulated on trimethylamine. This work offered the first glimpse of the complex methyltransferase gene regulation in M. mazei. Additionally, phospholipid biosynthesis genes were found to be differentially regulated. This indicates an interesting cell membrane alteration during growth on different substrates. In addition to the microarray analysis in Dr. Deppenmeier’s lab, I worked to increase the transformation and plating efficiency of M. mazei. Using liposome-mediated transformation methods, I constructed knock out mutants of bacterial-like regulators that may play a role in substrate conversion processes in M. mazei. I was Dr. Deppenmeier’s first student to work on this project at UWM. As a result of this I was involved in assembling the anaerobic chambers and other equipment related to this research. In this lab I was educated in the complex techniques used to grow and work with methanogens. I also learned how to think about gene regulation and evolution on a genome-wide scale.
My research experiences at UW-Milwaukee make the projects of Oregon State University faculty member Dr. Stephen Giovannoni especially attractive. To Dr. Giovannoni’s lab, I will bring my experience and ideas from my studies on Vibrios and methanogens to a well established lab currently working to culture ecologically important microbes. This lab at OSU will provide me with an opportunity to expand my knowledge and understanding of uncultured bacteria and their impact on marine environments. I look forward to researching these uncultured organisms, as they are the most promising prospect for discovery in microbiology.
In addition to my research experience at UW-Milwaukee, I have enjoyed teaching lab sections of General Microbiology and General Biology courses as a graduate student. It is extremely important to share the knowledge we collect as scientists with future scientists, as well as to those students who have yet to discover the beauty of biology. I see biology as one of the most controversial natural sciences, therefore, when I teach, I bring a simplified, balanced view of biological principles to my students. I strive to be able to cut-down complex concepts and relay them to students in a manner that they can understand and retain. I have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students on the style in which I present material in these lab sections. In addition to teaching the lab sections, I was recently selected for the rare opportunity to lead a lecture in microbiology by Dr. Ching-Hong Yang. Since my primary career goal is to run my own lab and teach at a collegiate level, this experience was invaluable.
Along with my research and teaching credentials, the ability to work with my hands has also supported my success as a scientist. To fund my undergraduate and graduate studies I have worked at Ecurie Engineering, Inc., a vintage Porsche racing team, and Ice-Kold, LLC, a refrigeration equipment repair company. In both positions I have worked closely with engineers and technicians, compiling a variety of technical abilities that have, in many instances, provided me with useful lab skills. Both jobs refined my ability to diagnose mechanical and electrical problems at the source and develop creative solutions to fix them. On more than one occasion I have repaired or set up lab equipment, everything from vacuum pumps and shakers, to the previously mentioned DNA microarray machinery and anaerobic chambers.
Looking back at the junior microscope my parents gave me as a child, I see that they provided me with the environment that ultimately fueled my passion for biology. I was given a glimpse of the living world as I had never seen it before, and found I could not look away.
I see my admission to the Oregon State University as the catalyst that will provide me with an opportunity to grow as a researcher and educator. This will allow me to help make the complex systems of life more accessible not only to scientists and students, but to the general public as well. As a PhD student at the Oregon State University, I will continue my development as a scientist and become a part of a renowned university, one that I will represent with pride.
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