Graduation is on the horizon for you. How do you feel about this?
I’m feeling good! This summer I’ll be mostly tying up loose ends for my research. I’m investigating induced pluripotent stem cells which allow us to create a variety of malleable cell types from skin scrapings. In our case, we’re causing them to differentiate into brain cells. I want to study the electrical interactions between these brain cells as a system. In a brain study, researchers study the coordinated activity of many neurons firing, and I want to create a system that is similar in method but for these cells that are a millimeter in size from skin scrapings.
What are the applications of your work?
Induced pluripotent stem cells are very useful when you’re looking through a developmental biology lens to see how these systems form. It’s also not limited only to the brain. You could practice growing kidney, liver and heart cells and each one will behave in the same way that their in vivo counterparts would. That means you can apply the same tests you would use on human cells without the need for a human trial. A study a while ago conducted lung-on-a-chip research that made it possible to see how the cells respirate and how oxygen transfer within cells operates. Also, if there is a viral vector, you can see how there is an immune response at the cellular level. There are ethical issues with stem cells in general, because people usually think of embryonic stem cells, but if you can induce pluripotent stem cells to create any type of organ in a scaffold to measure response, then you can address the ethical these issues too.
What’s the next step for you?
I’m pursuing a PhD in Electrical Engineering at Harvard, so I’ll be moving to Boston in the fall. It’s kind of a big change for me. I think I found a really good advisor, who covers similar topics in his research. They actually have a chip fitted with 4,096 electrodes that allow them to grow brain tissue directly on the chip in order to assess how the cells are firing with respect to one another. Even after my PhD, I hope to remain in bioelectronics for the rest of my career. I’m really interested in teaching and academia and I’m hoping to eventually be a professor in the field.
How has UCSC has prepared you for work in your field?
UC Santa Cruz is really good not only in terms of research opportunities but because of the fact that the environment here is what you make of it and people are very open from the beginning. Small things like having professors on a first-name basis is pretty cool; there’s not such a structured hierarchy here. The breadth of courses has also allowed me to branch out across disciplines, and just because your degree is in one field doesn’t mean you’re expected to study that alone. Some of the classes I’ve taken here had nothing to do with my major and that can be a real breath of fresh air. There’s so much more to becoming a well-rounded student and person than remaining on your major track alone, and UCSC recognizes that.
How do you keep yourself grounded beyond academia?
One thing I regret is that I haven’t become more involved with the radio station here. When I was in high school, I worked with KZSU Stanford but I haven’t had the time to take the radio class since I’ve been here. I still enjoy DJ’ing though, I’ve been mixing records since late 2012. It’s been a while now and I’ve had the opportunity to play up in San Francisco and San Jose, but I haven’t had the time to play here besides a few house parties. Most of my time lately is dedicated to my course work and that’s because I find it interesting and don’t really need a break, and when I do it’s usually spent on sleep now. I like backpacking too, so I do that occasionally. I’ve been up to Henry Coe and Castle Rock. I also do a lot of gardening—all sorts! This past year we had some pretty good tomatoes and we just had the last crop of snap peas and peppers. I’ll have to leave my planters behind soon when I leave, though, so that’s kind of sad!