Melanie Wallace is an alum of the Lammerding Lab, now improving health and quality of life through innovation at 23andMe. Read more about Making an impact through genetic health innovation and education
Joseph Long, Ph.D. Student
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
BME research/concentration area: Cellular and Molecular Engineering, Tissue Engineering
Lab affiliation: Lammerding Lab
Why did you choose Cornell?
I chose Cornell not only for the phenomenal research opportunities, but also the biomedical engineering community here felt real and genuine. I was drawn to not only step outside my comfort zone and move halfway across the country, but also to join a community that exemplified collaboration and open dialogue among its members. The amount of resources available for student success no matter what career path you are interested in beyond the PhD was a huge plus. The BME program here allows me to have flexibility in my coursework and gives me skills to guide my own path during my research career, and I value that tremendously. Also, Ithaca is such a beautiful area that almost rivals my hometown in terms of natural wonder and I knew I would fit in well.
Why biomedical engineering? What do you like the most about it?
By the time I graduated with my Bachelors, I knew I wanted to go into research that would push the boundary of our understanding of the human body in the hopes that I could improve the lives of many different people in the future. I wanted to continue down a path where I could use my problem-solving skills to make a direct impact in people’s quality of life. One of the benefits of being a biomedical engineer is that collaboration is a necessity. I love working with others to solve problems, and what better problem to solve together than creating innovative solutions to improve the health of the public. Biomedical engineers are at the forefront of many new technologies and require a vast array of knowledge and intuition to pull multiple fields together with the ultimate goal of improving healthcare. That feels like a fitting and admirable goal for me to achieve.
Briefly describe your research focus:
In Dr. Jan Lammerding’s lab, I am using a combination of engineering tools and biological techniques to investigate how the cells in our bodies respond to their physical environment. By examining this response, I hope to help individuals that suffer from diseases like muscular dystrophy and cardiomyopathy. Every time we use our muscles or our heart beats to pump blood through the body, the cells that make up those tissues respond in interesting ways that we do not fully understand. While we know that these cells can respond to mechanical forces through activation of particular genes, we are not fully aware how that activation occurs. My research aims to fill this gap in knowledge by focusing on how nuclei, the organelles that house these genes, may play a major role in a muscle cell’s response to outside forces. More specifically, I am examining how the structure of nuclei and their connections to the rest of the cell can act as a sensor of force to activate genes as well as how this process can malfunction in diseases like muscular dystrophy.
What’s the most rewarding part of your Ph.D. experience so far?
The most rewarding part of my PhD experience has been the times where I really get to think and ponder. When I get to think on my own about the problems and issues that are important to me, it’s very exhilarating (people in my lab joke that I talk to myself too much). In these times, I have been able to truly get an insight into what my true priorities and goals are on a personal and professional level. Being able to share these thoughts and ideas in a collaborative environment like in my PhD has helped foster my understanding of how I approach problems and how I can use my skills in tandem with others to develop potential solutions.
. . . . Your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge is recognizing where my limits are. I like to push myself in many ways and that can often conflict with balancing a full time research project on top of many different initiatives I choose to be a part of. I am constantly excited by the many opportunities for professional growth and community service on campus that it can be difficult to not get involved when my bandwidth runs thin. Luckily, I have the support of an amazing advisor, collaborative lab, and group of friends to remind me how I can feasibly achieve my goals without overexerting myself.
Favorite class or experience at Cornell BME so far and why?
I have a couple of experiences that I would like to mention here because I think they carry equal weight. Firstly, I recently presented my first Work-In-Progress Seminar. While some people may be intimidated by the idea of presenting your research in front of a big audience, it is a valuable skill to have! Cornell BME structures it so that you can get extensive feedback on your presentation style, quality of the content, pacing, enthusiasm, etc. This is extremely valuable because I could then take that information and learn more about the next practices I can take to discuss my research to people outside the lab. Secondly, I took a course very relevant to my career goals in science policy. The BME 4440: Science Policy Bootcamp course taught by Dr. Chris Schaffer was a hands-on experience that really focused on better communicating as researchers and developing the tools to understand how science fits into society. I learned ways to interact with policymakers and the general public and developed a policy project around a science topic I was interested in. These experiences show the breadth of opportunities that Cornell BME has to offer for student growth and I have benefitted greatly from them.
Do you have any advice for other students considering research in BME?
My advice is to take your time and find your big reasons for doing research in BME. There are so many opportunities to explore and innovative solutions to be solved, but if you do not have the drive to make a difference, it can be a very taxing experience. Find your support network early on and get excited about the possibilities of helping people with the research you want to do. Always bring it back to the bigger picture, especially when you are diving deep into research.
While at Cornell/BME, what did you do for fun?
I’ve spent a lot of time in roles and activities that help build my communication skills. For example, I have been the president of our BMES chapter for a year and a half. While I am ending my tenure soon, I have found that having dialogues with different members of my department really improved my ability to push for new initiatives. On top of that, I have a wonderful group of friends who I tackle science policy issues with through Cornell's Advancing Science and Policy (ASAP) and I participate/plan various events related to science communication. On a more personal note, I like to hike around the beautiful gorges, travel to various places when I get the chance, play intramural sports like inner tube water polo (yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds), and enjoy the various restaurants around town.
How has the Cornell faculty impacted your time at Cornell?
My interactions with faculty members has been nothing but completely welcoming. They have helped foster a collaborative community and are great role models for what collaborative science should look like. My own personal interactions with faculty mentors within the department have helped me understand my career goals better and made me a more productive researcher and advocate.
What have you learned about yourself being at Cornell?
Being at Cornell has taught me the value in trying new things. I think I came in expecting to follow a very linear path into academia and I was surprised to see just how much nonlinearity there is in graduate school. This is the time to really explore who we are as people just as much as it is about exploring the world around us and coming up with innovative solutions through research. I chose my research topic because I wanted to understand how we interact with our environment on a small scale and I think that passion has translated to also understanding how we interact with other as scientists and with the public at large.
Have you explored outside of Cornell? What is your favorite thing to do in Ithaca? Any recommendations?
I love hiking around here! There are so many places to be around nature both on and off campus and it is always breathtaking (I am a big fan of Robert H. Treman State Park). Also, we have quite the variety of restaurants that are very accessible for multiple types of diets (I am borderline vegetarian/vegan). Ithaca may not be a huge city but there are plenty of things to do (there is practically a city-wide festival for every season).
What stands out the most to you about your Cornell experience?
The driven and passionate community here stands out the most. Cornell is a unique place and I think the BME program especially thrives off of the passion of its members to work together to perform some of the most reliable and noteworthy research there is. I am constantly in awe of the work my peers do and sometimes still find it hard to believe I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of it.
What’s the next step for you?
My current career goals are to delve into science policy. Whether that is working for the federal/state/local government, a non-profit/think tank, or some other avenue, I believe that now more than ever it is important that scientists and engineers remain involved in policymaking decisions. I think that my skills and passions are adequately suited for that type of career and I am looking forward to continuing to build my scientific and communication skills here at Cornell to achieve that goal.